Four Takes: Devon Walker-Figueroa’s PHILOMATH

Philomath, by Devon Walker-Figueroa, Milkweed Editions, 96 pp., $16.

Edited by Corey Van Landingham

Existential Enjambment

Initially, I wanted to write about Devon Walker-Figueroa’s Philomath because it struck me as one of the most exciting, and successful, debuts that I can remember being published in my lifetime. As I read and re-read the collection, however, I found that I also craved other voices, other insights, which lead to this feature. Talented poets, editors, professors, students, and combinations thereof, Chelsea Hill, Christina Pugh, and Leslie Sainz offer those insights here. The desire for other poets’ takes stems, I think, from the fact that no matter how long of a review I wrote, I knew I would never be able to scratch the surface of this collection. Even as I began to focus on just a single long poem, I found myself excitedly pulled in myriad directions. I wanted to talk about place, lineage, myth, history, belief and doubt, hauntings, elegy, the long poem, register shifts, endings, etymology, braiding (really, I could go on and on).

What I want to talk about, now, are line breaks.

There are only 125 end-stopped lines in Philomath (if I’m counting correctly). This may not seem shocking, but it becomes more so when one considers how many long poems reside here. Thirteen poems are at least three pages long—some much more so—and the physical dimensions of this book are large. In one 135-line poem, there are only four end-stops. How tedious, how dull, to begin so with numbers! But I want to give readers a picture of how full of enjambment this book truly is. Enjambment itself isn’t necessarily of interest; heavy enjambment can be the mark of a novice poet, first finding a clever unit of language posed, broken, and altered across a line. The imitated, mannered line—we’ve all seen it. They populate hundreds of books each year. They seem perhaps effortless, but they’re really thought-less, the move one learns to make, far from the thrilling tension free verse once posed. Hit enter when the line extends beyond the line before it. Aim for line integrity, or jarring rupture. When I tell my students that line breaks add tension, I have a harder and harder time providing salient, contemporary examples.

In the hands of Walker-Figueroa, however, enjambment is not just a craft technique—hers is an existential enjambment.

Here are the opening lines of the collection’s first poem (which is also the title poem):

“Love of learning” is what
Philomath means. This side of a ghost
town, what kids are here hang out
in gravel parking lots & hunt
pixelated deer at The Woodsman. They break
into gutted sanctuaries
of timber mills, looking for places to leave
their neon aerosoled names. [….]

Apt, that the title’s/town’s translation—“love of learning”—appears before the enjambments’ own translations and refinements. The first line poses a potential question (“Love of learning” is what?) before the triggering word. Divorcing “ghost” from “town” offers the unsettling pseudo-image of “this side of a ghost.” What the kids might hunt in gravel parking lot ignites the imagined possibilities (rodents, pets, each other?), and what they hunt in reality isn’t even, well, real. The violence they incite is a ghost violence, in a ghost town. The “gutted sanctuaries” left alone without the specific location also invite a reader’s creative participation. Of all the sites that may be hallowed, that may be threatened by such an intrusion, “timber mills” upends what one may have assumed to fill in the blank. But this isn’t merely willful disruption of sense, not just a “gotcha” moment only present to surprise. For those timber mills are charged with meaning and myth. If sanctuaries are sometimes full of relics, the timber that once filled these now-gutted mills was both a relic of the land and a revelation of its demise to ghost town.

It’s the final moment of enjambment in the above passage that I can’t stop thinking about. By presenting “looking for places to leave” as its own unit of meaning before the sentence is completed in the following line, Walker-Figueroa suggests an initial desire for flight. Not flight from Philomath, necessarily, but a flight from any place, from all places. The existence of these kids is cast as temporary, fleeting. They’re in a position of precarity before we discover the multitudinous dangers the book contains. The emotional resonance that comes with the completion of the sentence, however, is even more poignant. In fact, the kids aren’t looking to leave. They’re looking to leave behind their names, to participate in a kind of lasting communion by tagging the abandoned timber mills. They’re attaching their identity to this ghost town. They’re writing, in a sense, their own epitaphs.

Love of learning drapes itself over this poem, this book, as Walker-Figueroa drapes sentences across the line. Partially, she is teaching us how to read her lines. But there is also a different power dynamic present, a different flow of information, than the teacher/student relationship might suggest. When I said that this is an existential enjambment, it truly feels as though the poem is learning its movements and associations, is learning its own emotional landscape, as it’s forging them.

