Standing within the Fire: Review of Tracy Philpot's Distance from Birth
Fairbanks Winter Solstice
Standing within the Fire
Tracy Philpot frames her 2001 collection of poems, Distance From Birth (Elixir Press) in the classic pattern of the changing seasons. Thus, she appropriately begins the first section, “Winter Solstice,” with a poem titled “The Longest Day”; welcomes spring with section II, “Reincarnation”; develops the metaphor with summer poems in section III, “Green”; and ends the book with the year starkly fading in the autumnal “Elegy,” section IV. However, this is no Sierra Club-like collection of odes to the beauty of nature. Philpot, who is also a professional advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, concerns herself in Distance from Birth with the essences of her own being, her family and friends, and the animals and plants that share her rural home of Seldovia, Alaska. She alludes to the circle of life, not just nature’s annual death and rebirth, but that within herself, other humans, and animals, in poems that explore personal and interpersonal issues as intense as the matters of her social work.
In “The Longest Day,” the final line, “I will not be split from my underlying body,” seems to proclaim the ethic upon which Philpot bases her own life: heart, mind, and conscience fully engaged, watching and interrelating with the world in which she lives. Similarly, in another poem in section I, “Religio The Binding,” the speaker “bow[s her] head to the single cry of a wolf who went to the / source of herself” (22, 23) and grittily declares
[. . .] it's better to love yourself as god directly
Lapis lapis striping the blue rain window all day today there
will be moodiness and high tides and sacrifices of affection
So I can hear mine heart. (24-27)
In this era of great change in religious attitudes, in which, for many, atheism or pantheism has replaced traditional obedience to Christianity or another mainstream creed and where people of all religious backgrounds incorporate mystical, New Age, and other non-orthodox tenets and practices into their devotions in an effort to keep their faith alive, it is not an especially novel cry from Philpot, in “The Longest Night,” that, “[. . .] —a braceleted hand / is worship / in the ongoing seasons” (3-5). Rest assured, however: she expresses profound personal scrupulousness and righteousness, never a flimsy pretense of spirituality. The poems in Distance From Birth communicate the integrity of emotional experience; honest physical and spiritual response to love and the created world; the righteousness that perhaps gives the author’s meditations such pinpoint clarity; and, ultimately, life-affirmation, soaring above pain endured by the poet as well as by those whom she observes and loves.
Throughout, Philpot uses the tools of her trade sensually, slowly and deeply, yet always with a precise vision that operates like a laser of conviction, drawing pictures that leave the reader shuddering with feeling, chuckling, or nodding in agreement. Section II, “Reincarnation,” opens with “Bedlam Color,” which slyly observes:
color in parrots
gets brighter and deeper
so dazzling is
they mate like us
with occasional affairs (34-41)
and, several lines later, concludes,
because it’s late
the evergreens shudder
desperate to drop
their armfuls of snow
to be nuder
ripening in the rasp-
Here, Philpot—in a poignant, aching tone—expresses undying life, symbolized by the evergreens, and the longing for rebirth; as a result, the reader feels the “rasp- / wind” on his or her cheek and longs for spring.
Philpot enlarges her discussion of spring and rebirth with a poem titled “A Whole Country of Raped Women (listening to reports of the war in Bosnia from the side of the highway),” in which the miserable women “[. . .] hold swigs of alcohol / in their mouths as they fake / spring” (4-6), and in which “when she discovered the sun / all the babies went unfed / the cats gnawing their kneecaps” (7-9). More personally, addressing human relations and the daily domestic atrocity of child abuse, Philpot writes in the incandescent “Father’s Day,” of her pregnancy with her son, contrasting “[. . .] pastoral villages / by the sea, [where] fathers molest / their daughters and sons,” (25-27) with “[. . .] my homestead of artless green / among savage green, [where] there is only birth—” (33-34). The horrors depicted and reflected upon in such poetry demand the reader’s attention, which, when given deeply, can lead to a sense of shared rebirth and healing, a new spring of the heart after winter-like spiritual cryosurgery.
In sections III and IV, Philpot continues with summer and fall sections, “Green” and “Elegies.” “Liminal: The Longest Day,” which introduces “Green,” sensuously depicts the summer solstice, a time when
we have grains
and roses and slow-
burning fires in the shape
of a horned man who
makes an unlucky
number of toasts
he says velvet
will be hard
let me be
worthy of the generous
spilling day. (14-26)
Contrastingly, also in the “Green” section, the reader feels the summer energy of fertility and passion gone as wrong as the screaming intensity of a thousand August suns in the agonized, confessional “For My Batterer on His Birthday.” Then, once again transforming the mood, the languid yet taut “Autumnal Equinox” transitions into the final section of the book, “Elegies.”
Distance From Birthconcludes with nine stark, sober poems in the spirit of the early-arriving, cold autumn of Alaska. In “An Exercise Fleshed Out By Mourning,” the speaker grieves for a dead animal and, perhaps, for a miscarriage, saying: “Whatever my goals were yesterday / The world has come and gone like faith / Beneath early snow” (1-3). In “The Mound People,” she lifts the cover off the darkness of ritualized murder: “sometimes a sparse description / of a dead woman matches / a wife you’ve killed” (1-3), giving the reader a haunting and frightening glimpse into the mirror of human depravity. Philpot ends this collection with “Farol’s Elegy,” a poem that powerfully evokes autumnal transmutation of life. It tells about a favorite cat that died, but also seems to refer to a human being:
That she couldn’t play anymore
That some family didn’t know her
That the world left untender gravity
into herself like emptier hands
unmoved by infinity’s ugliness
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
there is no one to praise (1-6, 56).
In the last two stanzas, which describe a weasel who, “in between seasons / has been changing colors at our cabin” (82-83), the speaker shares her
[. . .] hope she stays with us, wild,
solidifying as the snow
that will eventually contain
the mad thing close to me
as wild outside
will please remove all purity from my heart. (90-96)
The speaker affirms her faith in the power, however violent, of natural life, death, and rebirth, enabling rejuvenation, reaffirmation, of the body and of life. The weasel might also represent the raw power of the speaker’s spirit and the potential of its rebirth, or perhaps another person altogether entering her life, bringing new life to replace Farol and that which she represents.
In Distance from Birth , Philpot roots herself in nature and her body, rejecting other means of faith and always retaining her conscience as she strives for resurrection. She lives and writes within self-kindled flames of physical, emotional, and spiritual rebirth, eschewing the falseness and ignorance of the modern, often unexamined, life. She invites the reader to share that experience at his or her will.
Philpot, Tracy. Distance From Birth . Minneapolis: Elixir Press, 2001. Print