Our Bearings: poems by Molly McGlennen; reviewed by Laurence Carr

Molly McGlennen is an Ojibwe poet who brings a powerful awareness to her new collection of poems, Our Bearings, published by University of Arizona Press. She mixes past and present images from her ancestry, family and from nature along with her 21st century political viewpoint to create a poignant collage/conversation. Readers may come to feel that many of these poems are stories being shared around the kitchen table or around a campfire and told just for us. Ojibwe scholar Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark says in the books’s opening, “Stories lie in wait, ready . . . to guide us in our interactions with one another.”

Ms. McGlennen writes: “It is not my intention to ‘give voice’ to the silenced voices of the city, nor is it my intention to record ‘hidden Native life’—for there is no such thing. Rather, those voices and records have always been there and have never been silent. It is up to all of us to seek them out and listen.”

The volume is divided into four sections: Earth, Air, Water, Fire, each with its own themes and dynamics. Ms. McGlennen is not creating a series of nature poems, although the natural world comes into play in many of the pieces. The four natural elements are used as jumping off points to focus upon a wide range of ideas and images that address culture, politics and the environment as seem through the eyes of an astute 21st century poet-activist.

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I was drawn not only to the content of the poems but to the ways that the poet arranges the lines on the page. Many of the poems scatter the lines and break them in ways that follow their emotional flow rather than a tighter literary form. And through this, the reader can understand not only the literal meaning of the poems but can engage with the poems’ deeper more visceral content.

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The first section, “Earth,” is not a set of eco-poems about our natural surroundings. The word “earth” seems to be used to ground us and to begin the journey on which Ms. McGlennen takes us. There are two metaphorical sub-titles here, “Footbridge” and “Bearings”; the openings of the first poems state facts, speaking about the city of Minneapolis, where much of the book is centered. (It should be noted that the book was written before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. However, the strong political dynamic of book is always present.)

Footbridge I

“Skyway system links building
after building—
eighty full city blocks, they say, over

eleven miles of the mini-apple.”

Soon after, the poet begins to layer into deeper thoughts. Many of the lines bring up current political arguments, difficult to side-step during this time of pandemic, racial injustice and economic inequality. There are two references to John C. Calhoun, whose pro-slavery stand in the 19th century still echoes throughout our land. I was taken by lines that surface, don’t shout at us, but hold power. Phrases such as:

“Antecedents matter…”

And a final stanza in Footbridge III

“The signposts are everywhere.
They dot trails, headlines, news tickers.

Live feed says We are lost again.”

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Ms. McGlennen can move the reader in different emotional directions much as she can transport us through earth’s natural elements. In the second part of “Earth,” she creates four poems under the title “Bearings.” More personal pieces are offered here, beginning with a memoir-poem about family (Bearings II): about playing cards with cousins and grandma while awaiting her daughters (the poet’s “aunties”) to come home after a day working construction. We’re brought to strong images of the laborer (both female and male) and the cultural yet universal conflicts that arise from their jobs. I found these long-line prose poems some of the most powerful in the book with intimate detail that comes from the heart.

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The second section is titled “Air,” brings a found poem (“Keeping Tabs”), scattered line poems, longer line memoir poems and short, broken-line pieces. Again, we’re invited into the poems through the word arrangement on the page. Our physical eye sees the poem first then the mind’s eye reads the text. The energy of each poem is created by both its structure and its content, bringing a wholeness to the book.

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The third section, “Water” is made up of “Snake River (I-IV)” and “Carouse (I-IV)” with two segue poems in between. The poet begins with images of the natural world then merges her ideas to layer the poems with ecological and political nuances. Throughout the book, Ms. McGlennen interweaves the personal, the political and the mythic. With a sprinkling of our pop culture. She continues to show our inner world as well as our relation to the cosmos, and leads us to the realization that these “worlds” are mirror images, connected from the same greater source.

In “Carouse III” the poet again offers a longer prose poem, a family memoir both moving and insightful.

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In the last section “Fire”, the sections “Bonfire I-IV” and “Remains I-IV” unfold with two odes and the single “Remantant” as connecting poems. “Ode to Prince,” another prose-poem threnody about the Minneapolis music icon, remains a favorite for me and is perhaps even more timey now.

Quoting from the poem: “When asked by west and east coast media folks why he didn’t permanently move to Los Angeles or Manhattan, he said, “I will always live in Minneapolis. It’s so cold, it keeps the bad people out.”

I felt a pang of sadness when I read this. If only Prince were alive today to write about Minneapolis and our country’s fractured soul.

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I found that Our Bearings continued to bring up ideas and feelings about loss. The book didn’t make me feel depressed. Not at all. But as I kept reading, I felt a continuous melancholy and the underlying anger when loss settles in for the long-term. When a poet sees the land she once knew changed, and for her Native-American cultures that have lived with loss, individually and collectively since the late 15th century. The book addresses grief, in both subtle and overt ways. But only when grief is identified and not hidden away can hope begin to emerge. Through these stories, set down as poems we’re given the connections with our greater ecosystem, with past and present, and possibly our future. And to read an excellent essay on her thoughts on teaching the writing of poetry, please look at Reflecting Pool: Poets and the Creative Process, published by Codhill Press.

I’ll give the final word to poet Molly McGlennen:

“Poetry and the experience of poetry mobilize a potential to affirm our lives and the ways in which we narrate them, in embodied and healing gestures . . .This is a lighted pathway we actively create each time we step out, broken or not, into the world.”

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Molly McGlennen

Molly McGlennen was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is of Anishinaabe and European descent.  Currently, she is an Associate Professor of English and Native American Studies at Vassar College, where she serves as the Director of the American Studies Program.  She earned a PhD in Native American Studies from University of California, Davis and an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College.  Her creative writing and scholarship have been published widely.  McGlennen is the author of two collections of poetry: Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits, published by Salt’s award-winning Earthworks Series of Indigenous writers, and Our Bearings, published by the University of Arizona’s distinguished Sun Tracks series.  McGlennen also authored a critical monograph Creative Alliances: The Transnational Designs of Indigenous Women’s Poetry from the University of Oklahoma Press, which earned the Beatrice Medicine Award for outstanding scholarship in American Indian Literature.  

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