A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Isabel Duarte-Gray’s first book of poems features voices of Western Kentucky

Every detail on the cover of Isabel Duarte-Gray’s first book of poems, Even Shorn, draws the viewer in. First, the title gets your attention, and then the distinctive name of the poet floats against a single stalk of Solomon’s Seal, a woodland plant with lance-shaped leaves. Dangling in pairs from each leaf are delicate, bell-shaped blooms. Over time, they will give way to bluish-black berries adored by wildlife, but until the metamorphosis they hang their heads as if in shame, guilt, or just plain exhaustion.

Closer inspection reveals that the flowers are really teeth. Hmmm. What reader would not be tempted to open the slender volume and risk getting bitten, just to see what’s inside?

The first poem, Night Jar, begins with a dress the color of a red dairy barn. Lightning bugs hang low like an angel stopped to think a spell. In the darkening, the red gets lost, and the poem ends, no color left at all.

Driskill, Kentucky are the last words on the page, and when asked about the place, the poet answers with, “Is it real?”

The same question can be repeated throughout the book, as the people and places in the poems come from family stories, Southern folklore, and the history of Western Kentucky. Locales in the region — places perhaps never mentioned in poetry or celebrated in history — include Kentucky’s Lyon County, Grand Rivers, Murray, Dycusburg, Eddyville, Paducah, and Dresden, Tennessee.

Like the flowers on the cover of her book, Ms. Duarte-Gray embracing duality comes natural to her. Born in Oakland, California and raised in a trailer in Kuttawa, Kentucky, she explains herself like this: “I grew up as a Latina in western Kentucky. That’s part of why I wrote the book.”

Half her family lives in California, with strong roots in Mexico. The other half is pure Kentucky. “They don’t understand each other,” she says, “but I’m aware of the two halves.”

Although she speaks the language of both and understands the nuances of the two cultures, she admits she has never felt wholly integrated into either one.

“I’m an outsider looking in,” she declares. “I’ll always be a little outside.”

The female inhabitants of Even Shorn have hard stories to tell. The title poem blurts a painful truth:

Time I lost my teeth I didn’t think to mourn them/ though the ache swung my jawbone/ far across the ripplegrass.

The quilt pattern Drunkard’s Path is the title of another poem featuring, Wint come drunk he/ struck her with the pan as flour/ flown to the roof hole and/ snowed on me his fists falling…

“In my family, there is a streak of hopelessness,” Duarte-Gray admits. “And it’s not unjustified. It is often attributed to outsiders, but we’re in a system that continually traps us in poverty.”

The Whore of Dycusburg introduces Them girls, the kind who own two dresses, one for church and one for everything else, including strolls down the cow path.

Lydia only got skin for loosing babies in, Fay for running out on,/ Wilma for a round of target practice when a man is whiskey drunk.

The poetry pulls the reader in with familiar language and situations. Dismal events emerge from a stunning natural landscape.

One cat became five,/ five became nine./ Then a flood and ebb/ as each moon brought its tide/ below the trailer floor,/ the cedar ledge,/ or looped inside the pumpkin vine.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Even Shorn is the poet’s first book, and advance reviews glitter with superlatives. Juan Felipe Herrera, Emeritus Poet Laureate of the United States calls it, “Bold, brave, rare genius, meticulous.”

Stephanie Burt, tagged by the New York Times as, “One of the most influential poetry critics of her generation,” calls it, “A song of songs, an evidence of evidence, a manifestation from places some of us know and many more of us should hear.”

As for me, I first met Isabel when she was an eighth grader at Murray Middle School. As a visiting artist, I taught a poetry workshop for her class. Even then, her work stood out. After that, whenever I saw her around town, she said hello and never hesitated to engage in conversation with impressive ease. She was amazing then and continues to amaze today.

When asked about how long it took to write Even Shorn, she hesitates before confessing it was a year and a half, as if that were too much time. But then she went on to say that the poems, “Kind of oozed out of my pores. I can’t explain. It spit itself out.”

She credits her mother for helping to birth some of the poems. “She remembered stories,” Isabel recalled, “and I fiddled with them in ways. You have to take them with a hundred grains of salt,” she cautioned.

Currently, Isabel Duarte-Gray is a PhD candidate at Harvard University, where she studies Latinx literature, poetry, and ecocriticism. She received her BA in English and Russian from Amherst College. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Bat City Review, South Carolina Review, and december, among others.

Available in May 2021, Even Shorn is published by Sarabande, a prestigious publisher of literary prose and poetry in Louisville, Ky. For more information, go to www.sarabandebooks.org.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment