Inspired by displays at a small natural history museum, the poems in Lisa Allen Ortiz’s collection are about what we set aside to examine and remember. The quirky, scientific lens—grimy, focused, funny, always illuminating—animates the odd and overlooked. With humility and curiosity, Ortiz is moved to learn how to see more clearly both as lover and as griever. Speaking the names of things—animals, skeletons, teeth, feathers—is a way of connecting with the complications of being alive. How does the stillness of an exhibit encourage us toward love and joy? Does studying details increase the pleasure of felt experience? Ortiz pays close attention to love while death and sorrow lurk nearby. “Survival is the mutest joy,” she writes. Guide to the Exhibit looks outward and reflects, examines, links, and contradicts.
A painted meadowlark on a painted fallen log,
sketch of canyon and field done in ochre strokes.
The snake inside is still as art, convict-striped,
Snake, I also was born in the forest and I also danced
on a done-up stage, hair ribbons pressed over my ears.
Back then each animal had its lair. Now the meadows,
the trees are all painted to give us a feel.
Only a fool holds onto place. To survive, make the place
you are look like home. Snake, this is the song of the kept.
See the crack in the painted sky? Soon the herpetologist
will open the back of your world. He’ll reach in and lift you
to twist in the air, coil the length of his arm, your primitive
three-chambered heart will shiver in its three-chambered sac.
This is affection—this tender art they made of you, this use.
The man will study your eyes and skin.
He will measure and weigh. He will note your mood.
Let him study. Let him see.
Listen to “Patois,” read by Lisa Allen Ortiz at Perugia Press’s 20th anniversary celebration at Smith College on November 12, 2016:
“In language that is spare, precise, and at times wonderfully, subtly strange, Ortiz works in the overlap between self and world, showing us that time does not honor human consciousness, nor even recognize it. Yet the world is all we have, and what we are is part of it. We are not its masters, and the attempt to hold onto things by saving, describing, and labeling them, is doomed. We’ll lose what we love. This hard-won understanding is the tough heart of this piercing, memorable book, which, like any memorial, is simultaneously a celebration of life and an elegy.” —Chase Twichell
“As Lisa Allen Ortiz moves through a natural history museum, she discovers a museum of her life, of all our lives, the remnants and reflections of what we have saved and what we cannot save. Her beautifully crafted language connects us to the elemental, as in this description of a hummingbird: ‘carbon tenderness, / caught shimmer.’ Through the careful, precise observation of individuality, she reveals universal truths. In ‘Microfossil Exhibit,’ she compares herself to tiny creatures—‘such small wanting’—and finds our commonality in what is, perhaps, our deepest need, ‘to be handled, seen, and noted.’ Ortiz’s devotion to exploring exactly this need makes Guide to the Exhibit so rich.” —Ellen Bass
“This book has many things I most hope for in poetry. The speaker is madly in love with the world and its names, its things. There is courage everywhere and acute attentiveness. These poems come to you—urgent, rushing, and controlled, from a wide-open heart. A splendid debut.” —Thomas Lux
“If to exhibit is to publicly display, it’s important to note that Ortiz exhibits private geographies, of the heart and mind—love, its playfulness; how we are all microbiomes; what it feels like to lose a parent, to contemplate paradise while drinking Mai Tais; she attends to quiet liminalities, slippery in-betweens.” —Amie Whittemore, The Bind
“If nothing else, the poet reminds us that our knowledge of the world shrinks as quickly as we destroy it. In the end, the woman grows ‘quiet as a tree’ and dies in silence. We (her friends, her children) ‘texted our regrets. / We pen-scratched bits on paper and threw them toward her grave.’ What else can the poet do, but scratch her poems, each poem an elegy for Mother Earth?” —Lee Rossi, Pedestal Magazine