Beyond a bookstore it’s a café or quiet bar where readers find themselves, a kind of “office of the mind” away from the house, the apartment, a place where you can hole up as one does in a library but with an Americano or a pint of beer or an martini. Here in Portland, I have found a few great places to read over the years, some of which have sadly fallen into a television-sports-news-frat-dark hole from which I doubt they will return. Luckily, a few others still hold, offering, on some afternoon or evening, a quiet yet public space big enough for a person, a cocktail, and a book. Recently, I have found a new home at which to sip a beer over some poems or a short story, and that place is The Cardinal Club. Open from 5pm till past 1AM, it’s a perfect place for readers and writers, with two amazingly kind owners who know their way around a highball glass and shaker.
Recently, I spent the early evening there drinking a Black IPA, eating some amazing food, and reading Rachel Jamison Webster’s new collection “September” (Tri-quarterly Books, 2013). Of Webster’s poems, Li-Young Lee writes that she “speaks breathlessly in praise, in awe, in pain, and in wonder at the manifold nature of being alive” and that “Here is the voice of our inner friend.” Which, after reading Webster’s poems, I couldn’t agree with more.This book of lyric narratives is aptly titled, for what is September if not the beginning of a season where things die, the air gets chillier, and we naturally think of the past. This is a book of elegy as much as it is a song for life. Elegy for a great love and husband who has died as well as for all of us who are still walking around on earth trying to figure out what love is.
These are poems of the body, poems that come from the body and the wild wind that breaks the body, the soul howling all night in our head and hearts. In the first poem of the book Webster writes:
“Since you went the light is so clear
it has become everything.
Faces peel from the bricks.
And outside the impoverished city hospital
someone has planted an Easter lily.
Its trumpet erupts from green tongues.
White throat that is your life.”
And so we begin a beautiful and energetic book anchored in elegy with the throat of life and all the music that can come from that throat, all the beauty. “September” is an exciting first book that takes the insane and nonsensical experience of grief and gives it a celebratory language that is a joy to read. Buy a copy and head over to The Cardinal Club. There’s a drink, some good food, and a quiet corner for you and Webster’s incredible first book.
—Matthew Dickman is the poetry editor of Tin House and the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008) and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (Norton, 2012). He lives and works in Portland, Oregon.
"Webster’s sensuous, memory-haunted collection is a celebration of life wrapped in an elegy. The book begins, “You shawl me like smoke.” This seeds Webster’s fascination with sheltering fog and disorienting mist and prompts poignant inquiry into images of enfolding and surrounding, shrouding and swaddling. Webster’s speaker misses her deceased beloved and marvels over her infant daughter. “My first word was look,” she declares, and hers are delving eyes. She sees nature as an enveloping, penetrating, and vital presence, and its perpetual motion infuses Webster’s darting, whirling, gliding lines. Childhood memories embody a cellular affinity with nature, a sense of awe, while a poem of sickbed vigils, loss, and life’s determined renewal is anchored to the sight of thriving ivy on a brick hospital wall. Webster announces, “This world in its spiked beauty splits me,” and this sense of division, of the divide between sorrow and joy, life and death, subtly shapes her gracefully crafted, ardently observed poems in which vowels chime and consonants clang. Nuanced and caring poems that reach from the immediate and intimate to the timeless and universal."
“Webster’s resonant poems perceive with the astonishing clarity of a visionary remove,
even as they inhabit feelingly a solid world honey-combed with interior being:
‘water-carved caves…inner rivers ambered by/lime’s radiant decay,//form maintained by
its secret of space…’”
—Eleanor Wilner, author of Tourist in Hell and Reversing the Spell: New and Selected
“Rachel Webster is the purveyor of the velvet hammer and the one-two punch.”
--Brian Bouldrey, author of The Sorrow of the Elves and Traveling Souls: Contemporary Pilgrimage Stories.
“Rachel Webster’s September is a journey through nature, the body, birth, motherhood
and death. Sometimes Webster’s writing is delicate, and sometimes bold, but there is a
lushness when she is describing the natural world around her. There is a connection and
recurrence of these elements and items throughout the book: bodies of water (ocean,
great lakes, rivers, currents), trees/plants (branches, leaves, flowers). It is in the
specific details, and her dedication to the small elements that makes nature move and
breathe in this book. It becomes a live thing, and she takes her time with these
details: “I look out. Black leaves color of dried blood, we are all just river/ pouring
over/ the wheel, In the center of my life was fear/a body of it, water.”
There is also a serious focus on the body in September, with poems like: “Bleeding
Heart,” “Milk,” and “Kauai,” and there are moments of connecting all things: the body
and nature, nature and motherhood/birth, and it is in these combinations that the poems
really start to awaken. In “Milk,” she compares nursing to a river and an ocean, and in
“Kauai,” it is her opened legs to a tropical flower. There is conversation between the
body and where it lives. With poems like “Ocean and Integer,” and “Fired in the Body,”
there is a strong juxtaposition between the body and nature:I unhinge from my body/
becoming a stirring in the stars, and a churning current our body/ rowed out and out
on/ until it hit the chopping sea. In the middle section of September, these
connections start to open up, and the book becomes charged with emotions. These are the
poems that are most courageous, and most vulnerable to me as a reader. “How can we not ache with everything/ around us breathing and time/ falling through our bodies
like dust/ and these last leaves- squash and mouth-“ I am reminded of my own
body, and its constant changing and movement, and the way it careens through the world.
There is a fullness that the book builds to, and a serious questioning of life that is
exciting to watch unfold.
Webster’s details are vulnerable, specific and push the poems in various directions.
This is a manuscript that is not afraid of surprising its reader, and in fact
challenges them throughout, with poems like: “Double Vision” and “Wintering.” The
reader is not always safe with these poems, and that is an exciting space to be in.
Webster oscillates between the beauty of nature and the complexity of birth and death.
It often felt like a current of water, and each poem was a buoy that propelled me into
—Ellen Hagan, author of Crowned