Someday I’ll write an entire essay about an eight-page poem titled “Beginning Wax to Bronze at Chemeketa Community College” that comes in near the end of Philomath. For now, I want to call attention to the image of “a twelfth-century she-wolf” about which the speaker is asking her teacher. There has either been “entrapment or decay” leading to a flaw in the bronze object. This flaw becomes “a kind of absence / she seems shaped around.” The absences occurring in the white space of an enjambed line allow—invite—us to shape meanings around them. And, as many of us know, it’s this very participatory quality of learning that makes one form a love for it.

—Corey Van Landingham

Ashamed Stories: Agency & Truth in Philomath

Prior to reading Devon Walker-Figueroa’s award-winning debut, I accepted the old, familiar adage “You can’t go home again” on the basis of personal experience and without much hesitation. But in the afterglow of Philomath’s psalms, cedars, and understudies, I’m much more intrigued by the idea that you can’t leave home again, especially if home is a haunted, long-forgotten ghost town in the American Northwest, plagued by its own wavering intimacies. These poems are at their most dazzling when they’re slow burning, more anecdotal than allegorical, and are so loyal to the immediacy of their environments that what emerges is both character study and elegy for the provisional.

One of my favorite examples of this can be found in “Beginning Wax to Bronze at Chemeketa Community College,” in which Walker-Figueroa’s speaker-self fixates on a bronze twelfth-century she-wolf with a line of inquiry well-suited for the entire collection:

“Entrapment or decay?” I inquire,
pointing to her gaping
leg, a kind of absence
she seems shaped around, because
I want to know if the artist fucked up
or if this is what happens,
in time, to everything we cast.

This question—which looms weightily in the classroom and beyond—is fundamentally a question of agency. Does absence merely induce creation, or is it its primary building block, paradoxically present in the final product? How much control does the artist have over the preservation of their work?

Despite the book’s many rhetorical questions and cohesive sequences, I initially found it difficult to isolate one primary element to probe. As I meditated on the collection’s relationship to sincerity and inheritance, the book seemed to ask, “Do we still inherit what has been withheld from us?” After mapping the presentations of gender in Philomath, I detected a masculine obsession with folklore and, not quite inversely, a feminine preoccupation with truth-telling. And yet, no matter which path I followed, each direction circled the same function—control. It’s perhaps unsurprising that in a small town unfamiliar to most, the ache of desiring control over one’s experience, and the pains of not knowing where to set that down, would haunt its inhabitants more powerfully than the scorned dead. But make no mistake, Walker-Figueroa is not a puppet master: she doesn’t choreograph wooden characters to exert control over the town she’s escaped. Instead, she’s more akin to a model maker, lovingly rendering each signpost, neighbor, and corner store to reexamine them and her relationship to her own handiwork.

Lyrically, Walker-Figueroa wields control with a tight-rope walker’s balance. There are moments in which the collection’s blooming metaphors and echoes are delightfully ornamental, oftentimes in stark contrast to the weathered -scapes they describe. Just when a particular poem verges on indulging too much in its melodic largesse, we’re met with restraint, oftentimes via a vulnerable admission that shocks and grounds the system. Take for example, the beginning of “Gallowed Be,” the final poem in Philomath:

The nearest land-fill’s nowhere
near & no one is
to blame. We burn the year’s
news—in the meadow, in the mind,
till the crosswords & the funnies wilt
to winterkill. I trace
the day an epitaph
in ash: “Hallowed Be
Thy Games.” Every story
is ashamed to be true. My father’s now
a widower & no one
is to blame.

The rhyme, consonance, and repetition, which mimic their applications in the Christian Lord’s prayer with impressive accuracy (“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . .), are hypnotic. The lyric spell doesn’t break when we’re reminded of the father’s way of burning what he cannot bear—an attempt at control, a kind of revision. In “Kings Valley,” he sets ablaze a nest after learning his daughter was stung by hornets; in the first “Out of Body” poem, the speaker must “keep an eye / on what is left” after her father burns “what’s left of the person they love.” Here, the spell only fades upon the uttering of a universal declaration: “Every story / is ashamed to be true,” uncoincidentally the only sentence in this excerpt that doesn’t participate in some kind of rhyme. This tension between the decorative-descriptive and the declarative exemplifies the control Walker-Figueroa employs when capturing the emotional weight of self and familial mourning.

But let me return to the declaration itself, “Every story / is ashamed to be true.” The resonance here rests in its implication of humanity—all of us natural storytellers with complicated relationships to capital T Truth. Rather than harping on what responsibility artists and storytellers have to the truth (if any), Walker-Figueroa gives agency to the product, the story. “Every story” feels this way because every story can eventually reach someone who understands it to be true. Philomath has the rare ability to enter readers who have little to no experience of its truths, and, in doing so, earns a place in the pantheon of debut poetry collections worth rereading.

