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Excavating Personal Geography in “Philomath”

Excavating Personal Geography in “Philomath”

  • Our review of Devon Walker-Figueroa's "Philomath."

The title of Devon Walker-Figueroa’s debut collection, Philomath—selected for the 2020 National Poetry Series by Sally Keith—does double duty, as a Greek word for the love of learning, as well as the name of a town in Oregon. Names are powerful, offering both possibility and prison, and immediately upon entering this town, this collection, one realizes that the geology beneath this geography goes beyond the town limits, beyond histories, excavating far more complicated personal terrain. Perhaps only a poet could walk this ground this confidently, this unforgettably; using temporality, memory, and folklore—both ancient and what we give power to in our small and brief lives—as her map and her shield. 

Walker-Figueroa “grew up in Kings Valley, a ghost town in the Oregon Coast Range,” and there are apparently a surprising number of ghost towns around Philomath, specifically, and in Oregon overall. There are also a number of ghosts in this collection: of family, friends, ancestors, even dreams and desires. These poems are the echoes of those spirits, and Walker-Figueroa channels them unvarnished, more memorable for their flaws than any buffed perfections—writing of people who were “probably grateful” to leave this life:

“…not knowing 
every life is an afterlife 
& heaven is just a ghost
town that never ends.”

In the stunning title poem, Walker-Figueroa writes: “…I care about / Philomath and its “Love / of Learning” bumper stickers that turn / invisible under mud…” This first piece describes stuck lives, unrequited—unimagined even—dreams, and the insurmountable barriers preventing the attainment of goals, or even of departure. Earlier Walker-Figueroa writes: “…I go to the library, where I check out / A Season in Hell because they don’t / have Illuminations & never will…”—a simple and striking comparison of Rimbaud’s titles, which deftly represents what is available to the speaker, and also what never will be. The irony of this supposed city of learning and its proximity to ghost towns also lends a mythic filter to these poems; are these speakers in the present, or trapped in some kind of temporal web, between illumination and hell, while Lethe—or their circumstances—steals their motivation and repeatedly bars opportunities to escape. In “Golden:”

“…There are times
I whisper to our empty living 
room, move toward 
the light. Find a way 
out of this valley named 
for a family so dead 
everyone call them Kings.”

How do our names define us or detain us, and equally, can we change our existence, our destiny by just changing what we are called or what we call ourselves? Earlier in the same poem, the speaker offers a darker truth about such attempts, and the likelihood of manifesting new futures:

is talk of changing 
our name to Golden, 
as if we were a family 
plucked from the pages of What 
A Jolly Street
, pastel place 
where every daughter is 
blonde, petti—
coated & crowned 
in sausage curls, where 
every son possesses 
a blue bicycle & the name 
Jimmy or Tommy—
anything end 
in “me.”

The contrast between the homophones Tommy and “me” is just one example of Walker-Figueroa’s light hand with language, that consistently lands on the sharpest of points. What lies beneath this subtle gesture toward the divide between people, whether racial or socioeconomic, is a question that she explores throughout the collection. 

Her language feels especially fresh, precise, and full of possibility beyond the meanings of the words themselves, how in “Kings Valley”—the poem and ostensibly the ghost town itself—“sometimes it seems / the future has a habit of repeating itself.” These aren’t easy or bright futures, and the stakes are high for the individuals in these poems, haunted by their familial trauma, and the DNA of the land itself, who struggle through their days and for their lives, who yearn for other vistas, other lives.

Yet to focus only on these complex connections doesn’t do this collection justice. There’s a tremendous delight in experiencing Walker-Figueroa’s own philomathic nature, and her graceful use of language. So many of these individuals are flawed, some committing dreadful acts, but Walker-Figueroa creates line drawings with an incisive pencil and detailed shadings that offer a certain empathy for all those who are imperfect, bowed, sinners and sinned against, which, in truth, is all of us. Walker-Figueroa is both forager and conjuror; on this land, in these forests, she’s able to express the concrete nature of humanity, as well as the inexplicable magic, here in “The Blood’s Unwritable Psalm”

“…I was once 
virginal before I was tangible, and my voice

swaddled me in what I’ve learned to call
refrain. If I’d been born in the shape of 

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a boy, I might have been 
            named after trees so old 

they are only the sounds       we make for them.”

Whether by virtue of current poetic renderings or my own attention span, I tend to read relatively short poems these days, and Philomath reminded me of the pleasure of longer-form poetry. The collection houses a number of multipage poems that are still, at their core, exquisitely concise; evidence of Walker-Figueroa’s skill, and yes, her innate philomathism. There’s a rooting here to the essential nature of how we connect—or disconnect—from our past, our classifications, what cages us. These poems both move deeper into these realms, and offer a way to slip away from such encirclements. When longer poems are written with such skill, there’s an echo of Scheherezade’s voice, enticing the reader to slow down the experience. In Walker-Figueroa’s artful hands this languor belies the stakes for these speakers.

At the end of the poem “Private Lessons,” Walker-Figueroa writes: “The first thing I learned was to hold my tongue,” but it’s to our benefit that she unlearned that lesson to unleash her poetic powers to create such a resounding debut collection. You don’t need to have come from a town like Philomath to savor this nuanced book, yet equally, you won’t forget Philomath after you’ve read it, and you’ll find yourself returning to its pages—to its city limits, to its ghosts, to its magical refrains—repeatedly.

By Devon Walker-Figueroa
Milkweed Editions
September 14, 2021

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