The poems in Jane Augustine’s A Woman’s Guide to Mountain Climbing confront, rather than bypass pain, and their “golden and piercing” music is made from a rugged but precise lineation and a relentless eye for detail.
The poem “After Yeats” presents a heroine who is a picture of romantic beauty – a young woman in jeans and a halter top eating blackberries while on horseback:
she thinks, and unromantic, sworn to accost
her self-deception, but is re-reading Yeats—mistake—
and loves his elegance, wants to bypass pain and sing
a desert world in music golden and piercing.
By contrast, the men who watch her, including her “lover, almost-ex” are “abashed.” She certainly resembles a Yeatsian figure of female beauty – that double-edged sword, with a power equal only to its limitations when it comes to getting a woman what she wants. She is also a younger version of the woman who inhabits the other poems: a mother of grown children, divorced from a man who made her afraid. She seeks her independence in the Colorado mountains, experiencing climbing as a late rite of passage.
Despite my admiration for the mountain climbing poems, I prefer others in the book that are peripheral to that theme. The hiker’s real journey is interior; nevertheless, the spell of a poem gets broken when it’s clear that emotional “work” is being done. I sense that the breathtaking atmosphere, in which Augustine vividly captures moon, sun, rock and tree – as well as the obstacles a climber faces – is rich enough to yield transformation. When, in “The Passes: Hardscrabble, Independence,” she remembers “a Jew and refugee, / who until the war’s end hid / in a Bavarian cave, / . . .then married an angry man, but rich,” the comparison of “I” with “other” makes sense, yet, if left out, would allow for greater impact of lines such as the “road rising so slowly one doesn’t / notice then steep narrow / . . . by the overhang of Suicide Spire / named for a pair of teenaged lovers.”
There are poems I wanted to scoop and hold tightly in my hands, such as “Rosita Cemetery,” which draws bittersweet meaning from carefully chosen details, as in the lines, “Plastic wreaths / are sadder in / their lasting // than an obelisk / with no name.”
This book, as with Augustine’s previous Night Lights, shows a genius for free verse. Augustine makes perfect couplets or tercets when a poem asks her to, but she groups lines in a variety of ways. Where many poets’ creative lineation strains the eye, hers uses negative space for clarity. There may be some influence from H.D., of whom Augustine is a scholar, yet A Woman’s Guide is less mythological, more grounded in worldly phenomena. Tampons in a backpack are listed among gear that “a woman can’t climb without” and “almost can’t climb [with].” Likewise, “Motors [that] outroar the waterfall,” inspire a “Digression on Trailbikers,” where the mystique of the natural landscape is broken by human interference.
A Woman’s Guide to Mountain Climbing represents several decades of writing, yet the poems come together as a unified work. Augustine’s poetics involve precise lines, images, and structures. As in the poem “Locoweed,” which describes a flower that drive cows mad if they eat it but that humans gather “by the armful,” the most powerful poems bind beauty inextricably to pain.