The Northway

By Lisa Bellamy 


Terrapin Books
August 2018

Reviewed by Jeri Theriault


Lisa Bellamy is an animal-lover, a rebel, and quite possibly a Buddhist. Her first full-length collection, The Northway, though fully grounded in tangible experience, manages to transcend the purely physical by means of numerous animal spirit-guides. She has created a sometimes tender, often brash speaker who embraces both the unknown and every step of the journey she limns in these energetic and imaginative poems. 

"Life as Lucy," which leads off the fourth and final section of The Northway, is the poet's evocation of her brave speaker. When Lisa is renamed "Lucy" by the hard-of-hearing Bernice, the speaker recognizes herself immediately as "an eager dog off the leash." She celebrates her new identity: "There's nothing soft or vague about Lucy." She becomes a "dachshund digging" for "tasty mole scraps." This is an example of Bellamy's humor, to be sure, but it is also a moment of self-creation. Whimsical and exuberant, Lucy preaches defiance. 

The name "Lucy" derives from the Latin word for light (lux, lucis) which also means dawn and life. No wonder Bellamy chooses this avatar of light, since seeing is one of the fierce obligations the poet has set for herself: "Those with eyes to see, let them see." "Life as Lucy" ends with a kind of manifesto: 

I will not wait for the kingdom.
No, I will not save the best for last. 
I am the first and the last.
I am burning, a 10,000 year filament. 

In addition to the digging dachshund, Bellamy introduces a menagerie of animals, both ambassadors of nature and exemplars of behavior. Several poems offer distinctly female views: In "To the God of Spunk" the narrator prays that the "lady deer" get "a rack of antlers too." She identifies the worries faced by the doe: fawn-hunting wolverines, gangs of coyotes, as well as hunters' "potshots." She wants these females to grow bolder, "to arm themselves with more / than silence and wishful thinking." Likewise in "Cow Psalm," she calls cows "historians of loss" who remember "their stolen sons." "Goats" begins with "laboring mothers" at "the artisanal goat farm," praises the "lyric nature" of goats, and implies their super-consciousness, "leaping for sparks that we, in our ignorance / call stars, to swallow them whole."

Bellamy's animal poems are prayer-like, full of longing for the riches of animal awareness and the intensity of animal life. With its short cadences and list of crisp actions, "Hoot Artist" expresses envy for the owl's experience, and reads like an incantation:

  I want to rile crickets,
shiver the dry grasses,
  wake holy ghosts, 
gulp sentient
  beams of the big moon,
jump-start my heart—

In "To Be A Wintering Snake," the speaker seems to crave what Wendell Berry calls "the peace of wild things." Like the snake, she wants to "quit the fray," and snuggle "into a perfect crevice, / hidden, in twigs and leaves, for a season." 

The speaker also longs for the knowledge of animals. In "A Big Crow Runs Things around Here," she admires the noisy crows in her neighborhood, especially the "Big Guy": "I would not mind his instruction." She knows, as she makes clear in "To the Bobcat That Sprang in Front of Our Car," that there are lessons to be learned from an animal she and her husband almost hit: "I want your steady gaze. I will see nothing in this world / if I refuse stillness."

In "Notes to the Caretaker" the speaker makes a "final settlement" with a mole that has been digging up the lawn. The truce with his essential nature seems to offer complete understanding: "I know he cannot cease / his digging, for his claws are godly spades and dirt / his pleasing material." The poet's diction and sentence structure create a more formal tone, suggesting a Bible verse. 

In "Transient Pleasures of the Animal Realm" the speaker becomes a creature for a very human reason—vengeance. She imagines herself one of "the stiff-legged robins" and the woman who "sexted" her husband becomes a "creeping thing / on the ground." The robin (speaker) not only devours this "tiny / stick of crawling meat" but also eliminates her as excrement "within seven minutes." A deftly humorous poem, "Transient Pleasures" also suggests a belief in reincarnation. Likewise, "In the Biopsy Bardo" explores Buddhist principles as the speaker grapples with her own cancer scare: "in the bardo / say Tibetans, your idea of yourself as your former body / fades, as your future body takes shape." 

Bellamy's poems immerse the reader wholly in the moment. Nowhere is this immersion, this joining of the now with openness of the unknown, more apparent than in the title poem. The speaker is driving her "beloved passenger" north. A quick google search informed me that "The Northway" is Interstate 87, the stretch of highway between Albany and Montreal. Likewise Minerva, which marks "the boundary between / previous humdrum exits / and the extraordinary one ahead," is a real town along I-87. Here Bellamy blends the tangible experiences of highway driving with spiritual insight. Though she's the driver, the speaker closes her eyes to negotiate the liminal space between past and future. She seems acutely aware of the external world (she notes "rafts of loons" and "Holsteins / slumped against fences") as she surrenders to her inner eye to become a creature of the night: "my sonic bat waves guide me." She "soars" ready to "slip through a shimmering door." Like the narrator of "Bark Eater," a fierce survivor who "spits into the wind," this adventurer "doesn't need a compass, // she knows she's walking north—she's traveling light." 

Throughout the fast-paced, imaginative poems of The Northway, Lisa Bellamy provides an apt vehicle for the sturdy heroine I think of as Lucy. There is indeed "nothing soft or vague" about this feisty narrator. With her spirit guides and her own fierce determination, Lucy trusts her inner compass and the power of her journey—even with her eyes closed.