cover artI have added a number of poems from Linda Hogan’s collection The Book of Medicines to my personal poetry anthology. I’ve kept a commonplace book for years that often included pieces of poems or entire poems but it was Robert Pinsky and his book Singing School that suggested creating a personal poetry anthology. The idea is to have a notebook full of poems that speak to me in one way or another. It is a lovely thing to be able to browse through now and then.

I am very careful about what gets added to my anthology. It can’t be just any poem. It has to be something special, something that goes beyond the initial moment of, “oh that’s a really good poem!” It has to be a poem I will read in a year, five years, ten years and still find resonance. Most of the time I add only one poem from a collection, sometimes two, occasionally none. Adding several from one collection is infrequent and indicates just how deeply the poems spoke to me.

The book is broken up into three sections. The first consists of only one poem, “The History of Red.” Red is many things from blood to land to fear, birth and death. Red is also a house and fire.

The second section called “Hunger” comprises about half of the book. Here we have poems about hunger in its various forms. Hunger is not only for food but for life, power, love, warmth, survival. It can be subtle and slow or fast and overwhelming. Hunger is a driving force to be reckoned with. Hunger is only ever temporarily sated, always it returns.

In “Harvesters of Night and Water” we have conflicting hungers. The hunger of the humans to capture the octopus for food and the hunger of the octopus to live and escape. It is a long poem in which a battle of life and death takes place. When I finished it I broke down in sobs.

I look inside the dark cold ocean.
Inside is the octopus that shone like sun
in a changing skin of water.
It turned red with fear, then paled before
climbing down the boat.
It was naked,
it was beautiful
like an angel
with other wings,
its arms were those of four mothers
desperate for life.

Hogan is Chickasaw, a Native American nation that used to live in what is now Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Today, most Chickasaw live in Oklahoma. Much of Hogan’s poetry is infused with her Native culture and beliefs as well as a feminist sensibility. All things are connected and some poems are filled with grief while others are filled with a determination to survive and heal.

There is a place at the center of the earth
where one ocean dissolves inside the other
in a black and holy love;
It’s why the whales of one sea
know songs of the other,
why one thing becomes something else
and sand falls down the hourglass
into another time.

The third section of the book is “The Book of Medicines” and it is here where most of the poems about connection and healing reside. While “Hunger” seems to be about a constant battle, a give and take, an unceasing motion, “The Book of Medicines” is about healing, gathering, a bringing the things that were scattered back together to be reborn. The final poem of the collection, “The Origins of Corn,” ends on a hopeful note:

the corn song,
the hot barefoot dance
that burns your feet
but you can’t stop
trading gifts
with the land,
putting your love in the ground
so that after the long sleep of seeds
all things will grow
and the plants who climb into the world
will find it green and alive.

As a gardener I love that line, “putting your love into the ground.” Such a beautiful image.

This is the first time I have read Hogan’s poetry. I had read a few of her essays back in college but never got around to more than that. After this collection I will definitely be reading more of her poetry.