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Understory by Paulann Petersen
Understory

John Williams, June 11, 2013

Before even opening Paulann Petersen’s latest collection, Understory, I was greeted with a haunting question: what is an “understory”? My mind raced with potential metaphors, each speaking directly to the core of all Petersen’s works��"the unspoken, natural story writhing silently beneath her words. Her poems have always been a digging and an uncovering. And the words she carefully selects to uncover what lies beneath have always been a celebration of humanity and humanity’s part in the world.

But “understory” has another definition also: an underlying layer of vegetation; specifically: the vegetative layer and especially the trees and shrubs between the forest canopy and the ground cover. What better metaphor for Petersen’s poetry than that which grows between the highest, sky-raking trees and the hard earth below our feet? The one word title, so specific in its literal definition, provides the perfect perspective from which to approach this book��"there will be glimpses of sparkling firmament and black soil, and the creations of our hands and the interpretations of our eyes will be what brings them together.

Featuring a vast array of natural observations and philosophical inquiries all rooted in acceptance and admiration, Understory’s 140 poems can be seen as Petersen’s magnum opus, her love song to the world, a trail of breadcrumbs for the endless external path that leads us ever closer to ourselves.

In “As if Each Breath Were the Last”, Petersen writes:

Each exhalation
is a small seed of sky let go,
headed up��"each outbound breath
less rich in what my blood
gleans from air, more laden with what
my lungs release.

There are outside forces in our lives, I read into this metaphor, that influence how we perceive ourselves. There is an innate unity of the other and the self, as primal and necessary as breath. We take in the world, translate it, experience it, make it our own, and the world is both changed and unchanged by our touch.

But all this, Petersen says, is something:

I have to give away.

Is this a personal statement or a universal rule of our existence? Does she mean a heart that remains open is always returning what it borrows or is it an unalterable state of humankind to be temporary? Further, does this temporariness imply that we end with our last breath or that in the unity of having lived we are in a sense eternal? In just one short poem I was left with beautifully answerable questions, each that speak to the nature of existence.

Although far reaching in its scope, each pondering in Understory is firmly rooted in tactile images and sensual perception. There are lush colors and monochromatic shadows. We are able to pick up each poem with our flesh and blood hands, understand it, and yet in understanding realize we have never been so far from knowing. Petersen’s world is not one of cement roads and concrete pillars. We are placed on a muddy, forested path, vast canopy overhead through which slices of sky illuminate our steps.

The interconnectedness of experience is perfectly captured in the collection’s first poem, “Daily Cosmology”:

A tree names itself Creation, and having done so,
reaches above, yet never breaks
the horizon’s line. Its trunk
makes a vertical road, way for a voyage
of ascent.

Petersen presents us with a self-created world, a self-striving world, capable of independent motivation and action, capable of naming itself. And what it creates is exactly what we endeavor to create��"personal ascension. Both by body and by will, by merely existing and by force of resolve, nature becomes our mirror. Petersen speaks to our core beliefs, fears, and dreams by illustrating them in what we traditionally consider “the other”. And in doing so, Petersen makes a bold, quiet claim: there is no “other”.

Be a leaf, learn
to eat with your skin,
swallow sun’s rankness
wherever it strikes you.

So begins “Synesthesia”, a poem that speaks directly to the reader, pleading without desperation for a greater understanding of what it means to be one part of a greater whole. Yet, each part is necessary. The tapestry is not just outside us nor can it be defined exclusively from the inside. It bends to our will as we bend to its. And in bending together, nothing breaks.

Each poem in Understory is at heart a song. There is a musicality of language and of themes in every line. At times elegiac, at times celebratory, Petersen’s poems shine with an internal light reminiscent of Octavio Paz’ The Tree Within.

In “Exhalation”, Petersen says:

This alphabet, you say,
is spoken in the order
its sounds come from the body.

Petersen’s introspection is dazzlingly complex. The harmony she exposes in the human elements��"body, breath, song, and creation��"are so intertwined with natural elements that it’s impossible to clearly delineate where one begins and ends. Is Petersen implying that nothing really ends? Is she making a subtle case for the arbitrariness of walls? The poems never leave us with easy answers. They are paths we must choose to walk on our own terms, toward whatever destination, and it’s my belief that Petersen seeks less the destination than the journey, less the answers than their questions. In fact, I’d argue, she’s not even demanding of us specific questions but more a change in our thought process. She merely asks us to remain open and inquisitive. She reminds us over and again through her grand embrace of darkness and light that the world is interactive, that it exists without us and for us.

In “Letters Toward the End”, she connects this vast, circular, questioning world to her own writing process:

I could write a hundred messages more
each ending with the same line

It is up to each of us, in reading Understory, to figure out that last line for ourselves.
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