Once, a hundred years ago, the tornado
was a young man being pulled along
by the Missouri River while his friends
laughed, then called, then screamed, then
went silent . . . . — “On the Origins of the Tornado”
A banjo plucks and a harmonica worries out a tune, only two of the instruments among the ensemble of musicians forming a half-moon at the front of the room. I’m at the Senior Center hanging with my parents’ new crowd of retirees—cowboys and their ladies, all whom eagerly take the stage to sing a gospel tune and, without reservation, shuffle into a line dance or Western-style waltz. The old cowboy across the table from me saunters to my side and offers me his hand. We dance. I feel very Texan.
When we sit, I return to my book, Catherine Pierce’s The Tornado in the World, and the sun-worn gentleman asks me what I’m reading.
“Poetry,” I answer.
“I like poetry,” he responds, “Can I read some?”
I hand him the book, and, after about sixty seconds, I hear a “Huh,” then, “I never heard it put quite like that. That’s a good one.” He taps onto the page, “I never heard it put quite like that.”
He returned the book to me, and I saw that he had been reading “The Checkout Girl Considers Reading.” I hadn’t read it yet so I did. Sixty seconds. Yep, that’s definitely “a good one.”
Pierce’s seventy-five-page manuscript of poems, comprised mostly of shorter lines and streaming down the left side of the page like a narrow vortex, is all about tornadoes—at least on the surface. Tornadoes, it seems, are also synonymous for a spiritual turbulence, a consuming force of nature or something unnatural in the human heart and experience.
In fact, the tornado is really what we name it. Pierce insightfully unearths the way that humans attempt to package the chaotic as something “(s)o Biblical, so romantic. . . appendage of (our) god”; the fuss we make over appeases chaotic forces, the “kiss and the dance.” The chaotic force in this particular poem, “The Tornado Knows Itself,” wreaks havoc on its worshippers, all the while realizing that it is not the least bit god or godlike but actually “wind and vapor,” weak natural elements on their own before a stirring.
Pierce’s genius in the poetry is that she is so aware of how much we create our own beasts and chaos out of “wind and vapor,” how we fear what may or may not be impending or real. “Her whole life, she is ridden with fear,” narrates the speaker in “The Mother, Three Months Later”: “like an endlessly cresting wave, / each long drive, each low cough / a possible death-in-waiting. . .” Simultaneously, she explores how we romanticize the real, seeking ways out of the mundane, stirring up adventure, allowing us to wander forward with fantasies that, if acted upon, will inevitably disappoint. “The world was rich and wild / because we invented it. / Days were movies with ourselves / as tragic heroines,” says the speaker in “Heroines,” and farther along in the poem:
We thought about what we would do
when the sirens swelled. We had plans
for escape, for Oaxaca, for Iceland.
We were, in fact, already gone.
We were riding a boxcar west.
We were changing our names.
We were scrubbing our blood-stained
hands in the creek while our mothers
called from countries away.
The tornado is fraught with expectations. The approaching vortex gathers momentum from our fears and idealistic fantasies, negligence, escapism, and false hopes. (Maybe Pierce has written a political satire of the current administration?) “So the tornado gathers itself,” reads “The Tornado Visits the Town”:
Below, a few faces blanch in windows.
Some cars speed up. Some cars slow down.
The tornado dips and loudens,
rises, then dips again.
The tornado is gratified
to see a man cowering in a ditch,
a small girl racing from backyard to house.
Though the tornado takes so much from us, leaving us shaking and overwhelmed, it also gives us something. Pierce asserts: it wakes us up. In the final poem “Hawk,” the speaker, pushing her son in a stroller, spies a hawk rustling the leaves of a nearby tree—a beautiful and powerful predatory “prehistoric” creature that leaves the scene clutching a small grey creature to death. Until that moment, the speaker admits, she had been “strolling through a hazed future, / not unhappy, not afraid, but elsewhere.” Afterward, she and her son “keep strolling and the street is the same, / only now it’s surrounded by the world.” She is alert, vigilant, awake.
These are poems of survival by an author with incredible self-awareness, extremely in tune to the way individuals and social groups cope with inner and outer demons. I agree with the old cowboy: ”this is a good one.” Maybe even a great one. Yeah, a great one. I’m going to rank this as one of favorite contemporary poetry books—and I’ve read a lot! This book appeals to a broad audience with its universal theme, and accessible language and metaphors, but does so in an incredibly unique way. Like the cowboy said, he’d never heard it put “quite like that.”