“I carry my history stitched into my skin.” This line from Linda Schandelmeier’s poem, “Leaving for the University,” perfectly evokes the contents of her second book, Coming out of Nowhere.
But let’s back up a bit. Before university, Schandelmeier grew up in a frame cabin on a 160-acre homestead south of Anchorage around the time that Alaska became a state. In her preface, she characterizes these part-autobiographical, part-historical works as: “These poems sometimes take a circuitous route in order to arrive at a deeper truth.”
We’re eased into the book with pastoral-like verses:
The three of us,
two girls and a boy,
ran out along footpaths
and imagined mountains
like ribs circling our hearts.
We found bluebells
and yarrow, bleached white
Then she smacks the reader with scenes I interpret to illustrate her mother’s early life in “The Homesteader’s Wife”:
My father lashed us daily with a hose,
bruises on our bodies
like berry stains.
[ . . . ] He’d slap my mother,
and even my baby sister, Rose.
Schandelmeier’s own childhood, in contrast, seems less traumatic, at least at first. Her parents were hardworking. Dad plants crops and hunts for food:
for the crack of my rifle,
while bleached antlers from past hunts
wait like wordless petitions
on our woodshed roof.
Meanwhile Mom is:
rubbing our shirts on a washboard,
feeding the wringer washer,
clipping laundry to clotheslines
her face stiff, hands tired.
We get another glimpse of Schandelmeier’s family and their relationships in “My Father Hilling Potatoes”:
I loved my father that day
watching him hill potatoes
[ . . . ]
If I told him,
I would give something up,
no longer kept invisible
by the grace of silence.
All well and good, but before long a darkness moves in, saturating her life as shown in “I Watch the Hired Men Pick Potatoes”:
I wither against the wall listening,
keeping back from their maleness.
The hour blooms with their talk.
Later, one takes me on fossil-hunting trips,
flashing his schizophrenic smile
before he undresses me.
His love is a knife
he cuts me with.
I make myself empty
until amnesia floats over the day.
A later poem, titled “Someone Should Have Kicked the Pedophiles Off Our Place,” emphasizes her trauma.
Schandelmeier opens each chapter of Coming out of Nowhere with a prose poem. One of them, “Survival Tactics,” lays out what was “almost the worst year” of her life. Her parents are divorced, “Watergate was years away,” and she “needed deodorant but was afraid to say so.”
No one was home except me, so I slipped out to the road, my babysitting money in my cutoff jeans pocket, stuck my thumb out, caught a ride on the back of a stranger’s Harley. Burned the inside of my knee on the muffler. It was a price I didn’t mind paying. I was keeping an appointment with the rest of my life.
More hints of strife appear in a modified anaphora called “No One Asks About the Bridge.” It picks up from an earlier poem about her horse Charley. In this one, Schandelmeier is nine years old:
Before that everything was topsy-turvy, wrecked—
even alders in the ditch [ . . . ]
Before that I chose the shortcut
over our small footbridge [ . . . ]
Before that, big as a moose, Charlie followed me—
if he bolted, I might have been dragged [ . . . ]
All the actual or possible hazards of homesteading were not of human or animal origin, however. In 1964, Alaska’s Good Friday 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck. Schandelmeier recounts some of her reactions in “The Earth is Breakable”:
silver lines glinting
against the black-green spruce
bending like yogis toward the ground
and straightening up.
[ . . . ] I snowshoe
over the March snow crust breached by cracks,
expecting the ground to stir, slash open.
As might be expected, neighbors played an important part in the early days of Alaska statehood. A lighthearted poem called “Stealing the Strawberries” recounts “scrambling across the drainage ditch / that divides our properties,” as the neighbor watches and smiles. Another neighbor, or perhaps the same one, takes Schandelmeier and her siblings to the auto races where they’re treated to Cracker Jacks. “My parents wouldn’t spend money like this,” she writes.
Schandelmeier unfolds her story in a way that conveys both her joy and her sorrow. These days she still lives in Alaska and has retired from careers as a biologist and school teacher.
In writing Coming out of Nowhere, Schandelmeier gets to the heart of her life on an Alaska homestead in the 1950s and 1960s. The overall impact is stunning and timely.