Blessing in the Midst of Loss: On Barbara Robidoux’s The Storm Left No Flowers

“The world as we know it is broken,” Barbara Robidoux tells us in The Storm Left No Flowers, a slim chapbook published in 2018 by Finishing Line Press. But there is beauty available to those with the courage to not look away, to follow Robidoux’s steady tread.

The Storm Left No Flowers, by Barbara Robidoux. Finishing Line Press, 2018.

In this collection dedicated to the poet’s grandson, the natural world and the gifts of spirit lie side by side. Informed by Robidoux’s time in Acadia and the Sangres de Cristo in northwestern New Mexico, where she lives, the poems focus on the destruction of natural habitat and the dangers of a climate gone awry. Its effect is cumulative.

In “Abiquiu,” where the speaker lives with “a rocking chair and army cot,” her friends in fruitful solitude, we also find the wisdom and the presence of elders, grandmothers. Here, two-hundred year old cottonwoods whisper like old women gossiping. In the cataclysm that is upon us, it’s the old women who have gifts, and enough faith and power to do what needs to be done. Here, the poet tells us, is beauty beyond words, and “beaver kits are born while I write.”

Nowhere is the insistence on mourning what is broken within a context of rebirth more evident than in “Out of the Ashes.” To “The sound of apricot buds bursting / of snows melting on the Sangres,” the poem adds the fear of police sirens. Here, “a circle of grandmothers meet . . . we eat oranges.” It’s as if only elders are able to tolerate dust in their faces, tumble weeds against their legs, becoming wise and strong enough to pray to the ancestors, to witness fires devouring ponderosa pine, “deer and elk running until their hearts burst” as they do in “Wild Fire,” where the speaker also says, “I carry beans, chili, green salad, / turn left at the last cattle guard.”

Robidoux’s world is populated by human and non-human creation alike, insisting on beauty in vulnerability and grit, as in “Moonlight shines on junkies who patrol dry arroyos.”

In “The Petroglyphs of La Cieneguilla,” the poet finds room for the miraculous in our dire time. Before the inauguration of the 45th president she crosses a path, under barbed wire, to let “star people walk into my life.” She writes “Cane cholla bones are strewn among the rocks. Coyote scat reveals the fur of a rabbit.”

In the heart of The Storm is “Antelope” is a most haunting poem. A small herd has come down from the mountains “as if to allow us to see them / so we can know their wildness, / so we might remember / the miracle of fresh grass.” The speaker, presumably an elder herself, encounters “an old woman” in the pueblo, who, upon hearing that the antelope have returned smiles and says, “I have something.” A recipe, medicine. “Even when we butcher them, there is a sweetness that comes out of them and fills the air.”

Migrant Moon, Robidoux’s previous poetry collection published by Miriam’s Well in 2012, used Japanese forms. In “Abiquiu,” she’s inspired by haibun, a combination of prose and haiku often used to describe nature. She creates seven stanzas in prose paragraphs that end with a tercet, such as “ancient cottonwoods / and the black bear / remember our laughter.” The poet calls attention to moments beyond urban experience in each stanza, as when beaver coming ashore to feed at night. She then grounds each stanza with a tercet that opens the moment to the reader: the strength/of trout lilies and black flies / purple iris on my path.

This chapbook is an unrelenting account of loss, a litany, as well as a testament to the earth’s resilience. We find a willingness to feel an encompassing embrace amidst raging wild fires, a careful witness in a barrio of brown people, among trailers the land can’t support. Generations pass and the earth receives an elder like an old friend.

The cover is an evocative photograph by Teresa Candelaria. We see a raven flying, its glistening black feathers muted in a desert landscape, the strength and pull of flight, the curl of one claw.

Robidoux has also published fiction, Sweetgrass Burning: Stories from the Rez and The Legacy of Lucy Little Bear, a novella, and has earned a Master of Fine Arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2017.

In “Abiquiu,” she writes “the river knows me by my breath.” In “World As We Knew It Is Broken,” she walks and listens to tall trees and her “sparrow fingers collect their seeds.” With this new collection, Robidoux calls us to a similar attention, to our own rituals, to our own path.

Ruby Hansen Murray is a writer and photographer living in the lower Columbia River estuary. Her work appears or is forthcoming in As/Us, World Literature Today, CutBank, The Rumpus, Yellow Medicine Review, Apogee, About Place Journal, and American Ghost: Poets on Life after Industry. She’s the winner of 2017 Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She’s been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, Ragdale, Playa, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Storyknife in Homer, and the Island Institute in Sitka, AK. She is fellow of the Jack Straw Writers Program, Fishtrap: Writing the West, and VONA, studied at Warren Wilson College, and has received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. She’s a citizen of the Osage Nation with West Indian roots.