Anna Journey’s first book of poems, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press: 90 pp., $16.95 paper), is a deeply American debut that deals with the author’s Southern childhood and adolescence as a pretty, redheaded girl from the bayou. It’s lush with Romanticism: Journey writes with near-perfect pitch about flowers, the suburban eeriness of garden centers, her closeted gay psychiatrist grandfather and the mother who broke her back.
If that sounds like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, it’s actually very different: Journey doesn’t fall into the trap of quaintness. As she writes: “The bitch- / scent of the silver- // and-pink-clawed possum in heat—all rhubarb-breath and unbelievable / udder—is as sharp as fuchsia // spokes of my oleander. I could put / my eye out looking.”
This isn’t nature as redemptive; it’s nature as sexual and dangerous. Journey channels the intensity of the Deep South, “dark-eyed juncos / jilting the magnolias, fiercer than angels // flying south.” “Fierce” is a good word for this writer.
American Romanticism shows up in the reserved Virginia timbres of poets like Charles Wright and Henry Taylor; it’s as if as if they still hear the dignified rustle of Jefferson and the Enlightenment. In contrast, Journey is a wild child. “[T]he one-eyed / stray’s pheromones could flame // from my heel’s strike. Desire begins here / in bondage, in bougainvillea and its blunt mists,” she writes.
Many female poets address sex in tones of victimhood, but Journey is downright predatory. Indeed, she’s all about ecstasy in the original sense, meaning to leave your state of being. But if living to the fullest requires ecstasy, then it also requires a dose of death.
Journey has her misgivings about this, which hints at a kind of existential sanity. That makes If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting a fabulous little book, the work of a young poet (I kept hearing bits of Wallace Stevens and Maxine Kumin) wise beyond her years.