Like the Prairie’s Open Hand: Cheryl Unruh’s Walking on Water
Emporia, Kansas writer Cheryl Unruh is known throughout the Midwest as the award-winning author of the Flyover People essay collections (Quincy Press), which demonstrate her eye for humor, fine detail, and lyricism at the sentence level. In Walking on Water, her first collection of poems, Unruh brings these strong qualities to bear in meditations on her home state of Kansas. These explorations of place hinge on Unruh’s understanding of her own place within the state: she negotiates with weather, native fauna, and the encroachment of death upon best laid plans. To all of these actions Unruh brings an adventurer’s eye, and an awareness of Kansas history that deepens her appreciation for the state: “Above the knotted grasses, / a summer sky reflects the phantom sea, / where white clouds roll like waves” (“Walking on Water” 3).
From the outset, Unruh is aware of how humans engage with nature—but rather than disrupt the pastoral, Unruh strives to engage with it. In the vein of other Kansas poets before her (William Stafford, Steven Hind, Harley Elliott), Unruh is an excellent observer. In the poem “11PM,” she notes mechanical sounds blending with a longer-standing chorus:
Cicadas chant evening prayers,
“Whee-o, whee-o, whee-o.”
A freight train slows to a canter
through town, whistles “wo-woooo”
at every crossing (4).
More than a competition of sound, here Unruh suggests syncretism at work, where on the page the cicadas become this train. As the poem suggests, humans and their activities are constantly informed by nature.
Early in Walking on Water, Unruh affirms her strong allegiance to the Midwest, and to Kansas particularly. Though other states hold some allure for her, such as “in land piled / higher than sky, in canyons / that drenched me with laughing water,” she knows very well that other regions “cannot claim to own me, / cannot embrace me / like the prairie’s open hand” (6). Far from blinding her to other areas of the country, though, this affinity for Kansas helps Unruh to appreciate both her state and others through their complementary and contrasting features.
Some of Unruh’s focus here is internal, chronicling how the poet negotiates her world and the mindset she brings to her experiences. In the section “Making a List,” she notes a cornucopia of tasks—opportunities?—that she will undertake. This section can also be taken as advice, where Unruh is advocating the betterment of all how follow these strictures. “To-Do List No. 1,” like the other poems here, is sometimes ominous but is also dryly funny: “Act like a very tall city . . . [and] Hold the silence,” Unruh advises. “Recreate the sound of the spaceship / Plunge into the abyss” (15). Other lists here hold different motivations, and “To-Do List No. 6” is surely cathartic: “Release the hostages / Bust ghosts / Pacify the baby,” it suggests. “Confess sins” (20). Others still are whimsical, but they too provoke deeper questions. How should our reality be defined? “To-Do List No. 7” commands the reader to “Restripe the zebras . . . / Incorporate a small town / [and] Become its mayor” (21). Finally, some of these lists border on the surreal, suggesting that one should “Fill [their] living room with sand . . . / Decide: Was it or was it not my fault” (“To-Do List: Winter Beach Party” 25). This sometimes unorthodox advice (to the poet and/or the reader) is beneficial whether implemented or simply enjoyed on the page. Implementation is suggested only under Unruh’s strict supervision.
Later in this collection Unruh discusses the prevalence of misfortune, and its influence on life and on her perception of the surrounding world. In “Pearl Street” she encounters a woman whom others call insane:
Her old hand with
bent fingers and purple veins
grabbed her ragged skirt,
lifting it to music that only
she could hear.
Even considering the woman’s unusual behavior, Unruh doesn’t side with the accusers, and instead views her as someone with access to knowledge that others simply don’t share. “[H]ow do we know for sure,” Unruh acknowledges, “who is lost / and who is found” (38)?
In other poems the poet views mishaps with her signature wry wit, as in “No Waiting.” When Unruh sees an Emergency Room sign while driving it reads, “‘E.R. Wait: 0 minutes.’ // If you’re going to / have an emergency,” she notes, “now is the time” (42). This lighter tone balances Walking on Water’s darker poems efficiently, and occurs at various points throughout the collection.
Unruh also realizes one natural, seemingly unavoidable human tendency: to ascribe one’s own meaning to all things and actions. The poet attempts to break with this tradition, and instead engages teleologically with her world. When discussing deaths she has mourned, for instance, Unruh wonders what death’s inherent purpose is—and where it might lead. In “The End,” this question is pondered even by the poem’s dead narrator: “He had thought // death would end / his fears. // Now what” (55)?
Toward the end of the collection, Unruh reasserts her dependence on nature and weather to answer these and other questions. In “Rain,” the final poem, she sees how “A soft wind, the breath / of spring rain, pushes the yellow kitchen / curtains into the room.” Unruh hears vehicles on pavement in the dark, and notes how the water shapes their sound. These sounds embellish the poet’s life in that moment, as she comes to an epiphany: “I listen in the dark,” she tells us, “the rain filling a place / I didn’t know was empty” (98). Walking on Water fills many such places for Cheryl Unruh, and shows her to be a skilled observer and chronicler of Kansas and the world at large. I look forward eagerly to more poetry from this canny, nuanced author.
Readers can purchase Walking on Water from Cheryl Unruh or from Meadowlark Books, as well as from Amazon.com and regional bookstores.
Unruh, Cheryl. Walking on Water. (Meadowlark Books, 2017. 106 pages, paperback: $12.00.)
Tyler Sheldon is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of First Breaths of Arrival (Oil Hill Press, 2016) and the forthcomingTraumas (Yellow Flag Press, 2017). His poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Quiddity International Literary Journal, The Midwest Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature,Entropy Magazine, The Big Nasty Press, and other venues. He lives in Louisiana and is an MFA candidate at McNeese State University. View his work at tyrsheldon.wixsite.com/trspoetry.