by Kerri Webster
University of Iowa Press 2012
Reviewed by Seth Graves
“When the world was ending, liquidators came.”
Kerri Webster’s poems are fiery and verbose. She injects the biblical-apocalyptic into the seeming mendacity of chain stores, thrift shops, big skies, and small airports. Her concerns become an unfamiliar kind of unease, her sonic chops and twists always juxtaposed with the expansiveness of her subjects of place. She imbues in the reader a fear that folks can accept an imitation for the natural:
You think the park’s the world,
it’s not even a real view, the dream
of safety a sculpture garden,
a figment—a boy sleeps
on the riverbank, coat for a pillow
Grand and Arsenal is an intersection of South Grand, an eclectic neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri. Though the neighborhood boasts a more international collection of food and influence, St. Louis, like many of its other Midwest city equivalents, is the land of sweet BBQ, the blues, proximate farm and university towns, and cities that still suffer from ramifications of white flight (though in a rare mid-city move, STL does manage a dinky subway system). South Grand is one of those burgeoning midtown neighborhoods.
The poems of Kerri Webster’s Grand & Arsenal, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, seem provoked by her four-year tenure as Writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis (alongside the company of poets Mary Jo Bang, Carl Phillips, and Jennifer Kronovet), as well as her native Idaho. Webster pairs poems from the interior with the wide-angle lifestyle of the Midwest and West. As a former Missourian, I recollect weekends of long drives through flat fields from midsize city to midsize city—Kansas City, St. Louis, Des Moines, Omaha, Champaign-Urbana—in equal observation of homogeneity and prized cultural locavorism.
In “Seed Vault,” she writes in prose, “I abandoned one town, found another, turned at the three windmills, said Holy the hail I’d FedEx by handfuls if I could as desert gave way to flash flood and lightning kindled the foothills unto tinder.” Her sounds twister-swirl. She fuses the importance of place with the cognate manmade redundancies of the American landscape: big suburban infrastructural grandiosities (“On cruise control we drove the saint’s/ wide avenue”), big Walgreens (“Folly becomes us, the end of empire uncomfortable and strange, in the Walgreens’ parking lot always someone with hand outstretched and I am stretched inside”), big Wal-Mart, big pork chops, big sky (“The sky gets in my clothes./The fireplace stars/small apocalypses./Across the sea,/the goldsmith rubs her eyes.”).
“We rode our fine horses, our sad horses,” she writes in the final poem, “Postscript.” “We sounded/ the ram’s horn and waited. Wanted. Rubbed cloves/ on painful gums. Split the creature, crawled inside.” The poem maintains the pitch of a frantic voice reaching for landmarks in the human condition.
Imagine houses filled with trinkets. Or a pregnant woman living inside a Wal-Mart like Natalie Portman in Where the Heart Is. She opens the book with invocations to the muses—God, and knickknacks:
Bless me I am not myself. These days. Objects
pile on my work-bench: a flame. A seed. A heart. A brass
pig. A fat key. A creamer and pitcher also.
And she ends the poem, “Where the meters/ are all broken, find me.” In these lines the poet has masterfully spliced rhythm and spliced image in tandem, invoking the anxiety and swiftness of the book’s work.
Webster’s work gallops. And like a well-cooked pork chop, it grants substance over tricks and provides an intimate perspective of the country’s middle.