—Leslie Sainz

“My God / is an Oath”: On Philomath

Devon Walker-Figueroa’s debut collection is concerned with inheritance—or, to paraphrase her poem “Drain,” the tongues we are born to and those we seek to hold. For Walker-Figueroa, “Drain” is where the roots of cedars alchemize into the roots of family and language, where the speaker’s middle name, Elizabeth, shared with her mother, opens into a lexical exploration of the Elizabethan. Through the homophone, the seventeenth-century dissection theater, and the study of language, we arrive at King Lear—to quote the section’s epigraph, spoken by the blind Gloucester: What are you there? Your names? “My middle name,” she answers, “is Elizabeth”:

which means “My God
is an Oath.” So is my mother’s.
Was. So was her mother’s
mother’s & such is my book
of #s, so full of aimless begats.

Names, for Walker-Figueroa, create worlds of diction. Indeed, Philomath revels in connotation, or how a word carries its own book of “aimless begats.” Like Lear’s own family drama, the conflict of “Drain” fixes around the speaker’s lineage—however, where Lear has its hard-hearted daughters, Philomath has its brothers, boneyards of birds, and fickle land; when cedars fail to thrive, leaving locals to“cut down & to curse,” the phenomena is consanguine with family history:

My father blamed his blood
brother, brother
who’d brought up all
the land around our land,
who, as a boy, delighted
in harvesting
wings from flies.

Gloucester’s words, “as flies to wanton boys are we to gods,” help frame a central concern of “Drain”: what oath may exist between us and gods who, Gloucester claims, “kill us for their sport”? Shakespeare is concerned with the relationship between what is said and what is understood, where its interplay is an ever-renewing tension between personae. For Lear, the governing word was “nothing,” a homophone, pronounced in Elizabethan English as “noting”—rendered, now, noting or noticing. In “Drain,” Walker-Figueroa assembles narrative from the apparitions of brothers, Numbers/#, and Elizabethan-style wordplay, whether homophone or sheer aural kinship, such as between “held/hold” and “hand.”

I wanted a brother for all
of time, but my parents’
tepid tries ended
in prematurity & my mother
believed these losses due
to the blood brother standing
beside the driveway, cursing
her, screaming
whore every time she’d open
the gate. At the time,
I didn’t really know
what whore meant, nor
that it used to be a homophone
to hour, a fact not lost
on Elizabethans.

Walker-Figueroa moves deftly between her desire for a brother, her parents’ desire for a son, and the blood brother’s curses. In Philomath’s dense poems, she evinces a knack for navigating moments of stacked narrative and learnedness via wordplay that would not, in fact, be “lost on Elizabethans.” Also, perhaps, not lost on Elizabethans would be the poem’s many swerves between allusion—following the above passage, Walker-Figueroa takes us to the dissection theater (think: Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson) to her father’s crime TV habit:

“Do you see that?”
he once asked over dinner, pointing
his fork at the screen
over which flashed the image
of a lone limb (feminine,
etiolating on a Floridian
beach), “The hair keeps growing
after death!”

Here, the father could be Gloucester: blind, groping in the dark for some flash of recognition, his child near, though beyond notice. However, I cannot help, in this moment, but read Lear performing his final lines, spoken over Cordelia’s dead body: “Look there, look there!”

Walker-Figueroa plays no note, in her poem, without sure return. The strife and superstition of the poem’s opening situation is a refrain in the narrative of “Drain.” When the speaker notes her name’s meaning, “My God / is an Oath,” we wonder what pact Walker-Figueroa herself has made with us, the reader; in a poem where the land, like the body, refuses fecundity, where life is no more “a rehearsal / for eternity,” what is promised? When we finally arrive in Drain, Oregon, we reach a sort of promised land:

In the game, my # was
called, meaning I was to be
crucified & a boy
I wouldn’t exactly call
my neighbor squeezed
a ketchup bottle
in both hands & whispered, “Don’t
forget to shout forgive them,
Father, ‘cause they don’t know
what they’re doing & don’t
worry, Dee. It’ll be so quick & just
like getting your blood
drawn.” I said, “I won’t forget.”

The speaker, at “Son Shine / Camp,” becomes—or, at least, performs—the desired male child. The biblical performance, blood in hand, contends with the familial discord of “Drain” through a dramatic (and juvenile) rendering of the crucifixion.

As “Drain” holds words, its “many aching parts / attached to the hand,” we recognize that the poem’s inheritance lies in language itself. Oaths, in biblical literature or Shakespeare, are rarely fulfilled in expected ways; in Philomath, it is through language’s doubleness—what may, at times, feel “a touch / inadequate”—that what is promised comes to pass. It is what turns it head and answers: “I won’t forget.”

