Terrain, by Gina Hietpas (Blue Cactus Press, 2020)
Cover art by Heather Romano
Review by Risa Denenberg
Before reading the poems in a new book, I always like to spend some time absorbing its essence in its entirety: cover art, back notes, poem titles, author’s bio, acknowledgements, blurbs. The cover art on Gina Hietpas’s “Terrain” is the remarkable work of the artist Heather Romano, who created it specifically based on “images from the text” and “the underlying themes of the poems.” In it, a naked woman is shown, mid-face to hips, tattooed with living symbols, hands at heart and solar plexus in a gesture of protecting a living landscape of vines, fruit, and birds.
Hietpas’s narrator lives up to that image— vulnerable, protective, patient. She brings the reader into her story with an invitation. In “Coyote Speaks to Me,” a coyote dares a human to accept the joys and hardships to be encountered throughout the poems in this work. It ends with coyote’s encouragement:
Stick with me!
I’ll show you persistence and the art of pounce.
Watch me shrug off disappointment.
In solitude you learn your story.
Only than can you riff on the moon.
In “What We Dreamed,” a couple buys a piece of land trusting their ability to make a life, “a reprised “go west” dream. Living the dream, they find themselves here:
Christmas Eve, drenched in the Milky Way,
we warmed ourselves with possibilities.
We assumed blessing in the winks of stars.
In “Dessert” an “After supper” . . . “walk through the orchard,” displays the abundance of life, in this case, fruits—apples, plums, blackberries.
The poems unfold the story of a marriage, early settling into “cold water living” while building a home and having children. The couple’s greatest hardship is yet to come in these early days of “Trim the wicks, light the lamps. / Feed the fire.” In the poem titled, “Coyote Chatter,” we learn that the coyote—a perfect spirit animal for this story—is “a trickster, hipster, predator, editor.”
Indeed, the “trickster” brings the unexpected; the “editor” revises the story. There is nothing sentimental in these poems, no paradise, just trust, love, and hard work. But there is also an unexpected trouble. In “Aria: We Are Introduced to Our Future,” a pain-filled night becomes:
Tomorrow, your morphine-laced body,
splayed on steel-edged tables,
pictured and probed,
will reveal in grainy images the seismic shift
in our dreams.
Time passes, children grow, a home is built of “[c]edar, quarter sawn, straight grained/ layers of ancient cambium,” while a husband’s illness ties him to dialysis. Years pass, a family accepting this complication in their wake. In “The Ache of October,” the woman reflects,
I, now my mother’s age, wrap myself
in russet and gold, sit in the seen of sun.
Weep. Weep. Murmurs the nuthatch
caching bugs beneath the cherry’s bark.
These poems narrate a life, of which I’ve sketched some larger movements. Between signposts and events, the poems reflect a poet who is alive to the land, it’s foliage and wildlife. Each poem is vibrant with imagery and pays close attention to what is at hand, giving the sense of someone who lives faithful to the present moment.
In the final poem, “Credo,” Hietpas speaks of the harvest of endurance and acceptance:
Love is a stone.
It can fracture under pressure.
But yielding to wind or wave,
the sharp edges smooth.
Grain by grain, it gives of itself
to become the grit beneath your feet.
Gina Hietpas is a self-taught poet, born and raised in Tacoma, Washington state. Nowadays, she lives outside Sequim, WA, on a small farm with her husband, a few cows and a passel of chickens. Her land is a habitat for elk, deer, coyotes and an occasional bear. It is, for the most part, a peaceful coexistence. The opportunity to be a back-country ranger for several seasons shaped her connection to wilderness. Professionally she was a middle school teacher for twenty five years. Now that she has retired, she focuses her efforts on writing. She has studied with Kelli Russell Agodon, Alice Derry, Holly Hughes, Susan Rich and Kim Stafford. Hietpas’ work has appeared in Minerva Rising, Tidepools, Spindrift and New Plains Review.
Terrain, Poems by Gina Hietpas
Blue Cactus Press, 2020
49 pages; $17
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.