Asheville, NC: MadHat Press, 2017. 62 pages. $14.95.
In addition to the halls of academia expected of the modern writer, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke has also worked in fields and factories, places that find their way into her latest collection, Burn. Hedge Coke is of Huron, Metis, French Canadian, Portuguese, English, Irish, Scot, and mixed Southeastern Native descent. She frequently records the plight of those whose suffering society ignores, and the natural and unnatural factors that tear indigenous populations apart. Opening on a “Cattle carcass still steaming,” Hedge Coke’s poetry collection Burn is a highly visual chronicle of destruction and what survives. And yet even seeing is susceptible to the blaze. If there’s anything we learn from Burn, it’s that fire singes everything in the end.
Burn cleaves to the visible in that it foregrounds the sphere of sight and includes evocative illustrations by Chickasaw artist Dustin Illetewahke Mater. This collaboration provides a visual dialogue between two artists keen on capturing the indigenous experience poetically. Mater’s images seem to evolve naturally from Hedge Coke’s word pictures. For instance, Mater’s pictorial counterpoint flanks Hedge Coke’s words: “Hot metal searing Dad’s eye, / soldering pipe flash / into sclera surrounding insight.” In the illustration, next to the man’s seared eye lightning rods or sun rays smolder, or perhaps some half-enchanted mixture of the two—lightning rays or sun rods. The legacy of being burned, Hedge Coke and Mater seem to say, is a sort of sunny, stormy third eye.
We understand the drawing is and isn’t of “Dad.” It also represents all the people burned and the sociopolitical systems that ignore it because the “Population [is] too sparse here for national concern.” Hedge Coke’s book is not only about the fires charring the land; it’s also about the lives of those who are charred. She zooms in on a more personal aspect of conflagration, the tragic burning at the root of her own family tale. She writes of her “brother / burning new construction insulation, for the thrill of it; at eight, ‘Pyromania,’ / they said, but never mentioned when he self-immolated at eleven.”
At the same time, she zooms out to the larger societal implications of the literal and figurative fire whose genealogy she traces. She catalogues “People unable to move through it . . . like the mother / whose kids shared our / school. One tied to the couch and burned alive after Demerol.” Here fire is a metaphor for the paralysis of those who fall between the cracks of “national concern.” Hedge Coke’s portrayal of both the individual and communal outcomes of these fires makes the devastation all the more palpable; it allows us to envision real people getting hurt and also to see that there are so very many of them.
Hedge Coke’s poetics reflect the conflict she records and revisits throughout the collection. Indeed, stylistically, she seeks to take mimesis a step further by forcing you to feel her lilting words of suffering on your tongue as you sound them out. Lines about anguished cattle, such as, “Black Angus, aoudad, pronghorns torched up / like marshmallow roasts, giving tongue / lapped licks on lips curled,” singe your mouth as it tries to “give tongue” to them.
Hedge Coke forces the tongue to trip as it pronounces her poetry: “the quickened confluence / beating away anything substantial / to vehicle flow, with amorous / waves rolling wide, gyrating revolve, pushing, turning twist.” She employs her poetic technique to bypass plot summary (there was a fire) in favor of burning her readers’ tongues as they read. Thus, in addition to capturing the paralysis of the victims of these fires, she also channels an erotics of turbulence that often accompanies destruction.
Yet this rendering of turbulence is not enough, or so says Hedge Coke. She writes that, “nothing matches life.” Her poetry reminds its readers the real thing will always burn its representation into the ground. Nature will always win out, the “largest wildfires in colonial / history, both heated harder, spreading / further than pictured.” These fires burn past her pages every time, Hedge Coke seems to say, and all she can do is bear witness. But this bearing witness is a magnificent act that can preserve in words even that which was burned.