A Poet Reads: How Heavy the Breath of God by Sheryl St. Germain

The tropical stays with you, long after you’ve left the tropics

This book, How Heavy the Breath of God, is one I return to again and again for its sense of being simultaneously away while also coming home to oneself.  The poems are arranged in a travel sequence, starting in tropical locations such as Ecuador and Guatemala and ending up back in the southern U.S., in Texas. While not necessarily literal, the arrangement does feel logical. There’s an outward to inward arc to the work as a whole.

How Heavy the Breath of GodHow Heavy the Breath of God by Sheryl St. Germain
My goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

 

Having been to some of the poems’ locales myself, especially Guatemala and Central America, I feel a certain affinity to the work.  I’m impressed by the poet’s ability to convey the sense of heaviness humid air creates, the pressing down of elsewhere-ness found when traveling somewhere far away, particularly when traveling in tropical zones. The long poem “Street Market, Otavalo,” opens with

The first thing you notice is
the air smells different
and you are afraid of the smell

and then the poem goes on, returning over and over again to the smells and images and fear. Which harkens back to the beginning of the Albert Camus epigraph, from Notebooks 1935-1942, used at the beginning of the first section of this book:

What gives value to travel is fear.

There is fear, and fearlessness, and much more, in this volume of poetry. Mostly what is impressive is the willingness to look, see, witness to what otherwise might be passed over, as in this image from “The Shrimp Peelers”:

the hands that do the work
that needs to be done
the moneyless hands, slow
to earn their bloody wage

 

Tropical forest, with sunbeams
stokpic / Pixabay

Travel, and Poetry, are too often Hurried

Something I have always admired about St. Germain’s work is the unhurried sense of her lines. Sometimes her lines outright dawdle, but they dawdle with intent. Contemporary poetry (mine included) can often have an enjambed sense of “hurry-up, see this, hear that” about it, which St. Germain resists.

In the same sense, travelers –sightseers, especially –are too often in a hurry. They’re afraid they will miss something, forego an essential experience. For fear of missing, they risk missing out entirely.

Throughout How Heavy the Breath of God St. Germain resists the impulse to move on — noticing, admitting to wanting to unsee and unknow, but admitting also that one can move only forward. There’s no going back.

“Going Home, New Orleans”

One of my favorite St. Germain poems relies on embracing slowness. It’s found in 2007’s Let It Be a Dark Roux, Autumn House Press. The poem is  “Going Home: New Orleans” and you can find it on the Poetry Foundation website in it’s entirety. It begins:

Some slow evenings when the light hangs late and stubborn in the sky,
gives itself up to darkness slowly and deliberately, slow cloud after slow cloud,
slowness enters me like something familiar,
and it feels like going home.

From there the poem embraces slowness in all occurrences, to finally end:

and the slow dreams and the slow-healing wounds and the slow smoke of it all
slipping out, ballooning into the sky—slow, deliberate, and magnificent.

I was in New Orleans last week, for a short trip, flown in and out in one day. A whirlwind of a trip —  about as opposite the idea of slowness as it is possible to be.

As I looked out the window of the plane taking off near sunrise in Ohio, I thought of St. Germain’s “Going Home, New Orleans” and her “slow cloud after slow cloud” when I saw the fog still low over the Ohio landscape.

Low fog near sunrise in Ohio. Photo: T. M. Adair
Low fog near sunrise in Ohio. Photo: T. M. Adair