Zurlo Reviews Meek's Biogeography

Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989-91), associate professor of English, rhetoric and writing at Berry College, has been awarded the largest book-publication prize for poetry in the United States for her third collection of poems, Biogeography. The Dorset Prize consists of a $10,000 cash for the author and a guarantee of national and international distribution for the winning entry. Biogeography was released by Tupelo Press in spring 2008.

Over the years Sandra has published in many of the poetry magazines, including Poetry, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, Shenandoah, The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. Twice, she has been recognized with the Georgia Author of the Year Award for poetry by the Georgia Writers Association, first for Nomadic Foundations (2003) and later for Burn (2006).

Her new book is reviewed by Tony Zurlo, (Nigeria 1964-65) a poet and long time supporter and reviewer for Peace Corps Writers.

by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989-91)
Dorset, VT: Tupelo Press, 2008.

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964-65)

Sandra Meek’s first book of poems, Nomadic Foundations, won the 2003 Peace Corps Writers Award for Poetry and the Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry. She is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee. And her most recent book, Biogeography, won the $10,000 Dorset Prize for poetry.

So, everyone should read this new book, right? If you’re ready for an intellectually challenging, time-consuming project, definitely. But beware, Biogeography is not for the meek (pun semi-intended). These poems are complex, often shifting from images of car wrecks to gray and cloudy landscapes.

Biogeography reminds me that humans stubbornly cling to our belief that we are the center of  creation. Meek provides powerful images of the our struggle for identity and meaning, but images that inevitably litter the environment with our material wreckage.

Several excellent poems portray this bewildering mystery of life and death. Comparing her own fate in a car wreck to that of a friend’s mother who lies in a coma, the narrator says: “What sound does the soul make / leaving the body? And how distinguish it / from the machine’s pump and sigh, from steel / crashing against steel? But we walked // away from our wreck, days before the call / that she’d been hit….” (“Coma”).

One of my favorites is “Passage,” about the narrator’s plane landing in Port au Prince, Haiti, for refueling. It contains all of the best qualities of her poetry: precise description, the beauty of the natural environment, human exploitation of the land, and the surreal quality of her visit. Protected inside “our aluminum skin we can /rise over the forest to view / that tattered green.” As they depart, the island “blurred below.” The narrator sees only

the blindfold of shadow
flickering like a raven flying just below

the island’s skin, a root ripped up in one
fluid motion so the black soil hidden deep

below this exhaustion, overturned,
briefly rises, then Haiti

is swallowed again, sealed
by a roof of clouds which clears to a chain

of unnamed islands, earth’s knobbed spine,
knuckles of white sand, stranded.

Some of the poetry is complicated by references to essays from scholarly writings with difficult technical terminology. “Camera Obscura” is a poem “made up of words and phrases from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’.”

Another poem, “Idolum Naturae Magnum: A Meditation,” according to Meek, “is made entirely of words and phrases from John B. Gorman’s Philosophy of Animated Existence, or, Sketchs of Living Physics with Discussions Physiology Philosophical, to Which is Added a Brief Medical Account of the Middle Regions of Georgia.

Sandra Meek is not an easy poet to read. Be prepared for a serious meditation on the relationship between the neutral world of geology and people’s struggle to survive in this changing world. Like most complicated writings, the rewards for sticking to the reading is high. There are moments of immediate insight. The last poem “The Supposed Degeneracy of Animated Nature in America” in many ways points to a major theme: natural change is the way of the world, and humans are just a one small part of this world.

Tony’s poetry and fiction have appeared in more than one hundred print and online journals. His newest publications include fourteen poems in the anthology In These Latitudes: Ten Contemporary Poets, ed. Robert Bonazzi, Wings Press, 2008; a short story “Marco’s Marcoroni” in the anthology, Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana, Fordham U P, 2008; and a book  of poems about China titled The Mind Dancing, Plain View Press, 2009, with calligraphy and art by his wife, Vivian Lu.

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