When I see a book like Sweetgrass, by Micah Ling, I’m reminded of the powerful effect that a beautifully bound book can have on its reader. It’s a slim volume, reflecting the spare, almost utilitarian poems inside. Similarly, its simple, geometric cover art reflects the surprisingly vast sprawl and heft of Ling’s words. In Sweetgrass, Ling gives us untitled, mostly short, mostly prose, poems about life in Montana. The poems rarely tackle heavy issues head-on, instead choosing to circle them, leading the reader about them like a pair of hands working a herd. In one such poem, a cow is found mortally ill or wounded:
Yellow is down. Bill will take her out.
Back with the herd, the girl feeds the calf skim milk
twice each day. Yellow gave twelve good calves,
and this one knows her line […]
This is instinct: milk and tears.
In another, Ling renders a scene of celebration among strangers at a restaurant:
Stuck in the city for supper,
sit on stools at the bar […]
Overhear golf-game recaps
and gossip of the sister in California.
Listen as they go silent and all eyes turn
to the picture window at the front of the place.
Martini glasses are still and all at once
the crowd roars with clapping: it’s raining,
pouring, and everyone knows this is good.
There is humor here, too:
Like teenagers, the elk are hanging out on the side of the road again. Bennie and the Jets. All, Look at me: hey honey, take a long look.
And fun, swimming, teasing bears. With all of the subjects Ling touches on, the most constant is perhaps less addressed than all the others. Work, in one form or another, is the underlying subject of nearly everything. The death in the first poem, and the joy in the last, are all connected to sweat and toil. This is true of most places, but Ling gives the reader a unique and stirring account of the workings of the people and land of Montana, and Sweetgrass is a wonderful addition to that geography.