Just Universes, Diana Smith Bolton’s debut chapbook, frames the circuitous journey of a woman from Mississippi, exploring different phases of her life. The speaker’s path to maturity is marked by minor hiccups but, in the end, is a raucous read, with the hero traversing entire continents and the wide expanses of human galaxies. Eva Holland declares in a 2016 article in the online publication Outside, “It’s the Dawn of the Female Adventure Memoir.” And while Holland primarily discusses Blair Braverman’s exploits in Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, a reader can discern Bolton’s own groundbreaking adventures, from an unassuming Mississippi childhood to those of a world traveler and professional writer. Bolton’s is such a fun chapbook to read, you wouldn’t even know there’s a revolution occurring beneath the cover’s beautiful firmament of stars.
Bolton’s speaker employs a memoir-style narrative initially, as she advances from elementary school to college and beyond. The women she describes in her formative years are powerful and dynamic, even, on the surface, as they hunt for garage sales and strive to teach children. In the poem “Ms. Pinkston,” the speaker recalls,
When I think of gym class, I see her shoulder blades
sliding beneath waffle-weave polo shirt, each sleeve
disguising an impossible bicep (8).
In fact, all the women seem to possess superpowers, as the speaker observes in “Mrs. Stockwell,” while the schoolteacher is
feeling our round eyes finding hers
hidden in the back of her head (7).
The narrative stretches from domestic life to school to the divorce of the speaker’s parents. The father is handled sympathetically, yet fleetingly: he’s there, he’s warning the daughter of life’s dangers, then he’s gone. Bolton handles these brief interactions deftly, utilizing a ghazal format to underscore the relationship’s beauty, yet formality. And, fittingly, as the book is about personal growth, the author incorporates concrete images into her verse. Seven of the 26 poems employ stair-step formatting, symbolic of the speaker’s journey and advancement into adulthood.
The first 16 pieces are primarily narrative, roughly maintaining a chronological arc tracing a little girl’s school-age experiences to the inherent uncertainties of marriage. The speaker covers years in college (“Constellations” and “One Way to Leave Gainesville”), trips to Europe with lovers (“In Paris with E., Summertime,” “To Barcelona,” and “I Don’t Miss You”), and the trepidations of being a new wife (“Good Morning, Sunshine” and “Flying Over the Alps”). But somewhere in the arc, the theme of “being a person” shifts fundamentally from codependence to incorporating oneself into the larger universe.
In “Constellations,” for instance, the speaker muses beyond her lover, “I look past his face and search the sky for the divine” (16). Her departure from dependence (on family, on school, on men, on travel) leads to independence, as shown when she leaves a college town in “One Way to Leave Gainesville” (“In the updatairs bedroom of my darkened studio / apartment, a light turns on, glows, then goes out” (17).) The speaker asserts her freedom soon after her marriage, in “Flying Over the Alps,” when she revives an image from childhood, summarizing her parents’ divorce. “My mother bought a print . . . – the waves cresting in violent seas – / during her stormy divorce” (20), the speaker recalls. As the newly-married couple overflies the European mountain range, the woman asserts “that things can change: what feels / like rock may someday churn like water” (20).
Just Universes is similarly ordered and thematically similar to Megan Snyder-Camp’s 2010 debut full-length collection, The Forest of Sure Things. In Snyder-Camp’s volume, a girl is raised by divorced parents, and eventually travels in a cathartic series of journeys with her husband and child. Of critical importance, as Snyder-Camp approaches her own book’s close, she incorporates acrostic poems and complex cynghanedd forms to reinforce and underscore an order to the narrative. In the same manner, Bolton introduces found poems as her chapbook nears its end. The pieces “George Dunham Sails to Brazil” and “The Yankee Comandante” both continue the theme of travel. “Always looking for something, I found everything” (29), Bolton writes. She uses the adventure memoirs of others to gird and confirm her own experiences, creating a type of living conversation between the speaker and the authors she cites. The lines “Sitting in the aft of the vessel, I look at the Atlantic / heaved almost into mountains” (27) echoes her sentiments beautifully in “Flying Over the Alps.”
Just as the chapbook journey commenced immediately east of the Mississippi River, it concludes just west of that same body of water, in Iowa. The poem “Iowa Summer” closes the collection:
In Fruitland, tomatoes ripen,
and on a ladder, she lifts
her sun-browned arms (31).
The speaker describes a woman matured, not defeated, by her experiences, having almost perfectly circumnavigating the globe. Just Universes’ opening piece, “Mapping the Delta After a Flood,” introduces a sense of menace and destruction. “Iowa Summer,” however, encapsulates the adventure memoir as it nears its midway point: calm, quiet, satisfying. Here is a woman, elevated by herself above the rich fields, above the formerly-restrictive circumstances of her life. “Goodbye, birdsong, and all / / these muddy roots” (31), the speaker declares. Her adventures are neither over nor exhausting. The hero is only enjoying a hard-fought period of quietude as she prepares again to venture into the world, her sun-browned arms both muscled and reaching to clamber the open and welcoming sky.
Bolton, Diana Smith. Just Universes. Lines and Stars Press, Washington, D.C. 2016.
Holland, Eva. “It’s the Dawn of the Female Adventure Memoir.” Outside. 30 June 2016.
Web. 25 Feb. 2017
Snyder-Camp, Megan. The Forest of Sure Things. Tupelo Press, North Adams, MA.
Paul David Adkins served in the US Army for 21 years. Lit Riot Press has published his three collections: La Dona, La Llorona,; Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath; and Operational Terms and Graphics.