Michelle Bonczek Evory’s Before Fort Clatsop is fascinating contrapuntal poetry that counterpoints uniquely American themes with the universal. Each poem is set within a quilt-like patchwork of contrast that is framed within the universal theme of the quest. The quest is thematic to every culture, and it is engaged in by a hero. It is the stuff of mythological road trips—Odysseus yearning for home, Jason seeking his fleece, Frodo pursuing his ring. It is a staple of American literature—Mark Twain with his Roughing It, John Steinbeck with his Travels with Charley, Jack Kerouac with his On the Road.
The Great Explorers, those questers of the landscape of the Age of Discovery—Columbus, Magellan, Cortez, Pizarro, de Gama, Balboa, Cabot, Raleigh, Winthrop—had one thing in common: they were all males. Within the confines of our traditional western patriarchal culture, even if you were an Isabella or an Elizabeth, even if you were queen with powers of majesty and execution, if you wanted someone to find a new world, sale around it, conquer Mexico or Peru, take a gander at the Pacific or India, found colonies like Roanoke or Massachusetts Bay—you got yourself a man.
Every symbol is a particular that mouths on the universal. Meriwether Lewis and his Expedition are symbols of the male quest—a classic of discovery, of obtaining the goal of Land’s End. Lewis’s viewing of the Pacific is from the terminus of our Manifest Destiny as a nation. But Lewis’s view from Fort Clatsop on the Oregon coast is a male’s view—our national destiny is one of masculinity.
Sacagawea was a Shoshone of Idaho’s Snake River Plain who had been captured as a girl by the Hidatsa, Sioux Indians who sold her to a French trapper in North Dakota. The Expedition for her was not one to Land’s End as it was for Lewis; it was, rather, a returning home to family.
The stories of Lewis and Sacagawea that Michelle Bonczek Evory weaves into her poetic quilt are contrasting patches that recognize the counterpoint femininity plays to masculinity. In Before Fort Clatsop Bonczek Evory creates a valence of male and female that transcends sexual identity and speaks to universal humanity. Whether home is Ithaca or the Snake River Plain, the human emotion, that yearning for return, is in Bonczek Evory’s quilt the same quest for man or woman.
But in the patriarchal western tradition of sky gods throwing male spears of lightning bolts, what exactly is the woman’s quest if not Medea’s cooking up her children in a vengeful stew to serve her Argonaut husband? Our fairy tales of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are nothing but stories of male rescue. Can you envision Jane Austen writing anything that approximates Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream? Is not the quintessential female quester of American Literature our Dorothy of fantasy searching for her home in Kansas?
In Sacagawea, Bonczek Evory has given us a Dorothy in the flesh searching for the Snake River, a woman chosen for her ability to communicate where the men could not. Lewis knew that in order to obtain Balboa’s prize he would have to pass through the landscape of the Shoshone, and that without their help, without Sacagawea’s help, he would fail. It is the woman in Bonczek Evory’s quilt who by her power over language has the ultimate power over male destiny, and because of this the male’s quest for the golden fleece of Land’s End must be intertwined with the woman’s quest for home and family.
The dedication in Bonczek Evory’s chapbook is “for all the brave who venture.” She utilizes the landscape of American history to make deft cross-cultural contrasts between native and American Anglo-Saxon culture. She makes acute observations in Montana bars showing that although culture develops and shifts in time, it remains undergirded by the commonality of basic human emotions. Bonczek Evory’s work is a nuanced pattern of specifics—patches in a poetic quilt that sound in American experience. But there is a universality that underlies the contrapuntal patchwork of journeys she is evoking through culture and time when the quilt is viewed from the distance as a whole.
Her twenty-one poems begin with a patch in the quilt to show us a first ship, pass deftly through patches of native landscapes, burial mounds, bars in Montana, and the foreshadowing of Lewis’s death by suicide or murder. Bonczek Evory stitches in a recognition of the position that American poetry has in the western tradition with five formal “On” poems that nod to Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and Milton’s “On His Blindness.” The quilt resolves itself in the “Love Poem Via Geyser” that suggests that love is both the end and the beginning of our journey, and whether we are male or female, it is our shared life cycle of ankles turned and healed again and of our shared splendor of living in the rain that makes us whole and human. Bonczek Evory’s poems end magnificently in a kiss. And what is a kiss but the ultimate resolution of human experience, that brush of cherry blossoms that drew Basho on the narrow road to the deep north?
–Rich Skalstad: lives in Columbia, Missouri. He recently was awarded the LL.M. degree in dispute resolution at the University of Missouri School of Law School. His most recent publication is Transformative Mediation Twenty Years Later: An Invitation to Discuss Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Legal Ethics in the Concordia Law Review. He is the publisher of Colonus Publishing. He is the author of Fudge Day and Lawyers in Love, the first book in the noir Jones Trilogy. The second book, Charon’s Keep, will be published in 2017.
The poems in Michelle Bonczek Evory’s Before Fort Clatsop embody the melancholic introspection of Meriwether Lewis alongside the bold adventurous spirit of William Clark. The poems drift between the wildest frontiers of nature and the untamed frontiers of the human mind. Yes, “[t]his is a land of edges,” but Bonczek Evory’s poems dwell along these boundaries, blurring them, allowing the world we thought we understood to become new, forcing “our hearts / loosed like husks fallen to earth.”
–Adam Clay, author of Stranger
Like Meriwether Lewis, the nucleus around whom the images in this tight collection orbit, these poems also wander mysterious and varied landscapes: the imagined psyches of Lewis and of Sacajawea, the still seemingly undiscovered American West (including–and I love this–Richard Hugo’s iconic Montana dive bar, Dixon Bar), even the equally mysterious heart of the poet herself. Michelle Bonczek Evory is an intrepid explorer, a seeker of truth inside everything tangible and lusty and Earth-bound–she is a poem, and one whose expansion, and expansiveness, will not be bound.
–Mike Dockins, author of Slouching in the Path of a Comet