Knowing the Terrain

Emily Jaeger
| Reviews


And so the black-faced vultures flew.
They flew in circles high, and higher,
and so I knew you were there, made new
somewhere near, changed, under a changing sky.

In this striking image, the circling vultures, rather than signifying a dead body, mark the spot of one who has been changed, made new. In each of the four sections in Believe What You Can, Harshman readdresses the effects of change. He moves from a sense of loss to an acknowledgment of the divine mystery of the unknown. In the final poem, “No Questions,” Harshman completes the cycle of acceptance of the unknown with his recollection of a meadow in the rain: “And just here becomes the only place / I know where time surrenders to itself / and reverses what I think I know.”
While the poetry in this book is conceptually complex and replete with striking imagery, especially from the natural world, Harshman’s style is consistently gentle. What is sometimes missing is a full range of register, the raw moments to confront death in plain-speak. There are lost opportunities to take risks or even just ramp up the irony of the kind we feel in James Wright’s portrayal of West Virginia, “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned,” where he concludes sharply,

…the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores:
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.
And nobody would commit suicide, only
To find beyond death
Bridgeport, Ohio.

Harshman begins his collection with a Siberian quote: “If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories, you may be lost in life.” The witnessing in this work is crucial, and not only to preserve Appalachian heritage. Harshman’s tender stories and portraits in Believe What You Can serve as a guide to navigate change, to approach the winding forest between birth and death with a sense of wonder rather than loss.


Writing between two worlds. Yehoshua November’s second book, Two Worlds Exist, and its title poem, begin by setting up that dichotomy. It is tempting to take November’s title at face value and search for these exact two worlds in the rest of the book. However, as November’s poems unfold with intimate portrayals of childhood, courtship, a family life steeped in Chassidic Jewish tradition, and a career in teaching, it becomes clear that November’s title refers to multiple dichotomies that create the driving tensions of the book. The divisions between secular culture (poetry, literature) and Jewish tradition (liturgy, ritual), interactions with God and interactions with mankind, and the mystical spheres of heaven and life on earth are all cardinal directions on a greater compass, imbuing November’s personal recollections with conceptual weight.

Emily Jaeger is the author of the chapbook The Evolution of Parasites (Sibling Rivalry Press) illustrated by Robin Levine. Her poems have appeared in Four Way ReviewTriQuarterly, and The Offing among others. After completing her MFA at UMass Boston, Emily will be the 2017/2018 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Poetry at Colgate University. She has also received fellowships from Literary Lambda, TENT, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize.

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