Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review: The Sheep Stealer by Jenn Blair

The Sheep Stealer by Jenn Blair
Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015
32 pages

Hyacinth Girl Press has become one of the few presses whose chapbooks I eagerly await, both for the badassery of their work and the stunning handmade style of their books. Kicking off their 2015 lineup is Jenn Blair's The Sheep Stealer, a poetic trek through rural America. Like all HGP titles, great care was taken in the aesthetic artistry of the book, featuring very simple cover art by Marian Scales, and my copy had flowery end-papers and lime green ribbon binding.

The twenty-three poems in The Sheep Stealer dance to the slow wilt and bloom of small-town, rural America, immersing themselves in a host of characters, meals, and ways of life. Blair's elaborate but pointed imagery carries the narratives, whether it's the prevalence of lamb's blood on everything in "Before the Flood" or a woman browsing brochures in a convenience store who, "inadvertently skins the knees of her / plump eyes on the word massacre," in the poem "Cherokee Summer" (oh, the power of a line that can make you stop, re-read, and then imagine it in your head).

Though the stories are diverse, they all speak to a movement within the stillness of place. This movement often comes in the form of travel, mostly on family vacations, and it also shows up in life cycles - birth, adolescence, and death. In "Vignette," two young girls go exploring and wind up dead; a boy confesses and is punished. "Gettysburg, 1992" is a fairly common snapshot of a family stopping in an antique store, the young girl bored and longing for the TV in the hotel room and fashion magazines. So much of these narratives is typical, but told with a breathtaking language and haunted nostalgia, and you find yourself looking between the lines for more from these characters.

My favorite poem in the collection is "Vessel," an inventory of mementos a mother keeps from her child's birth. It speaks of how she preserves, putting "small knit booties in / mason jars," and a baby footprint of "Five faint / pearls of toe and one gorgeous / black heel." We are shown a more literal imprint of life here, while the rest of the book recounts passages of time and life subtly, though the poem ends with the same "moving on" theme.

"Epilogue" closes the collection, moving primarily through the aging of nature, reminding us that, "once the beginning began / there was no way to turn it / back into itself." The act of looking back always takes place while life is moving relentlessly forward, no matter our desire to return to a certain newness from the past. The Sheep Stealer is an immensely satisfying and enjoyable chapbook to read. Rich in its language and setting, Jenn Blair's poems speak eloquently on adolescence, travel, loss, and the rural ways of life through an engaging cast of characters.

Buy The Sheep Stealer here.

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