by Keith Ekiss
New Issues 2010
Reviewed by Emily Anderson
“adobe on sky”
Keith Ekiss focuses intently on the American Southwest in Pima Road Notebook. The physical landscape provides an underpinning for poems that move through personal memory, historical research, and commentary on contemporary culture. In “The Desert,” for example, Ekiss juxtaposes desert images a reader might expect (rattlesnakes, scorpions, saguaros) with a critical vision of modern development. After describing some of the dangers of the landscape, he concludes: “What threatens will disappear. // Hurry home, the future all fairway and green, / targeted with ribbons and stakes.”
Throughout the book, Ekiss writes about southwestern housing developments with a mixture of nostalgia and bitterness, obsessed with their newness and transient qualities. While occasionally repetitive, the many poems about “Unfinished Houses” in which “Plywood and stucco weren’t permanent” make a convincing argument for the desert as a more powerful force than the buildings. In “Petrified Forest,” the speaker describes “[his] favorite color: / adobe on sky. The human trail ends.” The scale of human activity against the vast desert colors the book’s depiction of physical spaces of home as well as emotional relationships within the speaker’s family.
While several poems explore the history of the Sonora Desert and the Pima people who lived there before European settlement, more of them explore the speaker’s family history. In the first of five poems with the title “Pima Road Notebook,” the speaker talks about his childhood, merging images of people with images of the desert. The poem opens, “My mother’s voice echoed me nearer toward home. / Sad quail in the brush, searching for her children,” and ends, “Coyotes gathered and chattered in guttural moans. / All night she thought the howls were only dogs.” If the mother figure appears “sad,” even deluded, the father flashes violently in and out of focus. He “takes a chainsaw to the limbs” of a cactus in the backyard in “Landscape with Saguaros”; in other poems he appears “self-made” or “clean-shaven” and receives blame for bringing his family to the desert or getting them stranded in a storm on Lake Powell. The speaker’s general comments on fathers assume an even more critical tone: “Fathers just leave—isn’t that what fathers do?” (in the third “Pima Road Notebook”) and “No one trusts other fathers” (in “Pictures of Houses”). Throughout the sometimes labored book, the isolation of the desert effectively mirrors the speaker’s emotional isolation.