Review by Noah Davis
In Chris Dombrowski’s latest poetry collection, Ragged Anthem, the poet asks America what song it now sings, examining the raw issues of towns staggering toward extinction, places where the flag was once stitched in factories before being drawn up the pole at the town square. Wrapped in these broader questions, however, is the pressing matter of who we return to, who we share our bed with, our home with. For this reason many of the poems include the poet’s wife and children, and in their faces the nation’s troubles and concerns are reflected.
While writing this book Dombrowski lived in two places: his birth state of Michigan and his long-adopted home of Montana, both are in regions where neglect created the ache of fear and obsolescence in the citizenry.
In his poem, “Bull Elk in October River,” the reader listens to his confession
My own worry
remained vague though it tracked me
through winter, constant as current, though I had no name
for it, perhaps because I had no name for it.
Without the ability to name the thing that stalks him, the poet is left as prey, taking to the banks of rivers, to the brush country of upland Montana, to the pressures of debt and parenthood and the possibility of failure.
While many of the narratives in the book are firmly situated in the human world, Dombrowski—a renowned fly-fishing guide who lives deliberately in concert with the natural world—argues that the primacy of natural selection, the predator-prey relationship is the very foundation of our existence, although most contemporary humans willfully ignore it or are simply ignorant of it.
The poet not only suggests that fear is a natural reaction, a healthy response that keeps us and so many other species alive, but that we may also find balance, an ever-shifting center, in this very space. The closing lines of the poem “Bird in My Boot” highlights the need for humans to remember our most basic selves:
masked eyes looking past
my human to the one that aches to survive—
it lit ultimately in a blur of gray-orange,
leaving its mark to billow as it disappeared
into that country owned by the winged,
upon whose constant intercession I depend.
Living in the shifting world of climate change, an alteration of the natural cycles that has sent much of the world into a state of anxiety and shock, Dombrowski replies to the question of “What will come next?” through his children. Whether it be the empathy his son displays toward a pheasant the family plans to eat: “I’m sorry. But as a runner I cannot cut the legs / from another animal”, or his youngest daughter saying the word “moon” for the first time as they walk together, alone on the shores of Lake Michigan, it is the possible intimacy with other humans and the more-than-human world, the possible transformations that such intimacy might provide, that offers a negotiated hope for the poet.
Despite his deep devotion to nature, Dombrowski does not ignore human culture. An array of contemporary musicians, including Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and Jeffrey Foucault, make appearances in person or in quoted lyrics. This dialogue with popular music creates an intertextual conversation that ranges from the poet sending a text to his friend Jeffrey Foucault as he hunts snow geese, to the borrowing of Bruce Cockburn’s arresting line, “Like a pearl in a sea of liquid jade,” as a title to introduce Christ walking on water.
The closing poem, “Tablet,” is one of instruction and direction, affirming a path toward wholeness and transcendence. Yet the transcendence of which the poet speaks is not a leaving of the material world but a further immersion into it. “[R]est your cheek on the shoulder of the mountain,” the poet says. Go and pick the last apple from a tree near the river and “eat it in three / juice-spilling bites.” Like a Bitterroot Mountain Moses, the poet has come down from the mountains and written a series of commands on a tablet. But rather than a collection of prohibitions, Dombrowski encourages his reader to embrace the sumptuous bounty of this world: to catch a brook trout and cook and eat it, to feed the few remains to the ants, to climb “into / the small boat of those remaining bones, / fold yourself. Then row.”
Wayne State University Press, 2019. $16.99, 67 pages.