From the opening image of Zara Raab’s collection Swimming the Eel, one is filled with a sense of awe at the conviction with which the poetry finds itself rooted in the past:
The furrowed earth turned, sown to bluestem wheatgrass, the roots mined six feet down in pantaloons of soil along the river rock
Like the wheatgrass, Raab’s poetry finds its roots deep in the traditions of the American Southwest. Following various Native American tribes, early settlers, and city-dwellers striking Westward, Swimming the Eel seeks to bring definition to a broad swath of a deeply troubled and troubling chapter of American history. Sweeping as it is in its project and told from various perspectives by various subjects, Raab’s collection offers an honest and intimate collage of the not always picturesque origins of the American West.
Following its various inhabitants from settlement to the present day, Swimming the Eel constructs numerous portraits of life out West. Part of the appeal of Raab’s collection is the invocation, rather than celebration, of the natural landscape for which the West is known. Though many poets find inspiration in images of a pastoral America that is almost entirely a relic, most forget the abject and constant suffering in the early days of American settlement. Instead of indulging the reader in postcard vistas, Raab prefers the sublimity of a reverence for the land that is understated and incidental to the landscape and the lives it sustains. Raab pays particular attention to the sights, sounds and colors of the quotidian; in "Fishing for Eel among the Athapaskans," salmon arrive throughout the summer months in “hues of tangerine, almond, apricot and silver,” articulating a beauty that is at once magnificent and entirely ordinary. Throughout Swimming the Eel, one wonders whether these breaks in the daily chores enable Raab’s speakers to seize upon a moment of wonder, or whether the wonder is in the constancy of the chores themselves.
Raab’s subject matter always alludes to the strife of the American West, preferring to show the localized effects of the hardness of the country instead of sweeping overtures. As a result, most of the poems in the collection are an intimate look at life (and lives) spent digging into the hard ground. Just how much of Raab’s vision is of “memories lost” is difficult to say. The dates which preface many of the poems signal a return to the relative wilderness of the American West in the late 19th century. In "Stitch," set in Bear Creek in 1880, an unnamed speaker talks of following “the thread/ to the time of Ice,” and seeing “lying in embers/ of straggling fir,/ a slender bone,/ pierced at one end, severed/ from the foreleg of/ an arctic fox or/ the red doe’s pelvis.” Raab’s constant redrawing of temporal lines leads the contemporary reader across boundaries of civilization to a time where time itself was largely irrelevant. Immersed in the arts of sewing and hunting, a distinct sense of timelessness settles over the images of Native tribal activity, and one sees a world at peace with the endless struggle for survival.
As the collection progresses, so too do the time periods in which Raab situates her poetry. The third part brings the collection to the present day, offering a look at the American southwest in the 21st century. What is striking is how little the subject matter and imagery changes across the collection. In the final poem, an old woman is described retracing her “steps along paths she must have known,” and one senses Raab’s impulse to return the collection to the “furrowed earth” of the beginning, tracing one’s path back to the river rock that belies all experience. Reading this collection, I often found myself wishing Raab had injected more contemporary idiosyncrasies into the third part of the collection to accentuate the cultural dissonance between the old and new West. Still, it might be the lasting point of Raab’s collection that despite the progression of time, there are people, practices, and ways of looking at the human experience which will survive unchanged.