Mountains and Meanings

A Review of Ida Stewart's Gloss


Gloss
Ida Stewart
Perugia Press, 2011, 84 pages
Poetry
Reviewed by Karen Pickell


Ida Stewart loves to play. In her first collection of poems, Gloss, Stewart frolics with sounds and spins meaning topsy-turvy. This is a poet who clearly loves words—not simply the joy of finding the exact right word, but the deep satisfaction of exploring a single word syllable by syllable, letter by letter, breaking it apart then putting its pieces back together again to create new connotations. And to top things off, this recreation serves the higher purpose of illuminating such complex and diverse topics as love, identity, and mountaintop removal.

In fact, the mountaintop is featured in the title of eleven poems, and reflections on the destructive coal mining practice infuse the entire book. Particularly striking are these lines from “The mountaintop as expression or choking on her own words”: “Remove the point / from the A and there you have it, havoc.” She dedicates the poem “Point Blank” to activist Larry Gibson, who has steadfastly refused to sell his family’s land in Stewart’s native West Virginia while the mountain surrounding it has been decimated. Stewart recognizes the bond between a person and the land to which he or she is bound, “the Appalachian appellation. / Redundancies inside redundancies, / the land gives the name. // Hear territory in its pronunciation,” as she writes in “Appellation.”

Another repetition in Gloss is the concept of the glossary, or gloss-ary, “as in glossolalia— / words untrapped and tumbling” (from the poem “Gloss”). The collection includes five “glossaries,” each focusing on a particular subset of the English language. For example, “Glossary: Ex- Words” gives us “ex-plain / Means fancy; / having learned to talk with airs;” and “ex-a-mine / Is torn between filling in and tearing some more.” Stewart invents provocative redefinitions of mundane words we typically toss around without much thought, forcing the reader to slow down and reconsider what is usual and accepted. In doing so, she brilliantly leads the reader by the hand down a path of complex contemplation, never letting the journey become too much to take.

Particularly impressive is the way Stewart layers her themes throughout the poems in Gloss. These are not individual stones artificially arranged to form meaning. The entire collection functions as a landscape. Each poem when excavated reveals strata of anguish, hope, despair, and passion, integral parts of a beloved whole, like the gradations visible in the holes dug into Stewart’s beloved mountains. Her new lexicon plunges the reader deep into the heart of broken land and broken lives.    

Gloss was the winner of the 2011 Perugia Press Prize, and Stewart’s poems have been previously nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Stewart is currently working toward a PhD in creative writing at the University of Georgia. She has served as an editorial assistant for The Georgia Review, and she co-edits the online poetry journal Unsplendid. This is a talented poet whose ambition shines on every page of Gloss. I expect we’ll be reading much more from and about Ida Stewart in the future. 



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