Joni Wallace’s elegiac Landscape with Missing River is as sonically rich as it is lyrically alert. Insects “scrape and chew” in the “mandible grass.” “Grasshoppers rasp a too-bright opus.” A wildfire smolders into “notes of a fugue.” Toads “sound out a mercy chorus.” Landscapes shimmer with details chiseled to the essence of mourning: “Sleet comes, a shroud in verglas, ice / slivers falling // on fences, the clothesline. You are dead.” Grief for the dying father, who in one haunting poem “sees the end of seeing,” glosses these spare poems with grace. This exquisite collection is utterly mesmerizing.
In one of the first poems of Landscape with Missing River, Joni Wallace writes, “Look how the dead gather themselves / inside a landscape.” And so begins her series of exquisitely rendered elegies about Northern New Mexico where Wallace’s father, a scientist at Los Alamos and an outdoorsman lived and died. In these poems, Wallace’s father is gathered by her careful attention to his severe, stunning spaces, where, the poet says, “I spend a day there, listening. // I spend forever there, listening” and we believe her. How else could she write so precisely, beautifully about “April as an anvil” or “the sibilant trees”? In “The Air is Filled with Robots,” imagination pleasingly renovates the porch of her childhood home and then Wallace disintegrates it, catching herself in a lie. She offers us “[i]nstead, the wordless, grief-edged, / of erasure.” The poet enters New Mexico to see her father—through “a tunnel of Aspens” quaking and towards yellow jackets that “shiver out / from paper tombs.” Wallace’s poems offer us the natural world’s consolations, which are that the land has little and everything to do with human grief. Landscape with Missing River is a must-read book for all of us haunted.
In Landscape with Missing River, Joni Wallace shapes loss out of images derived from the natural world: love is a small rabbit held against the chest, absence is the air captured in a net, and grief is a fox drowning in a river. Here we have buzzards and rats, tadpoles and trout, and a wolf as a stand-in for a dead father. In these poems, Wallace reminds us that memory is nothing more than a narrow river where we can “spend forever” by its edge, waiting to hear back from those we grieve for. A beautiful read.