Aug 13, 2014

Sri Upadhyay Reviews Whip & Spur by Iver Arnegard

Whip & Spur
Iver Arnegard
Gold Line Press, 2014

ISBN: 9781938900099

"Already in that darkness": A Journey With Personal Demons

Iver Arnegard manages to lure a reader from the first two words: whip and spur, the namesake images of his work. From the title itself Arnegard’s writing does not waffle. It is consistent - in both the voices of its characters and the narrative - simultaneously transparent and sharp. Like the nominal “whip” and “spur” there is an immediate core of pain and control that is evident behind the writing and within the characters. Arnegard expertly explores the fallacy of control, the illusion that inspires one to become most afraid of that which they cannot police. The untamed wilderness Arnegard uses as his backdrop and the cruelty and isolation he presents through starkly-straightforward intimacy in his characters only serves to further unite his thematic elements. The reader feels the opposing forces of each narrative push and pull in an ultimate struggle between oneself and the individual will to persevere and survive. Often the ties that bind characters in Arnegard’s pieces, and the forces they wish to escape, are exactly what defines them and is so deeply rooted.

In “Ice Fishing” it becomes apparent that which the narrator wishes to escape is exactly what his identity is rooted in: his memories. The bodies of other characters are nameless, like the fish bones that weave throughout the piece. The names disappear and are gone until all that remains of the world Arnegard creates is that of universal appeal and importance: the snow and the sun, i.e. the earth itself. Appropriately, Arnegard begins with the theme of orienting, and directional imagery abounds in the first piece itself:

On a frozen lake a man is fishing. The sun – no warmer than a star – hangs over the spruce. Winter in Montana. The Pintlar Mountains rise to the east. Heavy timber blankets the foothills but only reaches halfway up the range. Those peaks are too harsh most of the year for anything but snow. To the west, where he came from, there are no mountains, just dense woods. After the road ended it was another four miles on foot. His snowshoes made the only tracks.

What is most remarkable about “Ice Fishing” is that the readers do not realize where they have been taken until they feel that cold mountain snap, breathe in the thin air, and find themselves asking – out loud, in my case – “is ‘she’ the ice or the sun?” I waited for the answer to come to me. In that moment Arnegard’s voice was silent – as though it winked from a different plane, reminding the reader of his or her journey to find answers in the wilderness like the characters try to find meaning through their dialogue with nature and with themselves, clinging to that lifeline as they decide which parts to keep and which weights to let go.

In “Recluse” from which the token line “whip and spur” is taken for the title, some of the most poignant images occur, leaving the readers with the tine of metal in their mouths as though they were the horse experiencing the pain of the bridle and bit. The woman of the story battles the memory of an abusive love and the demons of her past manifest as the enemies of her present: the parched land, dying cattle, and the lurking rattlesnake are always waiting, and always watching, in the final moment of confrontation Arnegard sets the final palpable scene:

Despite the wind tearing through kindling, I hear the shake of his rattle calling from under that log. In my mind, I am already in that darkness with him, inches from his hissing tongue . . . I wrap my hands around that top log and carefully move it to the side. As I squeeze my eyes shut, the rattle grows louder. Leaning above the opening, I push my sleeves back and reach my trembling hands down into the darkness.

In “Seventeen Fences,” I found the very first stanza to be so moving that I needed to read it three more times before proceeding. Lines such as “If you have an old map, you might still find Farland, North Dakota” set the stage of a soft story, as if you are seeing the landscape through the condensation of a whisky glass – muted and warm and the amber glow of summer’s late evening light that is beautiful, if a bit melancholy. Arnegard continues with more beautiful simple language: “and if you care to stop and untangle the years, you’ll find the last great boom of when the price of wheat was up, cattle prices up, even water in the rain gauge up,” before concluding: “sometime this winter an abandoned house in town will buckle, lurch to the side, and lean closer to the ground.” Arnegard continues strongly through the poem, with gems like the elegiac reflection of a mother’s passing: “One night her eyes dulled as dusk pulled the light from that room. The sun sank, purpled the western sky and sometime before dawn I dreamt a swarm of red-winged blackbirds rose from the fields. Eclipsed the stars and the moon.” Other characters come to play and make reappearances through the entire book and Arnegard describes them equally as lovingly, like the waitress, another of my favorites: “Coffee breaks she’d write poetry on the back of used guest check, her love for me under a smudge of ketchup, on the other side of someone’s eggs over easy, side of bacon and toast.”

Lest readers get too comfortable with the pastoral tone of “Seventeen Fences,” Arnegard reminds us with images of the very real darkness and danger, the forest just on the outskirts - of the town and our consciousness - with neat little lines tucked into the stanzas. For example, the first and final lines: “Up here summer swings open on hinges and a bear steps out, dazed, rubbing winter eyes when a cloud of sparrows swims overhead, sucked up into the sun,” and: “The last thing summer will see through its faded window is the shadow of a moose beneath a ribbon of green light,” respectively.

In stanza fifteen, readers get another glimpse of the continual contrast between man and his habitat, both victims of love and loss, with the line: “As my tractor makes furrows, hawks circle overhead, waiting for me to scare out a field mouse or a jackrabbit.” And the final paragraph of stanza sixteen: “My father fell in the north field, hands dirty, heart tight. I’ll move granite for the rest of my days and die, maybe the same way, a thousand stones beneath me, creeping toward the surface.” Finally the last two sentences of stanza seventeen suggest a retreat in the anger that pulses through some other passages in Whip & Spur, there is the slightest sigh, and then: “I walk over to look at the pulpit. When I tap it with my boot, a half-dozen prayers startle up from behind and flap into the light.”

In “What Rises” Arnegard completes the thematic journey full circle to the individual facing the wisdom of wilderness (depicted in “Ice Fishing”) and having the starkest of vital dialogues: with one’s deepest, truest self – the type of conversation many should have, but few ever will, and even fewer will in such committed poetic fashion:

Staring north, beyond Montana. So much potential. Never enough time.
. …What rises to the surface:
. …Memories. I have eight decades of them:
. …Years. Crawling by.

One can taste the acrid grit of memories and years, and that swallowing sense of recollection – the way it grows deeper and darker through reliving a memory. Arnegard understands that though the past might be bitter it is still a wholly-present part of the self, and one that must continually be acknowledged as the scale by which to measure the future.

For me, “Seventeen Fences” is most strongly the voice that is conveyed, and the poem is something special indeed. Human nature loves the incongruity of surprise as though it is a gift just for them alone, and all their own. Arnegard certainly delivers, and I am no exception in feeling this joy and delight, and I wonder then, if Whip & Spur is an exercise in control and drive for purpose, not power as the stories depict – and if it was, it was so finely executed.

Sri Upadhyay lives in New York and is a graduate student earning her PhD in Cognitive Psychology. She loves literature, language, and researches how we read and process meaning in text. Sri has been published most recently in Luna Negra, Alt Lit Press, Boston Poetry Magazine, Prosaic Magazine, Ghost House Review, and Flyover Country Review.