A painted meadowlark on a painted fallen log,
sketch of canyon and field done in ochre strokes.
The snake inside is still as art, convict-striped,
Snake, I also was born in the forest and I also danced
on a done-up stage, hair ribbons pressed over my ears.
Back then each animal had its lair. Now the meadows,
the trees are all painted to give us a feel.
Only a fool holds onto place. To survive, make the place
you are look like home. Snake, this is the song of the kept.
See the crack in the painted sky? Soon the herpetologist
will open the back of your world. He’ll reach in and lift you
to twist in the air, coil the length of his arm, your primitive
three-chambered heart will shiver in its three-chambered sac.
This is affection—this tender art they made of you, this use.
The man will study your eyes and skin.
He will measure and weigh. He will note your mood.
Let him study. Let him see.
With a naturalist’s insatiable curiosity and an intimacy that comes from prolonged and meticulous observation, Lisa Allen Ortiz guides us through a world that seems exotic, but which we ultimately recognize as the only world: our own. These marvelous poems (for they are full of marvels) examine and catalog the flora and fauna of our planet, its rocks and skies and soil and waters, both from outside, looking at them, but also from inside, looking as them. I mean that literally. In language that is spare, precise, and at times wonderfully, subtly strange, Ortiz works in the overlap between self and world, showing us that time does not honor human consciousness, nor even recognize it. Yet the world is all we have, and what we are is part of it. We are not its masters, and the attempt to hold onto things by saving, describing, and labeling them, is doomed. We’ll lose what we love. This hard-won understanding is the tough heart of this piercing, memorable book, which, like any memorial, is simultaneously a celebration of life and an elegy.
As Lisa Allen Ortiz moves through a natural history museum, she discovers a museum of her life, of all our lives, the remnants and reflections of what we have saved and what we cannot save. Her beautifully crafted language connects us to the elemental, as in this description of a hummingbird: “carbon tenderness, / caught shimmer.” Through the careful, precise observation of individuality, she reveals universal truths. In “Microfossil Exhibit,” she compares herself to tiny creatures—“such small wanting”—and finds our commonality in what is, perhaps, our deepest need, “to be handled, seen, and noted.” Ortiz’s devotion to exploring exactly this need makes Guide to the Exhibit so rich.
This book has many things I most hope for in poetry. The speaker is madly in love with the world and its names, its things. There is courage everywhere and acute attentiveness. These poems come to you—urgent, rushing, and controlled, from a wide-open heart. A splendid debut.
Listen to a selection from Guide to the Exhibit read by Lisa Allen Ortiz at Perugia Press’s 20th anniversary celebration at Smith College, Northampton, MA, on November 12, 2016:
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