In “Geography Lessons” Maria Takolander produces a memorable lyric: the poem opens her first volume of poetry, Ghostly Subjects, and is the perfect introduction to that collection—a debut of careful, flinty poems. The poem is also a breath of fresh air on its own, a clarion moment. The “brittle”-ness, the “colossal anger” of the poem are matched by “heart,” by the “personal.” The resulting poem is skilfully built, giving quiet poise to its emotional tenor.
A great deal of pleasure can be derived from the form of the poem, as the poem performs a theme and variations. This form is determined by the opening “How” of each tercet, and the geography Takolander takes her readers through is both that of natural landscapes—mountain, forest, river, ocean—and also emotional terrain. With lines roughly the same length throughout, and each tercet comprising a single sentence, the combination of the anaphoric pattern of the openings and the consistent length produces a natural rhythm for the poem. Though short, by the midpoint the reader has been initiated into the poem’s rhythms and can sense the break coming at the end of each tercet.
These breaks are part of the poem’s success: the poem works through accumulation, and as the poet makes her statements, each has an aphoristic quality. The opening lines, “How a mountain can forsake you for the sky,/ casting away your heart/ like a goat kicking at a brittle stone,” themselves are lapidary in quality. The lines are not a brittle stone, but one smooth, worn: the lines ring with the certainty of someone who has been forsaken (a sensation oh-so-familiar to many of us). And though each tercet takes a different subject, and could arguably be its own poem, the repetitions in form and the combined effect of these “Geography Lessons” are such that the poem moves the reader, like the writer, into belief that “it is all something personal.” That personal experience takes you from ocean back to mountain, and onward to experience Takolander’s personal geography all over again.
“Geography Lessons” appears in Takolander’s Ghostly Subjects, available from Salt.
How a mountain can forsake you for the sky,
casting away your heart
like a goat kicking at a brittle stone.
How a forest can feed you with its air,
tenuous fusion of night and day,
until you think it might be enough.
How a river can feel small and dangerous,
calling you by your secret name,
the one only your mirror knows.
How an ocean can rage at the moon
until you adopt its colossal anger as your own
and live believing it is all something personal.