Black Birds : Blue Horse, An Elegy
Written by Natalie Peeterse
Gold Line Press, 2012
Natalie Peeterse’s first chapbook, Black Birds : Blue Horse, is a poetic sequence, an elegy, dedicated to Nicole Dial, who was gunned down, with three others, in Kabul, Afghanistan, by Taliban fighters. Dial had dedicated her life to helping children, opening schools in Afghanistan as a member of the International Rescue Committee. It is thus proper to commemorate this chapbook to Dial, and to invoke, in two epigraphs, the spirit of Lorca (shamelessly and brutally stolen from us in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War) and of Czeslaw Milosz, that recently late, great poet of witness. Peeterse’s Black Birds : Blue Horse, features the dense surrealist imagery of Lorca and the urgent, intimate sense of purpose of Milosz—however, she also channels the emotional and poetic dexterity of Muriel Rukeyser and June Jordan. The ample spacings mid-line and sudden line-breaks are in keeping with these latter two poets’ similar verse styles. (They, too, are poets of witness). Peeterse’s chapbook is thus historical, raw, context-heavy, and incisive. Her subject is multifold: not just Dial, not just the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, but also the conflicts at home, in Washington, D.C., which partly comprises this sequence in several brief, but intimate (and world-weary) fragments of the speaker’s journey through that city.
The poem opens with Peeterse’s speaker being informed of a young woman’s sudden death. We can assume that the speaker is the poet, her addressee—the dead girl—is Dial. The poet-speaker wakes to gunfire:
One two : three four: then two more :
gunshots. I wake to some kind of tactical
counter-terrorism exercise, or some kind
of national emergency or
the dead body of a girl on the glittering road.
Either way, wind outside. In waves.
The heat blasts on and
off. I roll over and answer the phone : hello?
Dial initiates us into a steady beat of gunshots—which are not unusual for the setting—“tactical / counter-terrorism exercise . . . national emergency”. The familiarity of the sounds, eventually linked to the hot winds outside, indicating summertime, deflates any sense of danger or fear begotten from these “gunshots”. The confusion of the source of sounds—the “gunshots” are not really gunshots—emphasizes the speaker’s disorientation, having just woken from sleep to gunfire-wind-the phone ringing . . . “hello?”
Peeterse, through these opening lines and throughout the rest of the sequence, achieves the feat of incorporating sensory experience into commentary—the dead girl on “the glittering road,” for example, alludes to the nature of the phone call, and the nature of this elegy. This command of sensory presence and commentary (as woven together intimately) extends and culminates at certain points, such as the poem midway through this sequence:
At the equinox of a stranger and the self
day and night are everywhere of equal length, it seems–
and so things are possible
and so precarious the ghetto doors
blown open in the running wind.
Plywood thumps and booms all day here
and all these baby girls–
their voices like swallows. The tiny hinges
of a thousand shoes and precious ankles
move forward : to the windows of our fear.
Press your face to the glass like a girl does
when she can’t sleep : the clap of so many wings.
The first line, “At the equinox . . .”, sounds so much like a line out of Lorca. Things are possible. And is not that the entire statement of this elegy? That things are happening, and can happen, at any moment. In keeping with Rukeyser’s influence (assuming, and hoping, Peeterse has read her), the elegy resembles somewhat one of Rukeyser’s masterworks, Waterlily Fire, about the fiery destruction of one of Monet’s waterlily panels: “Who will not believe a waterlily fire. / Whatever can happen in a city of stone, / What can come to a wall can come to this wall.” As if answering this earlier work, Peeterse’s command, “move forward : to the windows of our fear. . . . when she can’t sleep : the clap of so many wings,” brims with fright and possibility—the voices of swallows, the children (Dial’s purpose in life), the refusal to look away at the window of fear, all call us to look with eyes leveled at the impossible, at our fears, those palpable “thumps and booms.”
Black Birds : Blue Horse is an intimate sequence, that takes great leaps and firmly centers the reader in the immediate experience—Dial’s presence in Afghanistan, the speaker-poet’s mundane walks through D.C. (“Tonight, though, the streets are shiny and unencumbered by your eyes— / slicked over with doubt : that cruel biology of the spirit.”) Peeterse calls us to (peaceful) arms against alienation, against our fears, against turning away, and against silence. “At the equinox of a stranger and the self,” any thing is possible.
Review by Tristan Beach
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