Boise resident and College of Idaho English professor Diane Raptosh is an accomplished poet. She was the first Boise poet laureate (2013) as well as an Idaho writer-in-residence (2013-2016), the highest literary honor in the state. In addition, her previous work “American Amnesiac” was long-listed for the National Book Award in 2013, so expectations are high for her new book, “Human Directional,” the second title in a planned trilogy.
The poems in “Human Directional” speak to readers through the voices of humans, vegetables, animals and the natural world. Raptosh does not disappoint in her creation; in fact, some readers may feel she surpasses “American Amnesiac” in language, tone and complexity.
First, however, it is important to inform the reader about what exactly is a human directional: It is a sign spinner or sign twirler who helps retail stores secure foot traffic. We have all seen human directionals on our local street corners, but Raptosh believes they are more than just human billboards: “Human directionals are all unique as they have their own language, possess their own rhythm, suggest and entertain ... just like poets.”
All poems in “Human Directional” feature spectacular images, with some poems illuminating even the most mundane objects. For example, in “Enter the Kingdom,” Raptosh writes a love poem in the voice of a vegetable: “Bok choy boy, fiddlehead — we don’t call each other vegetables half often enough. Begin begging me to, spiny earth-culled cardoon, parsnip-kin, pet pea: O sweet erect jambu, meaty edamame, let us roll our strength into a cabbage globe, let us tear pleasure with loosestrife, with carrot blades swooped in fluted pumpkin.”
The piece is linguistically sophisticated and emanates from Raptosh’s subconscious. “Enter the Kingdom” is an homage to Noam Chomsky, a linguistic laureate, and Annie Dillard, recognized for her works about the natural world. In “Enter the Kingdom,” Raptosh allows the reader to feel the joys of love and freedom through an unlikely narrator.
In an E.E. Cummings-style free-verse poem, “Directional Dressed as the Statue of Liberty,” the speaker is a female human directional dressed as the Statue of Liberty. (We have all seen one.) Raptosh uses atypical typography to create visual space that places the reader on a date with a drone operator:
“The last guy I breeze-dated
wore a golf shirt tattooed
with a predator drone.
Silence grew so quiet
over chicken skewers you could hear
The hiss at the visible
edge of the universe.”
In addition to her unique use of visual space, it is the enjambment (no terminal punctuation) in some lines that permits the reader to feel the tension of the date when the speaker realizes that the drone operator has killed hundreds of innocent citizens sitting behind a joy stick:
“Before the drones
It was as if everyone was young,
said one Pakistani mom.”
The pacing and spacing of this poem solidifies the horrific events that occur over the skies of Pakistan. Other standout pieces in the collection include “Views from a Former Contortionist,” a sensuous prose poem in which the author uses myriad mountain ranges to display her attraction to them. And “The Inner Coat,” which is about a married couple taking their dog to the veterinarian to get his nails clipped. The reader notices that the speaker, a woman, talks from the point of view of the dog — at certain points in the poem — highlighting the fact that we are all animals: “Oh I’m so tired, the woman lilts. I just have to lie down here.”
She, the speaker, like her Akita, is exhausted, but you will feel rejuvenated when you imbibe Raptosh’s masterful work.
Wayne Catan has written book reviews for The New York Times, The Hemingway Review, Idaho Mountain Express and the Idaho Statesman. He teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.