Breath In Every Room
By Tami Haaland
Story Line Press. 81 pp. $13.95
The 14th winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, Breath In Every Room is Tami Haalands first collection of poems. Like Eve, Haaland begins her journey by confronting a snake. Originally a symbol of healing, the caduceus, a staff with two snakes wound around it, is still a symbol of the medical profession. While in the Bible, the snake is the tempter who convinces Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, getting her and her mate tossed out of the Garden of Eden, falling from grace. In "Cleaning the Skin," the snake is dead, and the poet is explaining to whats left it, "It wasnt me who / wanted your head / cut off and buried, but / once it was gone everything / fell into place " In "August," the second poem in this book, the snakes head is again severed "from its coiled body," this time using the gardens hoe. After all, its the head that speaks; its the head that promises an education.
Tami Haaland has an MFA from Bennington College, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Montana State University--Billings. From her poems, I learned that she is married, and a mother. Many of the poems that make up the first three sections of Breath In Every Room are on the subject of her ordinary life. They are alert and sensitive, but I also found them punctuated by shallow insights. It is in the last 20 pages, beginning with, "For me, the spirit would is very real," that Haalands gift becomes apparent.
"In the Beginning" retells the story of Audumia, the cosmic cow of the Norse creation story who, "congealed from river water," began to lick the ice "until hair caught / the buds of her tongue, and below it, / the slick forehead of our ancestor." A symbol of the Mother Goddess, most pastoral societies know of the celestial cow whose milk nourishes the gods. Haalands surefooted, if truncated, version of the myth concludes with: "Standing on / the glacier top, we watch Audumia / dissolve its edge below us. Surely / something comes next.
"On the Blackfoot" comes next, in which the ice cracks,
giving way to current, chunks
heaving one over the over,
collecting, then pushing through.
"Stories" is reminiscent of California poet Gary Snyders "this poem is for bear," in which a girl picking blackberries is separated from her friends. Then, "a tall man" takes her by the arm and leads her to his home. "He was a bear." In Haalands version, seen from a womans perspective, "Woman goes to the forest and meets / bear, who invites her to pick berries / deeper in ." Rather than the predatory cast in Snyders poem, this woman is "fascinated" by the bear and follows him out of curiosity, the story itself "walking through her."
Ending her impressive debut with a poem "about the dog curled into old blankets / and cats rattling dishes in the sink," Haaland enjoys family life; however, the seeds of her creative strength germinate in crystals of mythology, and the telling of her dreams.
© Philadelphia Enquirer 2002