Beyond Bulrush by Jeannie E. Roberts

Beyond Bulrush by Jeannie E. Roberts. Lit Fest Press, 2015.

Reviewed by Tori Grant Welhouse

In Jeannie E. Roberts’s recent collection of poetry by Lit Fest Press, the phrase that is the book’s title “beyond bulrush” doesn’t appear until the last section, organized around NATURAL ORBITS, in a poem called “Tomboy”:

Steeped
in summer
feet ooze
sink
with sunset
roam barefoot
beyond bulrush

The poems in the collection are “beyond” in multitudinous ways, in the sense of the farther side of, or outside the understanding of. “Bulrush” is both distinctly Wisconsin, a wetland grass-like plant in the sedge family, often called cattail, and symbolic. In the Book of Exodus, the baby Moses was found in a boat made of bulrushes.

Roberts, “in the fall of [her] life,” is at an age when the past, future and present blur. She wonders, and she is full of wonder. She is of the north woods and more than the north woods. “I see near the Chippewa’s edge, stand my ground / Holding the bounty of another season about to unfold.”

The “bounty” she names is nature, what she holds, what her boat is made of:

[i]t’s the swoop
of an owl, the pitch
of its howl, in spring,
it’s the high wire coos
on a walk where you choose
to love the life that you lead.

The poems feature tree frogs, barred owls, pomes, wood thrushes, lily of the valley and fiddleheads. All are images she “holds,” her interior landscape somehow reflecting the outer:

Whatever
the urge, clearly
she liked to collect,

to gather, as she did
fossils, four-leaf
clovers, rocks
and, later in life,
men, especially
the fallen ones.

The middle section, DIMMER SWITCH, contains more solemn poems, recounting loss and heartache, when “[d]eath played dominoes.” Still, Roberts ponders this interior/exterior landscape, choosing what to add or subtract:

And what
have you learned
from your crouch
and camouflage
this graying
heaviness?

Many of the poems in Beyond Bulrush are “skinny” poems, riffs down the page full of wit and craft, with a playful use of language.

Feeling lyrical
and light, robins
strived for flight
but staggered,
stumbled

alliterated the lawn
in laggard lines
of loaded stanza.

And robins
wrote poems.

Roberts’ poems are tight and spare, and the temptation is to read the collection quickly. I recommend re-reading, because the poems in Beyond Bulrush are quietly thrilling, each one a bursting forth, with Roberts “unshack[ing] from shell.”

In fact, after reading (and rereading) the collection, I feel a little like a “tomboy” myself, stomping home from a ramble in the woods on a new spring day, with the river rising and the birds rustling, my boots wet and my nose chilled, so ecstatic that I found something I didn’t expect to find.