Refugia, by Kristin Berger
In her full-length book of poems, Echolocation (Cirque Press, 2018), Kristin Berger gives us a full-on love story, filled with sexual imagery (nipples welt at the memory of grazing), nature-tinged environs (hope helixing like swallowtails), lyric metaphors (… little rivers / come for you / like mouths)— and, in the end, the sorrow of loss (we could agree to send love away like that).
In her chapbook, Refugia (Persian Pony Press, 2019) she gives us a drilled down version of these themes, while at the same time conflating human urges with earth’s tempers and human offerings with earth’s counter-offerings—those consequences of human/earth interactions. But that sounds so ecological. In fact, none of the sexual imagery, natural environs, or lyric metaphors are missing here; instead, these condensed poems heighten a complex voice, and are more open to interpretation.
In Merriam Webster, refugium (noun, plural- refugia) is defined as:
an area of relatively unaltered climate inhabited by plants and animals during a period of climatic change that remains a center of relict forms from which a new dispersion and speciation may take place after climatic readjustment.
Whew, to that!
In the preface page of Refugia, Berger offers a more poetic definition, using words from the naturalist, Barry Lopez,
The realm of the unintended, the hidden, the inadvertent pocket of protection where species large and small often find their lives least disturbed.
These poems honor their title by reaching for that home where love or species may thrive in the midst of tempest. Refugia is composed of 24 poems, divided into two parts: “1/ Snow on Earth” and “2/ Earth on Fire.” Each short free-verse poem is set off by a 3-line haiku edging the right bottom of the page. The formatting of these poems feels to me like a variant of haibun. The haiku distill the already condensed poems from syrup to molasses.
In the two parts, the poems first reflect the role of snow in the cycle of activity and dormancy, and then the role of fire in the cycle of birth and destruction. They are not a statement or a warning; they are simply a small truth reflecting a larger truth. As such, and knowing where the author is located, they are about how the darkness and cold of winter heighten the desire for light and warmth; and how the forest fires of the Pacific Northwest stand for the passionate relationship between humans and earth.
Berger’s skill as a poet is in surprising language and a constant turning towards or leaning into an unexpected metaphor. This craft comprises the poems, not just elements of them. Here are a few lines;
I pull you into me
like the swallow that rescues
blue yarn from the wrackline (9)
Fire begins with Yes, hungry
like a newborn, blazing every
notch, limb and canyon
pivoting towards the source. (15)
We may never be touched again
quite like this spring loves the earth. (23)
The story here spans history and climate, bonds and rifts, past and future tense. It doesn’t have an ending, and conveys that there may be no relic to find of its story in the flooding of time. The notion of permanence without a living record is deeply ingrained in nature. Humans use words, but words may not survive what we have set in motion, or even what is inevitable. This is not to say these poems convey hopelessness or passivity. Rather, they are movements taking place in the process of finding refuge. In “24,” a love story—which is the entire history of the human species—hangs on these surprisingly hopeful words:
Children will skip through willow sundials
and the legends of bears’ large hearts
just to climb this terminal moraine,
feel the sun burning. (24)
Persian Pony Press, the publisher of Refugia, calls itself “a pop-up press based in Portland, Oregon.” You won’t find their website online. How fitting.
Kristin Berger is the author of the poetry collections Refugia (Persian Pony Press, 2019), Echolocation (Cirque Press, 2018), How Light Reaches Us (Aldrich Press, 2016), and For the Willing (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Her long prose-poem and collaboration with printmaker Diane Sandall, Changing Woman & Changing Man: A High Desert Myth will be published in 2019/2020. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she co-hosts the Lents Farmers Market Poetry Series, which has brought over 40 local emerging and established poets to the neighborhood. More at kristinberger.me