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Sophia Stewart

‘The Painted Forest’ by Krista Eastman: Thoroughly Acquainted with the World

Krista Eastman nonfiction The Painted ForestKrista Eastman had been living away from her native Wisconsin for many years when she began writing her essay collection, The Painted Forest (144 pages; West Virginia University Press), and it was during this time that she began to consider the meaning of home. Once she left the small, working-class town in which she was raised, she told Poets & Writers, she found she often “had to explain myself and my home to others, putting a complicated place onto maps where previously there’d been nothing at all.” That’s when she “became interested in the role of telling about a place, in talking back from the periphery.”

Eastman began asking herself what it means to be from Wisconsin, from the Midwest, or from any place at all. And what does it mean to leave one’s home, or to return? Though the nine essays of her book, she attempts to find answers, tapping into geography, history, and myth-making to do so, all while seeking out the least known corners of the country.

In the first essay, “Insider’s Almanac,” Eastman considers how we define being from a place and what distinctions exist within that sense of belonging. “Who is the more thoroughly acquainted with the world in which he lives?” she asks. “Whosoever can produce the most detail.” The Painted Forest proves Eastman to be thoroughly acquainted with the world in which she lives; insatiably curious, she renders people and places in exquisite, elaborate detail.

Reading her extraordinary descriptions, it’s clear Eastman writes not just to inform her reader, but also to make sense of her surroundings, to create meaning and narrative where there previously may have been none. The opening lines of the prologue, “Scrap Metal,” in which she recalls driving through her hometown as a child, display Eastman’s gift for immersive narration:

This tubby steel machine, this 1978 Chevy Malibu station wagon, careens a large family forward, makes tinny the sound of our quarrels and questions while highway approaches and then unfurls behind, approaches and then unfurls. It is from this wagon that we view the sculptures, the scrap metal forms welded at weird angles onto themselves, forms that groan at ground in the way of all heavy equipment, but forms whose slanted reaches skyward warp and mock the object of industry.

Most of the collection’s essays deal in hyper-specificity, focusing on little known locations and hidden stories. Eastman is drawn to eccentricity and complexity, and she revels in the act of uncovering. “My writing,” she told Booktimist, “[has] a tendency toward putting off-the-map oddities at the center of the universe.” She actively constructs her own universe by uncovering obscure histories and geographies, and letting in light.

Mostly, she attempts to play with our ideas of regionality and universality, challenging notions about which corners of America—and the world—are worthy of exploration. “The Midwest,” writes Eastman, “like many of the earth’s places, tilts toward under-imagined and overly caricatured, that it might not be a definite place at all.” This is one of the collection’s most important considerations. While Eastman spends much of the collection considering physical space—natural wonders, art objects, landmarks—she also delves into the psychological space each region occupies. The Midwest and many other places, she argues, are less defined by their geographic boundaries as much as their cultural and mythical ones.

The best essays in The Painted Forest are the most personal ones. Ultimately, it’s when Eastman taps into her own experiences that we are treated to the most moving moments of the collection. Take this reflective aside from the titular essay, in which Eastman returns to her hometown:

Born here, from this place, I knew how to move across the land, how to be raised up for the purpose of letting go, to be lifted and lowered, gathered and then released: to roll down and then to work my way up again, to the top of the ridge, to the modest view of more hills, to the shortest glimpse of eternity.

Sometimes The Painted Forest gets bogged down by its most distinctive features—Eastman’s descriptions and specificity. The florid language and narrow focus in excess can grow tiresome. Regardless, The Painted Forest remains an intricate portrait of place and belonging. Eastman is making an offering to us; she is sharing something special, a part of herself. “One way to share your home,” she writes, “is to place it carefully, in a controlled way, onto someone else’s map.” That is just what she’s done—and for that, we should be grateful.

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‘Love and I’ by Fanny Howe: A Meander through a Singular Mind

Fanny Howe poetry book Love and IFanny Howe prefers to be alone—perhaps that’s what makes her such a perceptive poet. In her latest collection, Love and I (80 pages; Graywolf Press), the fruits of Howe’s solitude are on full display. Howe is introspective, curious, and content when she is by herself. Many of the poems in Love and I celebrate the comforts of being alone:

I’ll sit at the window
Where it’s safe to say no.
Won’t go out, won’t work
For a living, will study the clouds
Becoming snow.

