Each day before I begin to write, I try to read something, anything, that inspires me. Lately, I’ve been turning more and more often to poetry, and most recently it’s been Maya Jewell Zeller’s terrific first collection, Rust Fish. I heard her read from the collection at Burning Word festival in Leavenworth, Washington in May, and ever since then, I’ve been hooked. I want to say entranced, but it’s nothing that otherworldly or dark. Mostly, I’ve been charmed.
Rust Fish is a coming-of-age collection, more or less, and part of what Zeller does so well is conjure childhood without a hint of romanticism or regret or even ruefulness. There’s real childhood friendship (“The World at Eleven”) and real childhood meanness (“Revenge” “Serape”). There’s the chalky mouthful of powdered milk I remember so well, and there’s a sweet lullaby sung to a beloved stuffed snake, despised by her mother. Then there’s G.I. Joe come to life (my favorite line in the book: “GI Joe loved lambsweed with warm government cheese”) then GI receiving the mutilation treatment we’ve so often seen Barbie endure (“Sibling Rivalry”).
Through it all, the natural world – a distinctly Pacific Northwest version – weaves into and out of the poems the way, on the west slope of the Cascades, blackberry vines choke rotting barns. There’s skunk cabbage and balsam root and thistle, cedar and salmon and smelt, and lest you think things might stray into too-pretty description or green forest cliché, there’s the flood strewn bloated cow carcass thrown in for good measure.
Zeller’s voice is straightforward and plainly feminist (remember the treatment GI Joe got?) and unyielding without turning belligerent. She doesn’t so much confront class issues as inhabit them. Her parents owned both a tavern and a tow truck. In the last section, her poem “For a Student Come Back from the Quiet Beyond” culminates in a wrenching set of lines: “She is the student who made me cry the most./ She loves her job at a dry-cleaner’s/ where the chemicals give her hives/but her boss says she’s the best employee he’s ever had.”
Of all the aspects of Zeller’s poetry that I admire, her humility stands out the most. She’s as eager to point out irony as anyone – the new Jack in the Box on the road to Olympic National Park, say – but when she does it, with all her earnest understated passion, guess who’s in the drive thru line?
If you’re looking for inspiration, pick up Rust Fish.