Reviewed by Mary Riley
In her poetry collection, A Kayak is My Church Pew, Patricia Carney reflects on creation, the passing of time, and humanity’s impact on the natural world through a series of poems written over many summers kayaking the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in northern Wisconsin. In the titular poem, her perspective is transcendental as she also describes herself as a sojourner passing through the world: “Life cycle depicted on totem is icon to God of creation– / … My paddle skims surface, forms new circling rings / surrounded by blessings.” One can feel the enormity of the natural surroundings, from the view of a lone kayak in the waters, and sense the relatively brief span of time which is the measure of a life. In the poem “Sanskrit on Sand,” Carney meditates on the language of riverbed fossils, asking: “flash forward to now: / what trace of splash / is this life now lived?”
While the majority of poems speak to the natural beauty of Iron County, Carney does not shy away from the historical facts which created the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. Far from being an untouched wilderness, the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage was artificially created in 1926. Its purpose was to serve as a reservoir and aid the generation of hydroelectric power needed by electric utilities and paper mills downstream. In a poem of the same name (“Turtle-Flambeau Flowage”), an old woman speaks plainly: “[A] flowage is really only a river backed up by a damn dam, / one that holds back the water / over granite rock and pristine forest.” The irony is that the reservoir may in fact outlast the gradually-declining local paper industry. Carney continues, “Nearly a century later, I now kayak this / flowage still finding bark-less driftwood // sun-bleached, windswept in graveyard bays, … protected lands held a century in antiquity / of what these elders once called high-ground.” In a similar vein, Carney bears witness to human-caused environmental damage in the poem “Plastic Clouds”: “[P]lastic water bottles, old lids, / monofilament fishing lines, and rubber / condoms assault a natural shoreline // with the insults of our ugliest din awash / at the edge of nature’s high-water mark.” Her poetry reminds us there is precious little on this planet that hasn’t been impacted by the actions of human beings.
Carney continues her meditation by centering her poems on what she sees (and invites us to see) on her kayaking trips: damselflies, dragonflies, box and snapping turtles, fishes, loons, black bears, beavers, otters, water lilies, stands of pine, granite rock faces, the water rippling under her skimming paddle. While the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage wilderness is beautiful, the rule of predator and prey is the natural order of the wild. In “Wildly Away,” Carney is not paddling through an Edenic paradise where nothing is hunted, eaten, or killed: “Prey adapts, produces offspring prodigiously. / Rabbit and field mouse use summer warm / to oven so many litters, hiding, camouflaged.”
The strengths of Carney’s collection are her fine sensory imagery and her ability to transport the reader, so it feels like you are traveling along the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in a kayak as well. For anyone who is rejuvenated and renewed by retreating into nature, Carney’s poetry will wash over you, leaving you feeling like a smooth, water-worn pebble resting in a placid stream-bed, illumined by sun.
Mary Riley is a graduate of Beloit College and lives in Richmond, Virginia. Her poems have appeared in the anthology Amethyst and Agate: Poems of Lake Superior (eds. James Perlman et al., Holy Cow! Press, 2015), Blueline, From The Depths (Haunted Waters Press), Stoneboat Literary Journal, and Lingering in the Margins: A River City Poets Anthology (eds. Joanna S. Lee et al., Chop Suey Books Press, 2019).