“Grey Dog Big Sky”
By Sheryl Noethe
Sometimes a book is a mass-produced object, good to read, perhaps, but physically uninteresting. In the case of former Montana Poet Laureate Sheryl Noethe’s new poetry collection “Grey Dog Big Sky,” the publisher has combined the look of the cottage industry print shop with the readability of electronic word processing. Hand-stitched and computer typeset, this volume from FootHills Publishing perfectly matches the book’s organizing idea — the simultaneous intimacy and expansiveness of the poet’s role in contemporary society.
FootHills Publishing is a family operation located in Kanona, N.Y. Like Noethe herself, the company has seen hard times. A recent fire destroyed the home and office where publisher Michael Czarnecki and his family lived and worked. So it’s nice to see that the press is back, continuing its Montana Poets Series under the editorship of Craig Czury. I can’t think of a better marriage of publisher and author. Noethe’s poems may sound and look like informal musings, but they are driven by sophisticated scientific and philosophical debates.
Most readily accessible are the narratives about traveling Montana by bus, about teaching poetry to children, and about the poet’s own past. Some of the lines are striking — consider this passage from “Instructing Her”: “What do I have to teach her about poetry? / Should she try to rhyme? ‘I don’t know if my aunt is my sister.’ ” In “The Delay,” Noethe describes her mother’s temper and penchant for throwing objects: “Fifty years afterward / I remember a white bird / burning kitchen towel / flying.” Such vivid storytelling makes me wish Noethe would take up fiction.
The narrative poems are interspersed throughout with more abstract pieces, and, at first, I wasn’t sure how the mix worked. Or if it did. However, when I remembered my own Greyhound rides across the West, I realized that questioning the nature of time, the requirements of individuality, the opposition of interior and exterior, and the reality of dreams is an inevitable component of the riding experience.
In “Buttonhole,” the poet-speaker perfectly captures the phantasmagoric nature of overland transportation, the strange, suspended detachment from varying scenery outside the bus: “Lending the body to the world / Intertwined vision and movement, / You are in the story and out of it.” As riders necessarily drift through dreams, “reality” fragments and forms again. The speaker of “Proof” tells us that “Each cell retains carnal memory / Breaks apart like wet clouds.”
Grey Dog Big Sky by Sheryl Noethe is both a worthy addition to FootHills Publishing’s Montana series and a finalist for a High Plains Book Award. Reading it made me want to go to the bus station, purchase a ticket to Butte, Helena, or Missoula, and take a seat, enjoying Noethe’s poetry as the Big Sky rushes past—unless, of course, her “extremely chatty guy looking for work as a butcher” were to settle in beside me.