—Chelsea Hill

Inconstant Color: Writing a Name with Devon Walker-Figueroa

I read Philomath as, in large part, a book of names. From its title’s naming of a ghost town in Oregon to its last line describing a sky “so hollow it swallows every name,” the book is intent on interrogating the act and significance of naming. Who names us, and in the context of which traditions? How do we inhabit the names we have been given, or the names we choose? How do names – of ourselves, and of our homes and environments – come to sculpt and form us, much as Walker-Figueroa sculpts a pig’s heart in “Beginning Wax to Bronze at Chemeketa Community College”? All of these questions animate Philomath, Walker-Figueroa’s impressive debut book of poetry.

 “Permission to Mar,” a poem placed early in Philomath’s trajectory, acts as a primal scene of naming the self. Here, Walker-Figueroa reminds us that names live as vibrantly in the writing hand as they do in the ear or in the answering voice. In this poem, the speaker is a child writing her name on a wall inside her mother’s house. The poem’s indented and dramatically enjambed lines slow this gesture to a phenomenological crawl:

Inside, I write
my name—the only one whose characters I know
corazón, and just by half, my last
still incomprehensible—on the wall. All
jagged and majuscular, all orange story-
book shade of flame, inconstant color I
learn with light  pressure behind the crayon’s tip

The orange-crayoned graffiti grounds and disperses its child writer precisely at the moment that a Spanish phrase meaning “by heart” (“por corazón”) joins the poem’s English. The child’s full name is suspended not only between languages but also between comprehension and incomprehensibility (“my last / still incomprehensible”).  It is that frisson of not-knowing that dislocates the child-wonderer, making her immaterial; and yet she is also powerfully embodied, with her fingers’ insistent “pressure behind the crayon’s tip.” In that sense, “light pressure” is indivisible from what she “learn[s] with light,” according to the syntactic doubling within the last line of this quote: a doubling that is accentuated by its suspension over a grand, even majuscular (in Walker-Figueroa’s own terms) white space.

In these ways, the child learns her name as an unknowable ferment of language that is also somehow inextricable from the super-localized effort of marking the “jagged” letters that provide, in the line break’s doubling, both an “orange story” and the preamble to an “orange story- / book shade of flame.” As the word “story” grows into the compound “storybook” after the line break, we realize that the child’s name itself is the culmination of a narrative, perhaps a printed one, that may span nations or continents. Like a storybook, a name may be lined with imagination. Like a “shade of flame,” it may burn. And here it is written with a crayon – an instrument more suited to coloring in shapes than to signifying in language. In this way, the “inconstant” quality of thinking or understanding is underscored by the waxy inconstancy of the childish writing implement.

Writing with an orange crayon—giving writing a color—is synesthetic, too. Walker-Figueroa’s crayon-writing creates a synesthesia that reaches from family history into music, as the speaker notes that the crayon’s “inconstant” color

recalls my mother’s skin
tone with more force, belongs to the note
E (according to the method I am
learning), consonant thrum of a slight
string I touch in her piano’s hull, highest
space of the treble’s F A C E

If skin, like sound, has a “tone,” then a face can be musical: in this case, an E note resembles a mother’s skin. And a music teacher draws an aural “FACE” as a mnemonic device for teaching the order of notes spanning the treble clef. As we follow the skein of syntax over these lines, relationships unfold that are both precise and “inconstant,” metaphoric and visceral.

Naming reaches backwards into family history and vertically into the “highest / space” of the piano’s hull: the space of sublime, inconstant, and musical creativity that the speaker is entering. It is the birth of an ontology that is linguistic and embodied, as well as cerebral and spiritual. And when she writes her name, not only does the speaker realize that “I am me,” but sees too “every you also / a me.” As the poem shows, it is in pronouns’ very fungibility that we begin to learn empathy itself. Recalling Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” when the child-speaker recognizes herself as “an Elizabeth,” Walker-Figueroa shows the discovery of personhood and the tremor of realized subjectivity as bound up with naming. She inhabits the space between our writing of a name and our inhabiting of it, a place where personhood catches fire.

—Christina Pugh

Chelsea Hill is from Houston, Texas, and a current MFA candidate at the University of Illinois. Her work appears in Ninth Letter, Great River Review, and Pleiades.

Christina Pugh is the author of five books of poems including Stardust Media (University of Massachusetts Press, 2020), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry. Her work has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in poetry.

Leslie Sainz is the author of the debut poetry collection Have You Been Long Enough at Table, forthcoming from Tin House in 2023, and the recipient of 2021 NEA Fellowship. A former poetry editor of West Branch, she is the managing editor of New England Review.

Corey Van Landingham, a contributing editor, is the author of Antidote and Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, and a recipient of a NEA Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.