CUTBANK REVIEWS: Axis Mundi by Karen Holmberg
by Karen Holmberg
It’s easy to see why Karen Holmberg’s Axis Mundi won the 2012 John Ciardi Prize for Poetry from BkMk Press, for its verses are vivid and exacting in their engagement of the natural world. And yet, to call Holmberg’s sophomore effort a mere book of nature poems would be a disservice to her sensuous diction, her alliterative cadences, her intuitive sense of the poetic line, and above all else, her direct and unwavering gaze, regardless of her subject matter. A polished and sustained collection, Axis Mundi transubstantiates its documentary gaze into a tangible hope for renewal and sustenance, and the result is a volume strikingly original in its music and pursuit of the romantic sublime in our volatile digital age.
The majesty and diversity of the natural world permeate all five sections of Axis Mundi. Holmberg’s meditations have microscopic precision, as we see early on in “Box Turtle,” where the creature’s eyes are “tiny domes/ground of gold and green/glass chunks, blood-flecked/as an old alcoholic’s.” As the collection gains momentum and nuance, however, poems such as “Pear Tree” and “Salvage” betray how the wonder that surrounds us is not only threatened by the inherently self-destructive forces of nature itself, but also by the relentlessness of human domination. “Zebra Finch at Petco,” one of the collection’s most crystalline efforts, captures this encroachment, and gains surprising traction from the familiar caged bird trope:
The male tweezes a bald millet stalk
off the sahara of graveled paper.
The pert watch movements of his head
ignite an ember on each check, buff bright
the beak’s rose-hip hue. His elderberry eye
subjects this meter cubed of universe
to further scrutiny. The struggles of
a downy filament attract him.
With these two finds he alights, caresses
the injection-molded branch. But there is
no flaw to catch on, no way to make a start.
A problem he sets aside for a moment,
pinning it down with his foot. In the dusky
corner his mate dangles from brass wires,
mobile as a chandelier earring.
Extending her wing, she makes him
more to find, fussing
a small snow from the hot and pearly hollow.
Poems of motherhood and femininity offer welcome counterpoint in Axis Mundi, providing a broader range of narrative situations while also sustaining Holmberg’s thematic focus on the quiet thrumming sanctity of each individual life. “Trick of the Eye,” a tripartite sequence about visiting the National Gallery with “sippicup, stroller, toddler” in tow takes on a sinister foreboding, as the family trek to Washington, D.C. ends with an image of our bloated vigilance and paranoia in an age of terror: “We could forget for now/what lay beyond/the soundproofed/walls: the orange alert, troop movers/flying low and slow over the city, the snipers’/cushioned footfalls on the roof.”
A more pointedly gendered conflict arises in “The Flash Phenomenon,” a tribute to the self-taught 18th century scientist Lisa Stina Linnaeus, who sought to study the nasturtium plant despite her father’s oppressiveness. Additionally, “Do You Breathe?” follows a mother and daughter as they examine the false perfection of five mannequins, each with “a prima-donna toe impaled/by an aluminum rod,” that by the end leads us to a Mary Cassatt-like affirmation of womanhood in a world scaffolded by false norms.
This maternal impulse adds contour and depth to the prominent eco-poetics of Axis Mundi, yet the collection maintains a compelling elegiac thread as well. “Axis Mundi,” the collection’s title poem, celebrates and grieves the poet’s grandfather and his years of tender, meticulous upkeep in his beloved orchard, yet its lush, liturgical cadences heighten the poem’s emotional register so that it builds to a grander participatory moment of ancestral veneration. “Ward,” the book’s remarkable opening poem, establishes this mournful undercurrent and remains one of Holmberg’s most memorable compositions. The poem strays from its initial images of serene gardening to recall the moments immediately following a daughter’s birth, when the speaker
rolled back the sleeve of her gown
and saw fingers wizened from being
too long in the bag of waters,
unfurled the fist to find
a shredded blister in her palm, slits
in the whitened, drowned skin revealing
tissues so thin they took their color
from blood, the palm lines
a crimson M as if gouged with a stick.
This observational catalog is visceral and candid in its characterization of maternal bonding and reveals how Holmberg’s unwavering poetic eye intently renders minutiae, however delicate and elemental they may be. These lines also foreshadow the poem’s alliterative finish, where our gaze turns to a different mother—one grieving her dead child in the horrific aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004:
I was in that maternity ward, able to believe
the distance of her death, that I could keep
for life what had entered the world
through my body’s gates. That it would never be
my temple and cheek grinding the sand,
my teeth bared in agony near the small hand,
the palm still enfolding loosely
the stripped twig, the skin of the fingers livid, abraded,
taken to great age in a single day
by the mother who gives to us, and gives to us,
then wrenches away what we love
in her vast wave.
At 106 numbered pages, Axis Mundi is an ambitious, expansive collection, though its weakest poems underwhelm and stall. “Obeisance” explores the awakening of adolescent lust, but suffers from a haphazard structure, ragged lines, and narrative jump-cuts that fail to unify the poem’s various images of desire. Similarly, “Study with Bark, Stones, Leaves, and Mother” is an interesting but incomplete draft even after several subsequent readings, and “Still Life with Yews” treads on melodrama, especially in its closing lines: “Propping my torso/with my hands’ heels, I was nodding/like the yew outside my window, with each jet of blood/downward from the heart, into the body/that was not me, and was me.”
It is easy to overlook these shortcomings, however, for Axis Mundi brims with verses rich in melody, bravery, and awe. Though primarily a free-verse poet, Holmberg’s attention to craft yields a bounty of poems that remain kinetic and resonant in their examinations of life and death. Indeed, in a milieu that frequently champions hermetic language and formal obfuscation, it is refreshing to encounter a book of poems rooted in the dirt and blood of this good earth, and Axis Mundi acknowledges the endless pangs of our survival while simultaneously psalming the little resurrections blossoming all around us.
Karen Holmberg won the Vassar Miller Prize for her book The Perseids: Poems (University of North Texas Press, 2001). Her poems and essays have appeared in Southern Poetry Review, Slate, The Nation, New England Review, and elsewhere. Influenced by a biologist father, she is interested in science, medicine, and the natural world. She received her PhD in English (poetry) at the University of Missouri in Columbia. She currently directs the MFA program at Oregon State University and lives in Corvallis, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters.
Adam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award and is the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, forthcoming 2014) and Red Flag Up, a chapbook (Kattywompus, 2013). His recent reviews appear in Pleiades, Rain Taxi, 32 Poems Online, and The Rumpus.