The late Adrienne Rich once described her use of received poetic forms as “asbestos gloves” for handling difficult material. In Tacey M. Atsitty’s new collection Rain Scald (University of New Mexico Press), sonnet, sestina, and villanelle surface amid prose poems, columnar incantations, a concrete poem with white space leaking down one side, and textual shapes that play their divisions like percussion. For this poet, the more “academic” forms hold elemental forces (ice, fire, “sand-swollen” water, salvaged nails) and allow them to sing in obsessive repetition. Even the book’s title implies elemental effects on human and animal bodies: “rain scald” is a common bacterial skin condition occurring in horses after rain.
Atsitty is an MFA-trained poet as well as Diné of the Sleep Rock People, born for the Tangle People, and her work exposes the tension between those worlds with courage and care. She does not shy away from her inherited entanglement in the Latter-day Saint faith, with its deeply damaging attempts to “adopt” Native children from the 1940s to the 1990s, or from the radiation exposure and soil contamination resulting from uranium mining on Navajo Nation lands. Material traces of her worlds bump and bruise — the song “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” an extinct Diné healing ceremony — as this poet compresses language to embody each collision on the page.
Atsitty’s sestina, “Razed,” ostensibly about mending a sheep fence, enacts collective memory through wire and bent nails, words taking on their own sharp, twisted life as they repeat and bend again. The poem’s syntax grows less discursive toward its alliterative end, its key word “mend” warped from verb to noun:
Here, I’ve searched for rust and metal, and mended
circles. I’ve taken to metal detectors, to mend
diamond rings, nails, and nickels; all dropped
by someone at some time. The ring settles to wire,
the axed tree dries, is gathered, stacked, and nailed.
Here, I’ve come to listen for the crunch of coral
beneath my boots or chants from dust. I fall
into mend, biting straight these nails,
hammer in hand, I drop in the corral—
All about me is wire, winding down like fall.
The speaker is recalling her father’s voice, “Back before the wind spurred us haywire,” as he tells her where a hogan used to be. She takes a moment to explain her terms — “Posts with their teeth (bent nails)/ are all that’s left when a family leaves corrals” — but lets the poem’s rhyme and repetition do its “winding” work. Her sonnet “When Water Came to Me” is the only case in this collection that seems too attached to end rhyme, so insistent that the repeated line “it eats through my coat hair” loses its bite with “leaves me winterbare.”
Atsitty also makes use of the incantatory phrase, a poetic convention far older than the sonnet or sestina, with roots in both biblical and indigenous traditions. In “To Gorge,” which riffs on the “separation of the sexes” in a Diné creation story, the speaker invokes a woman split from and forced by the male world, all phallus and gun; she interrupts rhyming stanzas with “O wretched hussy!” and “O wretched grease!” The apostrophe becomes a bitter parody, until, in the poem’s last line, woman has her way: “She explodes without them, sulfur and honey.” Other invocations in the book call up inhuman forces (“Come moth madness! Come!”) or collective lament, as in the Jeremiad-sounding, italicized “O the depravity of my people!” This poet’s range in register, even when using similar tropes, is another marker of her likely hard-won skill in navigating several worlds.
Most of all, whether writing in old forms to make them new or laying out her lines in prose, Atsetty knows the force of words and lets the reader in on this lost innocence. In the second part of “His Women,” a line-broken turn of phrase turns nearly deadly:
I knew the word sex; it was private.
On TV, I’d seen long-haired men
point their guitars up and wail, “She’s my cherry
pie.” One morning I found a cherry pie lying
hog-tied on the floor, asleep in her own urine.
I knew he had been a bull rider
but hadn’t known about him calf-roping.
I circled around her into his room.
“That’s Belle,” he answered. “Go fix breakfast
while she sobers up.” I stepped over her
and stood at the stove—pushing fat around—
waiting for the salty smell to drown the house.
Couplets hold this painful scene in place, its fluids threatening to spill. Atsetty’s expert handling of words’ material power, however precariously contained, makes this poem one of the most memorable in the collection. Words repeat and ring against each other throughout the book: “gorge” used as a noun or verb; “explode” bearing Dickinsonian drive and literal death; “rot” and “rust” doing their entropic work; “salt” in bodies, in bread, to be licked by a heifer, or gripped in the fist; and the recurring “grease” or “fat” that eases or erases boundaries, that nourishes, that leaks and spills.
Atsitty’s collection ends with a three-part “Evensong” made of villanelle and two sonnets. In the first poem, the speaker kneels “at the throat of this tree,” invoking its life force along with that of Christian language (“ruth” as noun or name, and “Father”). In the villanelle’s obsessive repetitions, “cut” and “spill” sound most insistently; this speaker finds herself wanting to worship between worlds, which do not hold in place, although the tree — and its poetic form — remains. The central sonnet in this triptych also functions as a water psalm, though the word “bomb” strikes “psalm” with too much force to give the speaker her much-needed “calm” at current’s end. This requires one more poem, a sonnet with a dangling invocation, meant in earnest this time: “O Holy People.” Here the speaker asks to be relieved of her “telestial state,” the lowest degree of heaven in Latter-day Saint cosmology. She is willing to wait. She knows she “fall[s] too easily to shards, a hand/ left to wane ungathered.”
This poet’s skill in holding shards makes Rain Scald an essential addition to the growing gathering of Native stories told in their own words. Amid recent accusations of “reverse” cultural appropriation in works like the Broadway musical Hamilton (a position that misses the power imbalance precluding such a two-way street), and though Atsitty’s use of “white” poetic forms may seem to others like an attempt to “dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools” (Audre Lorde’s still-resonant warning), these poems work as de-colonizing speech.
I will never hear “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” the same way again, or write a villanelle without recalling Atsitty’s cultural interrogations that unsettle that repetitive form. This poet knows several worlds well and moves among them on taut lines of story, song, and prayer. Many of these lines are difficult to forget, in the most literal sense of poetry as memorable language. They preserve a history of cultural and personal loss, of poisoned ground (“It was the water she drank, soaked in tailings”), and of moments of blessing, often in the form of water, too, however fleeting in dry land.
Rain Scald: Poems
Tacey M. Atsitty
University of New Mexico Press