Follow. By Amy Wright Vollmar. (Cornerpost Press, 2020, Pp. 105)
Reviewed by Craig Albin
Amy Wright Vollmar’s poetry collection Follow is a double first, a debut collection by an estimable poet and the initial poetry offering by Cornerpost Press, an independent publishing company founded by Ozark writers Phillip and Victoria Howerton. The pairing between Vollmar and Cornerpost Press is fortuitous, since both Vollmar’s poetry and her book as object display the high, bright sheen of excellence, a quality enhanced in no small part by the inclusion of photos by the author’s son, Jake Vollmar.
The three titled sections of Follow—“Traces,” “Field Guides,” and “Passages”—each detail the speaker’s alert, preternaturally observant forays into the natural world. At first the reader may be reminded of Annie Dillard’s essay collection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which was awarded the 1977 Pulitzer Prize, but the guiding voice in Follow is distinct from Dillard’s, less laden with science and more musically attuned to the notes one may discern when alone in woods or near creek or cave.
The poems comprising Follow’s opening movement abound in images of entrance, a fitting pattern since “Traces” is essentially an invitation to follow the poet into increasingly intimate encounters with the natural world. The book opens with the poem “Signs,” which announces the speaker’s choice to venture beyond “the place / where the gravel path / washes out with every storm” in order to spy “trillium’s unfolding heart, / and mayapple’s / hidden flowering” (3). By forging beyond the path domesticated by human hand, the speaker enters a world of wildness and discovery. In “Verge” she follows a path “one hoofprint wide” that takes her “past a gate of thorn,” a lovely image suggesting either entrance or exclusion, depending upon the speaker’s determination, although the inclination here is all on the side of resilience (5). In “Switchback,” for instance, the speaker announces “the way to the waterfall / is not easy” and then proceeds to slide, draw, clasp, and grab her way nearer the desired destination. She confesses she would “like to chop / a path,” “clip poison ivy,” and pile rocks “in cairns / that point the way,” but were she to do so “the waterfall / could not surprise me / every time I arrive” (23). As if to punctuate this point, Vollmar closes “Traces” with “A Map of the World,” a sly poem in which the speaker laments the inadequacy of a paper map “made so / far above Earth / that these bluffs / are only shadows.” Instead, she practices a cartography of immersion, trusting “a secret / branch of flow” that “traces its way / to the river / where my map starts” (26).
“Field Guides” forms the middle of the book, a grouping of poems with darker, more foreboding notes, as if to forestall lazy criticism that Follow belongs to the sweetness and light school of nature poetry. An early poem titled “The Ridge Runners”—a phrase rich in reference to Ozark outlawry—declares “the bobcat, my neighbor / is avoiding the law, / shotgun pellets in his thigh” (32). The title poem, “Field Guide,” contains quiet allusions to threat or violence, for the speaker finds “a flint knife” before tracing “a deep scar / where a bear slid in mud” and finally witnessing a mayfly “vanish, / become part fish” while a squirrel laps “from the bitter lake” (31). Likewise, in “Beware,” the speaker’s journey “darkens” during a seemingly playful encounter with a fox whose “perfectly white teeth / are sharp as chert” (38), and “Stone County in Winter” opens with ominous portent embedded in the lines “they say a cougar / walks these woods” (41).
“Passages” marks the final movement of the book, with poems limning the now established theme of exploration and discovery. In “Reconnaissance,” the speaker attests to an increasingly earned fluency with the natural world, declaring that “the creek is / a way I think / through the dark layers / of the bluff” and later conceiving of the creek as metaphor, “a map for owls / And sycamores / I can follow” (56). “Noland Hollow” continues the speaker’s argument with man-made maps as she chafes at their efficient artifice versus the necessarily messy guideposts of actual terrain: “On my map / this river / is a gooseneck in blue / on an even page, / but inside / the map / the river is green / and thick with seeds” (60). At the end of the poem she even eschews the map to follow “only / the geese, / who leave a trail / of feather curls / as they veer / into autumn” (61), a decision reminiscent of Ike McCaslin’s choice to discard his compass in Faulkner’s The Bear. Finally, in “Shift,” the book’s closing poem, Vollmar invokes individual drops from a waterfall to craft a last metaphor of exploration and discovery, “each drop finding / its own path / for the first time” (79).
To be sure, Follow is evidence that Amy Wright Vollmar has found her own path as a poet. Whether a debut or not, the book is sure-footed, mature, and wise. It deserves to be read in solitude and savored, but it should also be the focus of discussion in university classrooms, community book clubs, and local libraries. Vollmar has created a significant artistic achievement, and Follow should be recognized as such.
Amy Wright Vollmar began writing poetry as a child in Alton, Illinois, while she explored the wooded ravine behind her subdivision. Deeper in southern Illinois, with her father’s family, she learned how to sing Appalachian folk songs and where to find the sweetest hickory nuts. At Monmouth College in Illinois, Amy majored in English, but also wrote a few poems during botany labs. After graduating she lived in Texas, where she worked for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, helping museum visitors touch interesting things, such as a live opossum or an Apollo astronaut’s glove. With her family, she chose to move to Springfield, Missouri, near the woods of the Ozarks. Hiking, kayaking, and writing followed, along with a job creating curriculum and teaching first graders at Phelps Center for Gifted Education in Springfield. Now retired, Amy volunteers with students, writes, and hopes to show people the beautiful fragility of the wild places she loves through poetry. Her poetry has previously appeared in the Cave Region Review and in Elder Mountain.
Craig (C. D.) Albin is a professor of English at Missouri State University–West Plains. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. His fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in a number of publications, including Arkansas Review, Big Muddy, Cape Rock, Cave Region Review, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, Natural Bridge, Philological Review, and Style. Ten of his short stories were collected in Hard Toward Home, published by Press 53 in 2016, a collection for which Albin received the Missouri Author Award from the Missouri Library Association in 2017. His poetry collection, Axe, Fire, Mule, was published by Golden Antelope Press in 2018.