Book Review: “Geosmin”

By Gary Jones

“Geosmin,” the title of Catherine Young’s new poetry collection, comes from the Greek and refers to the odor of earth, the scent of freshly plowed soil. Desert camels, we are told, can detect geosmin released from wet soil miles away and can track that scent to the oasis from which it emanated.

The metaphorical possibilities of the word geosmin make it an apt choice for the title of Young’s book; she lives in rural Richland County, and many of her poems have emerged from the farm on which she has made a life. Her poetry resonates with me, as I spent my boyhood on a small dairy farm where I frequently smelled the heady scent of newly plowed spring fields.

Catherine Young has worn many hats during her life, in addition to those of poet and farmer. A prose writer and a performance artist, she also has worked as a national park ranger and an educator. And she is a mother. While she has earned an MFA from the University of British Columbia and has published widely, she maintains that she is “rooted in farm life,” with her family in Wisconsin’s Driftless where she is “totally in love with meandering streams.”

Her book divides into four sections: “Elements,” “Almanac,” “Heartbreak and Beauty” and “Of Origins and Aging.” The poem “Geosmin” functions as an introduction, noting that the “essential perfume, leads us to water / when drought and famine are over, / and makes us drink in the scent of rain … a marriage / of rich, dark loam / and love’s eternal spark.”

The Driftless connection between human beings and the landscape that surrounds them recurs in the book: “You thought stones / are inanimate” she tells us in “Stone Circle.”  However, “Rocks  / dance when you turn your back to them, /  refract colors hummingbirds see / and sing to. While your glass spectacles / dissolve into puddles and reef corals fossilize, / boulders dazzle sky and tree. / They beckon.”

In the sonnet “Rime,” mutability becomes poignant in her keen observation of life and landscape, while rhyme provides a subtle music that underscores the theme:

We met long ago at the inland sea —
lazed and swam Lake Superior’s copper shore,
rode island ferries shouting poetry,
singing above the massive engines’ roar.
We packed raspberries into cordial wines,
ruby gems bright against boreal land,
saving colored jewels for harder times:
autumn, farewells, and snow on frozen sand.

How could we imagine years passing, when
sailing the broad curling spiral of time,
that we might emerge as gray-haired women?
But we meet again, surprised. All the rime
crystallizes, magnifies who we’ve been:
the girls on summer’s shores when young and prime.

For this reader the “Heartbreak and Beauty” segment of the collection is especially vivid, perhaps because I have personally witnessed the figurative death of farms. But even those of us not born agrarian are touched when a barn, the classic symbol of a farm, is eased from the landscape.  

The early morning “Aubade for the Never-ending Flow of Milk” celebrates beginnings, “milking our Nubian goats, holding them in place / to help their kids latch, Come on latch! while we / praised them, stroked their noses / and long, lovely ears.” At the same time “There were nights our children dozed deep / dreaming the sleep of the milk-sated / while we, in the freezing February waited and waited / for another kid to drop … / and the next milking at dawn.”

“When Freshly Painted” continues in the same spirit of fresh starts: “In the canvas of my memory / it is May, the bulb-sprung flowers / in full bloom” and “I see you there, husband, / lean, lifting yourself to the seat of the tractor, / your hair still gold, its waves catching spring’s / showering light …”  

But in “Farmer / Janus” we find a transition to the death of a barn: “Never thought I’d see  the day / when I could let all it go, cows / in their stanchions.” Now, “Empty at last / the barn sings of wind, ghosts, horses, / curses. I find my way / home from a factory at night, / my barn dark.” And in “Barn Elegiac,” down it comes, “chestnut timbers prostrate beneath / corrugated roof, cedar shakes. / In the end, after the fall, / the scavenged red-painted boards, aged and faded, / are gathered, cut, and hammered / to a vacationer’s bedroom wall.”

The persistence of love appears in the final section. “Parallelogram” contrasts the angular nature of romantic separation with resonating aspects of opposing landscapes:  “When you wake, I sleep beneath / skies charted in an ever-expanding universe / on a globe of lines and crossings, / and I wonder what grid I must cross to reach you / in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria … Come to my desert. We could wait for melt, / share cups of mint tea, and recall: / all lines are imaginary …”

Throughout the book swallow icons serve as transitional images, and in the final poem “Passerine,” Young explains her affinity for this bird that both soars and perches:

When my time is over, if I were to choose,
(I’ve told my children,)
in the next life I would be

a swallow, 
swoop from sky to ground,
scoop up mud in my beak
to place on the barn rafter. I’d build
a shallow shelf, a dish nest of dry adobe,
a token of loyalty to my family —
not to last forever after, but to hold on only
as long as life will last in the barn:
shelter for so very unseen many.

And on the shelf, I would keep my nestlings, sweep
the air for food to feed my beak-open young,
show them, when fledgling, how to leap
and trust air to hold their future — 

and leave at the golden fat-blooming season
of sunflower, fly far, find adventure,
sail home in spring on waves of apple blossom
and first sweet clover —

I’d choose swallow when my time is over.

Readers of Catherine Young’s poems will not only engage her exploration of thought, but will enjoy her bountiful vocabulary, her subtle occasional rhyme, and the natural rhythms of language. Those of us bringing a primal affection for the Driftless will feel at home in her verse.

For more information about Catherine Young and to order her book, visit www.catherineyoungwriter.com.

Gary Jones writes poetry, plays and fiction. His memoir “Ridge Stories: Herding Hens, Powdering Pigs, and Other Recollections from a Boyhood in the Driftless” was published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in 2019.