Maybe it’s because we’re in a twelve-hundred year drought and I’m that parched that Kim Shuck’s poems in Exile Heart called to me so clearly. They were wet and fresh and I didn’t understand some of what she was saying in my conscious mind but the rest of me felt right at home and rejuvenated. Kim and I are different kinds of Californians but we both know something about water.
I first heard these poems read aloud and they sounded liquid, even on Zoom. Shuck’s voice has some darkness in it and matter-of-factness — the words flowed by on an irregular but persistent current. In “Frog,” Shuck writes: “Blood a/ contract with water a/ promise in the cells/…Water a gift returned…” She repeats words and phrases, recirculating, catching us up in little eddies and then letting us break away downstream again.
On the page, she ends her lines with articles and prepositions, a thing I can barely stand to watch, which has taught me all through the book something I did not know about tolerating discomfort, about seeing another way to do things and sticking with someone else’s rhythm. I came to love it, especially these lines from “Bilingual”:
…we are water/ Surrounded by water and the road/ Floods at high tide I want to/
See the flooded road be/ Delayed by it watch/ Minnows swimming there the/ Redtail
in a controlled crash into the/ Eucalyptus and water and/ Water and a language/
Borrowed from water.
Born and raised in San Francisco, and its 7th Poet Laureate, Shuck is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and has Polish heritage as well. The river of Route 66 through Oklahoma and the “sacred diners and cafés,” from “Highway,” on its shores appear in these poems, along with the Mississippi, the Neosho, the Truckee, the San Francisco Bay, and Big Water, as she calls the Pacific Ocean. And many bridges. Water carving its way through landscapes and lives, bridges built to connect the shores and move from one side to another. Some water is beautiful and some quotidian, as she writes in “Borrowed Wildfire”: “Next door the/ Unregulated metronome of/ Draining water in a/ PVC pipe…”
Shuck’s political concerns/activism surface in the second and third of the book’s four sections, still fluid and eddying. In “Duet with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act,” she gives us history without leaving the poetry:
Another dancer got his feathers/ Confiscated/ Memory unrolls like an old photo/
Flakey and brittle which/ Dances we couldn’t have and where we/ Couldn’t have them.
I hesitate to say she braids it into her work — word of possible appropriation and word of not enough ferocity — but a sternness begins to emerge in her lines, as in these from “Belief”:
he/Remembers fondly the 1880s when he/Might have sold my head to the state some of us/
Learn to curl up tight to build/Safety out of/Invisibility and some of us/Can’t breathe.
And “In the Walnut Grove”: “That year the wind took the/Topsoil and the children the/Maps all changed…” And “Exile Heart”: “How many generations will the/Exile’s heart be passed/ Gene to gene…”
“I understand myself to be contested space,” says Shuck in “Shhhhh,” taking on the embodiment of all elements, not just water, and including our divides: feminism as well as colonialism, class and race and capacity and gender. At the same time, she doesn’t leave anyone out: “Those cottonmouths know some songs too…” from “Bridges and Crossroads,” and “Everything is a cure for something…” from “Huckleberry.” The straightforwardness of her language provides a fine counterpoint to the complexity of her subject matter. Some of these pages nearly vibrate with that tension.
Exile Heart is so personal and so worldly at the same time, staunch in the face and in the company of paradox. There are poems here that made me weep and poems that comforted. I’m grateful to have had a chance to spend time with Shuck’s work, with her capacious mind. It left me enlarged, changed, listening for a different kind of music.
“Some will think of this as metaphor/Others recognize a feather when they see it,” she says in “Long Road Car.” And in “Parent and Child Cycle”:
This part of the poem isn’t written yet/ We have to write it together.