“I tried to grow what others grew,” Maxine Scates writes in “My Wilderness,” the title poem of this utterly distinctive and captivating collection, but luckily she does not, for “there were too many trees, the darkness beneath them growing mushrooms, fawn lilies, and trillium.” What can be better than poems of the darkness beneath trees teeming with understory, with yearning, empathy and grief? The rarity of this book is its willingness to enact mystery without grasping after resolution or uncorking wisdom, to hold space for the unsayable, the unlamentable. These poems demonstrate the urgency of seeing—the motherland, the mother—and the numinous presence of what is felt but can’t be seen. Despite their largesse, their magic, these are poems of the real, of work, scarcity, alcoholism, violence, and caretaking the careworn, of how wilderness becomes landscape becomes subdivision, in which “cutting up the land you grew up on is like eating your parents.” The final sequence is a masterful rendering of mother loss, an arc of unmitigated sublimity.Diane Seuss
With sumptuous detail, Maxine Scates exposes the amorphous dimensions of grief, immersing us in her wilderness of falling oaks, ice storms, hospitals, beloved dogs, and her mother’s slow dying. At the same time she never fails to give us the mystery of the possible. This is a poet I trust, a poet I want to follow, one so deft she can parse the difference between eternity and infinity, writing “one has more light.” My Wilderness is rich, wandering, and true.
Anne Marie Macari
In My Wilderness Maxine Scates has found a way to make grief a rich force and mysterious restorer, undistanced, in its earthen visions, from who or what can’t look back. Its natural world, lived in, tended, almost familial, is understood in the midst of its plunder, where her own losses resonate deeply. This is an exceptionally moving and caring book.William Olsen
At one point, in My Wilderness, her long-awaited new book, Maxine Scates baldly declares, ‘I can’t remember.’ In fact, the one thing the narrator of these exceptional and original poems cannot do is forget. My Wilderness is an elegiac work composed of lavish narratives, which shift and turn restlessly between the dead, the living, the transitory, and the immemorial. Of the book’s welter of landscapes—a ‘maze of orchards,’ the empty concrete waterways of Los Angeles, a town ‘ringed by prisons,’ Scates, summoning Ovid, declares ‘everything / seems on its way to becoming something else.’ My Wilderness is a grave and beautiful archive of losses, and Scates the diligent, urgent, vivid archivist.Lynn Emanuel
My Wilderness, by Maxine Scates (Pittsburgh). In this searching, plainspoken poetry collection, the natural world—infinitely more mysterious in the volatile era of advanced climate destruction—provides a potent metaphor for the mark left by grief. With frank detail and philosophical clarity, Scates addresses parental loss, the passage of time, and the pain of childhood abuse. The book is driven by sorrow, but it is also devotional, guided by a determination to comprehend the elusive presences of other people, beauty, life. “And when I said words / were just words, I meant that they can never entirely / say no matter how hard we try,” Scates writes. “They are / the reason we keep trying.”The New Yorker
The atmospheric fourth collection from Scates (Undone) draws inspiration from the hillsides of Oregon, where the poet has lived since the mid 1970s. Many of these poems explore mortality (her partner’s illness, and the death of a friend and mother) while considering the larger natural world and its endurance against multiple threats. “It takes a long time to learn/ how to live anywhere,” Scates declares in the title poem, which draws upon a gardening motif that expands into personal history, “I’d tell how I planted the Abraham Lincoln/ for my mother because it was her favorite/ though as it turned out I planted it too close to the path/ and so she brushed against it every morning.” There is hope here, and a sense of the poet trying to articulate and prioritize the moments that matter over the daily noise, as in “What Matters,” which opens: “Up in the meadow, leaves already fallen/ in first rain, my dog is learning to come/ when I call.” Scates’s lyrical language and attention to detail (“dear little waterfall in June,/ town still green in August,/ snow unmelted in the mountains”) make these ruminative poems a pleasure to read.