A REVIEW OF
Paperback, 108 pages
Starkville poet rings alarm bell for current tumultuous times
By Lisa McMurtray
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
It is only appropriate that as we enter into the eighth month of COVID-19, Catherine Pierce’s fourth collection of poetry, “Danger Days”, speaks to the pervasive and seemingly never-ending anxiety that has become ever-present. Pierce lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where she is professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.
Like her previous collections, though sharper and more poignant than ever, “Danger Days” explores a world of contradictions: before and after, inside and out, light and dark. During times of such uncertainty, such unrest and upheaval, poetry can offer a kind of order, one that allows for, not escapism exactly, but an unraveling of division. A collapse of time.
“In the beginning, the ending was beautiful,” Pierce writes in the opening poem “Anthropocene Pastoral.” Later, “It begins with the sweetest / contaminant masks: houndstooth, // hummingbirds & hibiscus” (“All 21 of Mississippi’s Beaches are Closed Because of Toxic Algae”). Even later, “in the end it was an astroid” (“Fable for the Final Days”).
The beginning may change but there is always an end. What is more interesting, then, is when the danger becomes real, and the threat has teeth. “It was a lark then / to be helpless,” Pierce writes in “In Which the Country is an Abandoned Amusement Park.” Then, “All around you, / someone else’s world unfolds. Everyone here / is in terrible danger. That is, everyone else” (“In Praise of the Horror Movie”).
What do we do when we finally reckon with our mortality and, worse, the ruins we are leaving behind? Inheritance becomes a thematic through line, drawing into sharp contrast the differences between our childhood and our children’s, the world as it was then and as it is now and how it could be. “Dear children of the eighties, can you / tell us now what was in the woods? / Can you tell us if watching / stopped anything from happening?” (from the title poem “Danger Days”). This book is the watching and the alarm bell.
In each energetic, muscular poem, Pierce explores the twinned experiences of joy and fear, the mundane and the unusual. “I still carried fear,” she writes in “The Mysteries,” “but there were these long moments / of slanted light and far away train sounds … those long moments held the part of me / that could say yes to things like ghosts / and prayer and the belief that desire / could move people like chess pieces.”
“Danger Days” implores us to appreciate the unexpected. “You may not find / the jewels, the mirror, the stag. But you may find / a bare possum skull. You may find some eyeteeth / in a damp log” (“Instructive Fable for the Daughter I Don’t Have”). The final poem, “Planet,” comments “I’m trying to see this place even as I’m walking through it,” and it is Pierce’s ability to see is one of the greatest strengths of this collection.
Fear amplifies joy, and the inevitability of the end makes the quotidian almost magical. Pierce’s lyrical genius and skill with imagery is on full display here, and despite the often serious subject matter, the poems remain playful in their almost effortless weaving of seemingly disparate elements.
At times, they vacillate between a fragile hope and a cynicism that our world, and all that we have created, is worth nothing. There is despair and anger and guilt as much as awe. But ultimately, we are cautioned: “Don’t be afraid. Or do, but / everything worth admiring can sting or somber” (“Abecedarian for the Dangerous Animals”).
Because even as these poems shout and rail at the universe, they enter into a world that seems just a little bit worse every day. Deaths mount, ice melts, mass shootings continue, and an election looms on the horizon. But in “Poem for Right Now,” the speaker argues, “my tongue and my head are mine.” We have words and ourselves and that, sometimes, is enough. The poem closes, “In protest I marvel.” In protest, we should marvel, and this is a wonderful place to begin.
Born and raised in Jackson, Lisa McMurtray holds an MFA from Florida State University and an MA in English from Mississippi State University. Her poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Ninth Letter, West Branch and The Journal.