Review by Melissa Reeser Poulin
Kristin Berger’s newest collection of poems is a storm moving across the desert: expansive, quick moving, and deeply satisfying. In these technology-paced days when it’s hard to hear the inner voice, the poetry world is in need of work like this, connecting our oldest human stories—love and its loss, heartbreak and the rebuilding of hope—with purposeful grounding in the natural world. Echolocation picks up where modern naturalists like Mary Oliver leave off: rooted in a particular place, yet casting a net into further territory.
“Let’s work this out in the dark,” the title poem suggests. It’s a suggestive line, and it’s meant to be. This is the story of a romantic relationship impeded and dissolving, and the impact of emotion on the body. With each turn of the page, the speaker in these poems traces the familiar shape of a mate, using rhythm and sound to locate herself in the wake of his absence. These are poems about the electric undercurrent of relationship in all its forms: with the land, with the small pleasures of living, and with the beloved.
“I can talk about it any way I want,” Berger writes in “After Reading Sharon Olds,” and it’s as if, with each poem, we can feel the determination of a gifted poet to set down lines that are as close to the truth—to the poet’s particular truth—as possible. Any writer worth their salt understands the difficulty of writing sex well: it’s easy for language to turn either sentimental or crass. There’s a balance to strike, and Echolocation does so by maintaining a sense of humor, of humility, and by remaining rooted in the plant and animal world of the speaker’s own backyard.
Berger leads us through the forests, mountains, and deserts of the Pacific Northwest with the keen eye and easy intimacy of a local. From “the gossip of starlings in the firs, of ripe figs/ and porch-slant” in a suburban neighborhood to “the silent, snaking Deschutes. Sagebrush” of the open Oregon desert, Berger situates herself firmly in a known place. In echolocation, animals use objects to locate themselves in dark, unfamiliar places. In these poems, natural images serve as landmarks for the speaker to orient herself in space, as she charts her course of discovery.
Echolocation is a quiet tour-de-force, written, revised and published in the span of a year. It is a surrender to the narrative arc of a love story, and the speaker’s determination not to lose of that story what is hers to keep: the beautiful slow moments in the natural world, of the natural world, that belong to no one and to everyone because they are human. “The heart wants one good panorama with no power lines,” Berger writes toward the end of the collection, a wry comment on the modern world’s intrusion into beauty, stillness, connection. Consider this book that panorama. Echolocation leads your heart toward a vista most of us know well—heartbreak. But, oh, what a view.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 1.
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