Are we not fated in life? Or can we escape a predestined path and make our own choices—our own choices toward happiness, toward prosperity, toward love? Such is the balance of Shana Youngdahl’s latest collection of poems, History, Advice, And Other Half-Truths. The collection challenges the reader to step outside the fairy-tale world of may-all-your-dreams-come-true, drawing upon the realities of ill-fated faces of forgotten history, stripping the façade from marriage, freedom and, yes, love, to show a world many have obviously lived in but not all of us inhabit.
It would be wrong to say Youngdahl’s collection is a ray of sunshine. In fact, let’s get the negative out of the way: History, Advice and Other Half-Truths may not be best read straight through at once. Some of the poems can be, frankly, deflating. But that does not mean the collection is not beautifully composed—at once delicate and stern, offering ample measures of reflection. And since when does poetry or prose need be uplifting to resonate? Does anything top Romeo & Juliet when it comes to sadness? It’s hard to beat two teenagers in forbidden love killing themselves by mistake; and yet Shakespeare’s tale of the Capulet’s and the Montague’s is historically cherished. Not to compare to The Bard, but one can move past the sullen tone of Youngdahl’s collection. Though it might be worth noting that she could have written a poem that ended with “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made for a life of difficulty, rigid boundaries and unshakeable regret,” and it probably could have fit right in.
Youngdahl’s collection is broken into three sections, aptly titled History, Advice, and Other Half-Truths. Each section blends into the next, similar in style and message. Overall, the most consistent section is the first, History. The theme of destiny—and perspective—and whose it is to choose which account is remembered, is evident throughout many of the poems. “Clara Wellington Places an Ad in the Western Papers” is among the finest. Styled as two accounts of a life, one of the promise to come and one of a promise that never did, Youngdahl partly uses text from an actual ad reprinted in the book A History of The Wife, a reminder to the reader: This is not legend, but a life. Where at once the title character is a Sturdy 24 year-old gal from New Hampshire / farm with two calico dresses, a fry pan, coffee pot / prize-winning pies and seeks to open romantic correspondence with / a man in the West with prospect of proposal and marriage, ultimately wanted two wide-brimmed hats and to wear / over-alls while working on the / farm. To escape her / desperate destiny: the dull / widening of her hips.
Several other poems strike a tone in History, again, many zeroing in on the question of destiny, and choice—or the lack thereof.
From “Abigail Sails to the New World and Heads for the Hills”: I rescued the / captain with my hips, and when we landed / they sold me to the natives for six wild turkeys. / My chief taught me new language while we watched / settlers die from the hillsides.
From “Jim Younger is Denied Permission to Wed the Journalist from St. Paul”: If I were a better criminal / I would have never met you, / so I have no regrets. We got lazy. Forgot / smart sheriffs never wait for crimes.
The in media res beginning to “Big Nose Kate Muses about the Freckles on Doc Holiday’s Shoulders” typifies the ability Youngdahl has to immerse the reader immediately in another time, the imagery instant: All men are ugly the first time, / panting through swollen lips, sweat / beading on foreheads. I learned to focus / on ceiling patterns, watermarks, / spider-webs, shadows. I felt nothing / waiting for the clatter of change on the nightstand.
Moving through History, Advice, And Other Half-Truths does remind of an earlier Youngdahl work, Donner: A Passing. Just as in that work she focused entirely on the tragedy of loss and of death, eschewing the other half of that story—the one of survival—in this collection of poems she, too, leans toward the despair so often, like in “Faust Interferes With Our Family.” The day my cousin Margaret tried to drown / the baby, the lake was still and windless may be a powerful start to a poem about the side of life we only think happens somewhere else, but not necessarily one you want to read on a summer’s day.
Just when you get frustrated by that gravitational pull toward negativity, Youngdahl wins you back regardless, turning out lines like I know raising even small words / could unravel the linens of long / sealed secrets. You caught / the message of my silhouette: think / before changing the weight of everything. And then a page later: Moments are only / images licking the back of an eyelid, / notes for your passion play / trickling after a tempest.
In the final section, Other Half-Truths, lies her strongest poem, “Of Nets,” likely excerpted from her chapbook of the same name. Significantly longer than any other poem in this collection, “Of Nets” tells of a woman and a family, of being tied to the past but, one can hope, not bound to it.
Ultimately, there is certainly an element of romanticism on the part of the many heroines of Youngdahl’s poems (and make no mistake there are few heroes); and though in most cases the heroines’ endings are not Hollywood-ones, the reader seems steered to accept the notion that the women did it their way and thus it is just.