The Fall 2017 issue of Prairie Schooner is both slim and muscular, like the wrestlers in Sean Prentiss’s “Pantheon of Loss,” an essay about self-torture (high school athletics), discipline, and the drive to win despite the consequences. Twenty-two years after his wrestling career ended, when family members ask whether the starvation, pain, and risk of death were worth it, Prentiss still says, “Yes.” Wrestlers, he argues, are driven not by health and common sense, but by the desire to be the last man standing. He writes, “We starve to win.”
“The Discovery” by Joan Murray, a surprisingly smooth, charming poem about the Terror, one of Captain Franklin’s two vessels lost in search of a northwest passage, tracks the crew’s recovered objects (handkerchiefs, scented soap, a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield), evidence of cannibalism, and the near-pristine nature of the semi-sunken ship (only one window busted in the captain’s quarters). The star of the poem, though, is Sammy, an Inuit man who came across the ship while snowmobiling, seven years before its official discovery. A friend had snapped a photo, but he’d lost it, his proof, and eventually, “casually,” pointed the searchers in the right direction.
Following Murray’s work, Erin Adair-Hodges turns up the volume with a poem about nothing less than life, with a variety of elements: a girl missing in the desert, Jesus shredding a solo on a Schechter Diamond Series Blackjack Stratocaster-style guitar, a greedy boy with a fat and sweaty tongue, comic Brontë fangirling, a mother befuddled by sopaipillas, and prayers to Betty Friedan. This is the poetry of now, impressive and invigorating:
In P.E. they take us to Sugar Lanes
fifty feet from the Belen Hotel
which sits like a rumor
on an old tongue,
aching to be told.
Rachel Toliver’s essay “Abridgments” is about a student’s impending loss, the paper she writes, and a teacher’s total and inescapable empathy. The author does something remarkable, imbuing, “She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time,” a goofy line from the delightfully cheeseball The Princess Bride, with feeling. She wills that kind of safe assurance into the real world for herself, her student, and her student’s family. The student, Maddie, is everything a teacher hopes for, and her father, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, is a prior acquaintance. The news is devastating to Toliver, who is already dealing with her depressed husband through avoidance and liquid comfort: “This is your protagonist: in her office, drinking wine.” Her grief for Maddie and her own struggles are skillfully rendered on the page, a transference of empathy to the reader. Though this time things take a turn for the better, the sharks still exist in the future Toliver imagines her former star student walking through, step by step.
“Bury” by sam sax is a poem about death rituals and mourning practices. In the poem, Neanderthals, who don’t write, use “internment / as a form of document,” and elephants, without thumbs, throw leaves and dirt upon the dead, “a kind of language.” Furthermore, writes sax:
i know everyone
i love who’s dead didn’t actually
become the poem i wrote about them.
their breath a caught fathered
object thrashing in the white space
The poem ends with a plea, a recommended way to be remembered.
In “Public Swim,” Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers examines barriers, both racial and economic, through a swimmer’s eyes, beginning in New Orleans, a city surrounded by water with no safe, natural place to swim. She explores gentrification, a sense of belonging, modern-day segregation, and her own ignorance as to why the public pools are so commonly split down the middle: white swimmers in the deep water, black families in the shallow end. “As I meditate on the concept of ‘membership’ and swimming pools,” Rogers writes, “I can’t say that I see any real justification.” Such choices, she argues, “defy the amorphous, mutable nature of water itself.” When she relocates to Washington, DC, Rogers is again conscious of her skin, of the possibility that she’s part of the next wave of colonizers, but she is aware of the pool’s history, of the man who fought to keep it open, and she wills it to be a true public space where all belong. At the end of the piece, Rogers intentionally stays underwater until she’s desperate for air. There is hope in this moment; the lack of oxygen is self-imposed, but the rush for breath is both a natural impulse and a choice.
There’s a plethora of strong writing in this Midwest vessel, wheat without chaff, a tantalizing promise of issues yet to come. Until then, we readers may kick back, happily awaiting winter and what follows.