That’s not to say Howe doesn’t grapple with the aches of loneliness as well: “Someone help find me an animal,” she implores, “Who will rescue me from / Being solitary.” When there’s no one with whom she can share her life, she asks, “Who will believe what I do?” The answer: no one—the only “proof that you lived is that you kept notebooks.” These sorts of autobiographical asides—brief flashes when Howe transforms herself from spectator to subject, and reveals herself to us—make for some of the collection’s most compelling moments.

In her poems, Howe paints vivid scenes and hones in on unexpected details, the kind that only catch the eye of the lonely. A keen observer and frequent traveler (she does most of her writing in transit), Howe’s gaze is wandering but sharp. She notices the child who “licked up the mist on the windowpane,” and the plane passenger who “clutched his head like an infant.” She conjures images of small, everyday beauty: “bridal curls,” “poppy seed cake,” “a grove of elms.” And for Howe, “the tinier the beauty the better.”

With a title like Love and I, one might expect the collection to be an excavation of romantic histories or an interrogation of the act of loving itself. But Howe throws her poetic net far beyond love, prodding at questions of memory and movement, of the body and nature and grief. We spend time both inside the poet’s head and within her well-crafted scenes, leisurely bouncing between introspection and dialogue, opinion and observation.

Fascinatingly, the collection’s most persistent motif is not love but children. They appear in poem after poem, playing, growing, and taking in the world. Children are everywhere: there’s one sleeping, another standing on her head. Howe finds their innocence remarkable, and she writes about them protectively, determined to safeguard their senses of wonder. “Children need a rest,” Howe writes, “their minds are swimming in junk / and fists.” And again: “Children need sugar. / Especially in danger.”

It’s hardly surprising that children are one of the governing structural elements of Love and I. In an interview with Jacket Magazine, Howe shared, “It’s very essential to me, the relationship I feel towards the future of young people, children in particular.” Unpacking this motif, on the other hand, is a more challenging endeavor. The recurrence of children inevitably incites nostalgic yearning, a desire for the ease and infallibility of early youth. But Howe’s connection to children runs deeper than that: in her poetry, Howe casts a maternal gaze, shaped by her own experience as a mother. That said, I can’t help but wonder if Howe, who retains a child-like sense of wonder and creativity, also sees children as peers, better suited to understanding her than adults. After all, she once told the Paris Review that if she “had to do it all over again,” she’d “like to be a wandering monk with some children traveling in my company.”

When Howe does turn her focus to the notion of love and its many permutations, the results are enthralling. She speaks bluntly about the pains of attachment, abandoning lush imagery to get right to the heart of things. “Is love one-way?” she asks. “Almost always.” As Howe has grown older, she finds “Love stood at a distance.” In the standout poem of the collection, “Destinations,” Howe mourns a lost relationship, writing simply, “On a side street (on my sheets) / one I love passed / as a shadow.”

One of Love and I’s most ambitious poems is “Turbulence,” a vast multi-pager that takes place on a plane ride and explores loneliness, faith, and death. A passenger, Howe notes the rain on the windows, the trembling wings, and the clouds below; wonders about the other travelers around her; and allows her mind to wander, as it inevitably does. Ultimately, she extends a comforting invitation to surrender, directed at both her fellow passengers and us, her readers—to unburden ourselves as best we can as we trudge through life:

Give up your wires, plugs, laptop, pills, water, cellphone,
Passport, ticket and shoes.
Give up your water, your wine, your songs and stories.
Put your arms up, your feet down flat and face ahead.

You have not reached the end yet.

Love and I is a meander through a singular mind, a mind that observes more sharply than many of us could ever hope to—or might want to. Howe, who at 78 years old has penned more than thirty works of poetry and prose, has little to prove to us now. Her approach may not always be accessible, but Howe’s inquisitiveness, generosity, and care are easy to appreciate and impossible to resist.

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