This review originally appeared in Lunchbox Diaries on January 12, 2017.
Red Winters, the first chapbook by Lake Charles-based poet Erica McCreedy, is a condensed and hard-hitting collection that seeks to show a hidden side of Louisiana through both emotion and poetic form, with form and content often informing one another. Explorations of overarching and personal histories, and of nature and death’s place therein, loom very large here; McCreedy, who holds an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing from McNeese State University, knows their places well. She brings formidable poetic knowledge to bear on her subject matter. The first of this pamphlet’s nine poems, “Death and Louisiana,” is a pantoum that muses on the state’s history and traditions. The poem’s opening lines provide abrupt and clear-eyed entry into McCreedy’s home state, showing its veneration of loved ones through long-held tradition: “Death and the dead are never buried here; / we drag their deaths in pied parades and jazz.” That latter line begins the second stanza, making the pantoum form perfect for the subject matter of “Death and Louisiana”; the dead and the lines that describe them are uplifted—unearthed—on the page. More than a conversation between form and content, though, this poem reflects on how that veneration can be drawn out too far: “Sown in hollow homes we raised, they stay. / We keep them with us, locked in stuccoed cells.” Perhaps a lesson here: letting go of physical connections in favor of emotional ones is sometimes wise.
Continuing this deeper look into our surface world, “Under Porch Lights in Baton Rouge” espouses the focusing virtues of loneliness and finding beauty in the unfamiliar. This piece’s narrow lines focus eyes downward on the page, and here too content echoes form: lighting descends, and “moist wood bends above me. The arching cypress patterns roll down the long porch beams.” Absence here creates new presence of mind; though there “are no pines, / no bitter tangs of salt that swell the lungs, / . . . [there is] the thin pulse of downtown lights / beating slow round empty street corners.” McCreedy suggests the formation of new allegiances, enriching the old: “the lonely call of some shapeless barge / scatters and dissolves down the Mississippi – / its wide hull seeking Gulf waters, black and endless, / and pulling the heart’s core to unfamiliar shores.” That final, powerful image informs the whole poem, showing each preceding image to be a thing at work for the narrator’s good will.
The poem “Picking Blackberries with Libby” sees this collection take a darker turn, as the narrator explores the woods behind her house when her father suggests they collect blackberries, “our buckets knocking our knees like armor.” The narrator and her sister forge through the “angry swords” of palmetto plants to get to the prized fruits, and Libby strains against “stars of poison oak / and coiled blades of thorns, for browning berries.” The two find a possum thrown there the previous summer by their father, and when Libby touches it, the skull collapses inward upon itself, mirroring the blackberries’ stain upon her hand. Once again, “the sky descend[s]” on our narrator as she learns of what time does to hidden things. Even the berries themselves are darkened by this epiphany: “And beside, those black fists, fierce black like / slowed blood, / more ripe and sweet among the death and rot, / swelling from absent hands.” For the narrator, these reflections on the macabre help elevate the truly sweet aspects of life, and beauty in the everyday, such as when “The peaks of beaded umbrellas, / rolling in ruffled green and violent ribbon, / fall and rise in restless arcs.”
Erica McCreedy’s Red Winters is a compact, powerful first volume with a low center of gravity: sure to catch you off your guard, it stands steady, rooted in place. That place is Louisiana, and clearer looks at the state are hard to come by in poetry. Wade into these poems, and keep your eyes on the ripples ahead.
Readers can purchase Red Winters at one of McCreedy’s readings or from Yellow Flag Press.
McCreedy, Erica. Red Winters. (Yellow Flag Press, 2015. 22 pages, eyelet bound: $5.00.)
This review was written by Tyler Sheldon, poet and guest writer for Lunchbox Diaries. His work can be found in our very own Tin Lunchbox Review, as well as in various other literary magazines.