Gatherest defiantly attests to intimacy and our binding humanness amidst an alienating present. In three elegant poems, brushes with contemporary violence are met with meditations on kinship and communication alongside coursing reflections on the elemental foundations that borne and ground our existence. “Daughter,” she addresses, “people are not bad / not evil / people want to be like water / and go where currents send them.” Both candid and hopeful, Steensen stares down modern anxieties, embraces vulnerability and presents empathy as an antidote to pervasive chaos.
“To not deny the heart, to not deny the head, to not deny the bewildering thread that stitches doubt to faith and ties heaven to earth—such is the work Sasha Steensen gathers to herself in this necessary and beautiful book, where the poems announce themselves as their ‘own / kind of worship.’ Somewhere deep in the inward turn toward mind are those worries that reverse our attention back out into the world—not as idea or as ideal, but as the undeniable fact of what exists. Gatherest gathers that loving, needing-to-be-loved, mob of anxious affections into pages where the fundamental elements of life—water and fire, birth and death, plant and animal, grammar and disorder—turn thought’s terror tender. It is one thing to love a book (and this book I do); it’s another thing to realize a book has taught you something about love (and this book has). In these pages, ‘where cogito and coitus meet,’ thinking returns to its ancient, intimate agony—where the one who says I is never alone, but is lovingly occupied by the various forms of care.” —Dan Beachy-Quick
I set my foot down in the hole I dug in darkness so no one would see
I denied you entry
I the laurel tree
If my child is killed by a gun I vow to bring the barrel to the heads of my countrymen
we do not see how we have been
replete with kindness
on this day of lent
we went to empire
over our dead
wreathed with grief
& chardon thistles
we went clothed in an anger that does not let itself go easily
to the barn
where our weapons are
there our heart
shall also be
Acknowledgments for Gatherest: Thank you to the editors of the following journals for publishing some of these poems in earlier versions: Bayou Magazine, The Laurel Review, Omniverse, Dusie and in the anthology The Book of Uncommon Prayer. Martin Corless-Smith published “Waters: A Lenten Poem” as part of his Free Poetry Series. Thank you to Ed Roberson who saw something worth admiring in these poems, and to Janet Holmes for her hard work and careful editorial attention. Thank you to Dan Beachy-Quick; his brilliant suggestions made Gatherest a better book and his friendship and collegiality make me a better human. Thank you to the following dear friends and family for support of various kinds: Kristy Beachy-Quick, Matthew Cooperman, Aby Kaupang, Camille Dungy, Julie Carr, Becky Robinson, and Rob and Gretchen Steensen. This book is offered in gratitude to Gordon, Phoebe, and Greta Hadfield, eternal fires, waters that never run dry.
I was born in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, on April 1st, 1974. A child of back-to-the-land parents, I spent the early part of my life on several acres outside of Garrettsville, Ohio, a small farming town. My early life was spent unwittingly walking in Hart Crane’s footsteps, as he was born in Garrettsville and his permanent residence was listed as his father’s Inn in Chagrin Falls.
After my parents’ back-to-the land experiment ended, we moved to Boulder City, Nevada, a town just outside of Las Vegas that was founded to support the workers who were building Hoover Dam. I attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where I received a BA in History and an MFA in Creative Writing. In 2005, I received my PhD in Poetics from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I wrote a dissertation entitled Wanderings: (Back) Toward a Poetic Historiography. My most important literary influences have been Hart Crane, Susan Howe, Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Bernadette Mayer. I currently direct the Creative Writing Program at Colorado State University where I have been on faculty since 2005.
With Donald Revell and Matthew Cooperman, I serve as a poetry editor for Colorado Review. I have published four chapbooks: The Future of an Illusion (Dos Press); The History of the Human Family (Flying Guillotine Press); Waters: A Lenten Poem (Free Poetry); and Correspondence (with Gordon Hadfield, Handwritten Press) and four books of poetry, including House of Deer, The Method, and A Magic Book, all from Fence Books. Recent work has appeared in Kenyon Review, West Branch, Omniverse, and Dusie. An essay on insomnia, tunnels, poetry and near-death experiences entitled “Openings: Into Our Vertical Cosmos” was published as an online chapbook by Essay Press, and an essay on shame, breast cancer and the 2016 Presidential election is included in Radio, a collection of responses to the election, also published by Essay Press. I live in Fort Collins, Colorado with my husband and two daughters, and I tend a garden, a flock of chickens, a barn cat, a bearded dragon, and two goats.
Gatherest is a book of three long poems. While I wrote these poems separately, over time I began to overhear the conversations the poems were having behind my back. They were speaking of the earth, its elements, its inhabitants.
I wrote the first poem, “Waters: A Lenten Poem,” as a serial poem, writing one section per day over the course of the forty days of Lent in 2012. In many ways, this poem is a meditation on Psalm 42:7: “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterfalls: All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.” I was drawn to the image of one depth calling to another depth, and I was excited by the psalmist’s erotic description of water washing over his or her body.
The dailiness of “Waters: A Lenten poem” demanded that I register several events, some national, some personal. The shooting at Chardon High School, the murder of Trayvon Martin, the GOP’s war on women, the death of Adrienne Rich, my then three-year-old daughter’s severe allergy attack, and several birthdays are mentioned here.
The second poem, “I Couldn’t Stop Watching” was written after the first and last section of Gatherest, but it demanded to appear as an interlude, a place to rest between the water that begins the book and the fire that ends it. This prose poem began as an investigation into the sentence and our attempts to manage it via the sentence diagram. I wanted to know what grammar might teach me about how to tread more lightly, how to better parent my children, how to teach and read and write from a place of deeper generosity.
I wondered if the secret wasn’t so much in what I said, but in how I said it. Grammar instructs and excites me. Like “Waters: A Lenten Poem,” “I Couldn’t Stop Watching” ventures into the erotic—Walt Whitman’s blow-job scene, a consideration of the etymology of hymen, how S.W. Clark’s sentence balloons resemble penises. “I Couldn’t Stop Watching” witnesses my body responding to my first lover, the earth. It is almost an elegy. But the earth answers with fire and water, those elements that cancel one another out in their consummation.
The final poem, “Aflame, it Itself made” was written during the month of June 2012 and revised during the month of June 2013. That first June, fires raged all over the country, but Northern Colorado, in particular, was covered in a blanket of smoke. I woke each day to its heavy haze. One day that month, my parents lost their house in the High Park Fire. As a result, shortly after finishing Waters, I found myself writing about fire. As poetry often knows before we do, I shored up what was needed to rest easy in the heat. I gathered it to me.