Making Good Use of August by Sherry O’Keefe

Making Good Use of August Making Good Use of AugustSherry O’Keefe; Finishing Line Press 2009WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
I read two chapbooks today, of which this was the second and much the more profound despite its lack of pretention (which the other had in spades). I’ve gotten to know Sherry’s writing through her blog, too much august not enough snow, which is consistently wonderful. This book of poems — her first — was no different. Like her nonfiction, her poetry is lyrical, narrative, and deeply rooted in a landscape that most of us think of as a vacation destination, when we think of it at all, but Montana is O’Keefe’s ancestral home. And while she clearly loves the land and spending time outdoors, she doesn’t try to pretty it up. When she was a kid, and her own family struggled to get by, a school-bus friend

lived in a shack with a two inch gap
around the front door. Dark winter mornings
kerosene light leaked out. She stayed warm
by wearing three dresses while she slept.
She told me she switched them so it seemed
as though she changed her clothes.
(“Bus 16”)

O’Keefe’s tales are often laconic and leave the reader with some work to do, which I like. I had to mull over “Approaching Strangers” for a couple of minutes after I read it, and I’m still not entirely sure I understand what the protagonists were up to.

He tells us he is lost.
I reach through the window as though to draw
a map in the margin of yesterday’s newspaper.
How to get to where you never wanted to go.

Add to this necessity of sitting with the poems for a little while to unpuzzle them, the sheer variety of ways in which O’Keefe plumbs the mysteries of human motives, and the book ends up seeming much longer than its 25 pages; there’s a spaciousness to it. What exactly is “the story behind my neighbor’s blue spruce,” you may find yourself wondering on first read of the piece so titled. Does she in fact cut down the tree as she seems to want to, and if so, why? Then the fact that it’s a blue spruce begins to sink in…

I’ve been re-reading the Icelandic sagas lately, something I do every few years, and marveling as I always do that such great works of literature could’ve emerged from a land so rural and thinly settled that there was not a single village, let alone a market town or city — things we tend to assume are essential for literary culture to thrive. But perhaps extreme landscapes select for unique and extraordinary characters. In her bio, O’Keefe “credits/blames her Irish heritage for her story-telling ways,” but what made her ancestors choose to stay in Montana?

For as anyone who’s ever grown up way out in the country can tell you, leaving isn’t hard. It’s choosing to be content where you are that requires a little extra grit. I agreed with “Gas Station Guy.” He likes to describe the weather in terms of distant places:

“There is a touch of Seattle
in the air today, but tomorrow Phoenix
will blow in.” He shook his head ‘no’ when I asked
if he ever wished he could breathe
the real Pacific air, feel the Arizona heat. The trick
to life, he said, is to like it where you live.

In “The Way My Wipers Work,” a cloudburst forces the protagonists to pull over because the windshield wipers in her old pickup truck stop working, as they are wont to do. The travelers decide to take shelter under a tarp in the bed “to listen and share shivers.” In this poem, as in the title poem, a broken thing is regarded as source of good fortune: the couple gets closer under the tarp.

The wind
jostled and the rain dumped down. Thunder
snapped around us. I curled into his quiet
faith of living head-on, trusting
in the storm.

Making Good Use of August, too, is a book to curl up with. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to visit Yellowstone country for real, but reading O’Keefe seems like the next best thing.

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