The Logan Notebooks by Rebecca Lindenberg
(Center for Literary Publishing, 2014)
reviewed by Stefanie Wortman
In The Logan Notebooks, Rebecca Lindenberg offers poems of careful observation, colored by the particular beauties and idiosyncrasies of the town in Utah where the book is set. This is an elemental poetry, characterized in part by multiple attempts to address subjects like “Birds” and “Trees” and “Mountains.” Lindenberg attends to what is strange about the “usual stuff,” as in “Things Found in a Local Grocery Store”: “pink tomatoes, bagged salad darkening in the corners, pale gelatinous salmon or flaccid little gray shrimp.” Her poems also approach the sublime as in “On a Visit to Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels,” in which the winter solstice offers a sight “Worth the pain in your hand-joints you can only feel in this kind of cold.” In either case, the poems are sensitive to beauty wherever it might be found.
The notebook structure of the collection gives rise to a tension between the forward-movement of narrative—centrally, the story of a relationship growing, failing, and ending—and the constancy of elements like clouds and wind, which Lindenberg names in many varieties, some factual and some imaginative. The book moves from “September” through “A December Wedding” and “One Week in April” to “The End of August.” The cycle of the year and the seasons partakes of both movement and stasis, joining the forward momentum of time with the constants of nature.
In their attention to both the ordinary and the extraordinary, these poems display a classifying impulse, and they often take the form of lists. Lindenberg’s catalogs have a force different from the accumulative poetry that comes out of Whitman. His poems, and others inspired by them, take a view of the world that Elizabeth Bishop might have characterized as everything connected by “‘and’ and ‘and’.” By contrast, Lindenberg’s lists often feel like they’re implicitly connected by “or” and “or.” She seems to search for the best or most representative member of a category. In these prose poems, often modeled on work from the 17th century Japanese text The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, each item in the list comprises a distinct paragraph, a technique that contributes to the feeling that their speaker is holding up and carefully considering each possibility.
Even as she makes these lists, Lindenberg acknowledges that the project of cataloging contains the seeds of its own failure. The entirety of the poem “Impossible Things” is the admission, “It is impossible to be comprehensive.” She also wonders about the judgment implied in putting things into categories. In “Beautiful Things,” she begins with confidence that a certain tree is beautiful, but stumbles when she tries to explain why:
The Tree of Life in our backyard is beautiful because it holds up a swing. No,
because it conceals the pheasants. No, because it drops its leaves in the creek. No,
because you love it. No, because everyone loves it. No, because its origins are a
mystery. No, because it is ours.
She wants to find some justification for including the tree in the list, but ends back at simple assertion: “No, it is not beautiful? O, it is beautiful. It is beautiful.” As she tries to pin down her criteria, Lindenberg also explores the correctness and effectiveness of language itself. These questions are most immediately apparent in “Different Ways of Speaking”: “Our neighbor across the cul-de-sac says something about gays in the military. Only he does not say ‘gays.’ / Our neighbor says something about alcoholism in the Native American community. Only he does not say ‘alcoholism’ or ‘Native American.’” In a book that makes many things parallel, Lindenberg also has to question whether language should be sorted into better and worse, acceptable and unacceptable, as she corrects the neighbor’s discriminatory speech. She holds out the hope that by writing a poem she can get beyond misunderstanding and miscommunication: “Poetry is nobody’s / native language. Or the only one.”
The Logan Notebooks is also a book about place—or about the idea of a place. What makes Logan a part of the West? What makes the West the West? Among Lindenberg’s quiet observations, there is an undercurrent of conflict and violence, and it is telling that her first attempt to define the West looks back to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake: “That was the first time I felt the strange elation of utter rupture, when something happens that is so scary, it is too much to feel.” In one of the poems titled “Mountains,” the landscape rings with gunshot, and though it is likely just some kids shooting for sport
[…] it’s still the sound of a heavy-haunched creature being put down. Or it’s the sound of a
great rural indignation. Or of some dread teenager’s heart backfiring. Or a hundred
schoolchildren turning to see what clicked open the door.
Lindenberg’s is not a poetry of epiphany or clever wordplay. This is not to say there aren’t clever moments—one of her “Things that Lose by Being Written About” is “Being a woman, which is fairly easy as long as no one’s around.” She is just not particularly interested in flash. Instead, she aims to look deeply into what is most familiar. As she writes in another of the variations on “Mountains,” “[…] all I want is to see the same landscape a thousand times and never repeat myself.”