University of New Mexico Press, 120 pages, paperback, $18.95
Though Sean Prentiss has yet to write a straightforward autobiography, he has a unique forte as a writer and poet who infuses autobiographical elements into his creative output.
In his debut, Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave , Prentiss traces his cross-country journey searching for the ghost of famed environmental writer, Edward Abbey. He interviews Abbey’s closest friends and compatriots, visits Abbey’s homes and haunts, ruminates on both the man and his many myths, and culminates the tale by seeking out Abbey’s hidden desert grave.
But in addition to unearthing the hidden sides of Abbey, Prentiss is on a quest to answer other pressing questions concerning himself: What is important to him? What is he running from? More importantly, what is he running toward? Prentiss’s quest to “find Abbey” is also a quest to find himself.
And in that same spirit, Prentiss has produced a themed collection of autobiographical poems, Crosscut. Years ago, long before marriage, career, and fatherhood, Prentiss was offered the opportunity by the Northwest Youth Corps to lead a crew of troubled youths into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest to perform backbreaking trail work. For five months, Prentiss and his crew of about a half-dozen young adults set up camps in wilderness areas across Oregon and Washington, living out of tents and sleeping beneath the the stars between long, hot days of labor.
It is an interesting bunch Prentiss leads, young adults barely out of their childhoods, yet all running from something — drugs, criminal histories, and so on. And so too is Prentiss, running from something, as he explains on page 34,
They dream I’m some
Catherine out there,
a ballast. But she’s
on the wrong side
phone calls & I’m just
weeks since drinking
mere miles from
the nearest store selling
Oly or Rainier in bottles.
But that shouldn’t give you the wrong idea about the overall tone of this book; rather, it is a book about beauty, healing, and optimism, in spite of troubles. In these sparse, compact poems, the reader learns the ropes, experiences the successes and tribulations, and grows alongside Prentiss and his crew. I felt sad as the five-month stint comes to a close later in the book, and I felt extremely sad and nostalgic for my own time spent out west that came to a close too quickly. But as Prentiss states on page 81, “May these trails/birth you & me — us — into/some new home.” Years on, he seems to have found his place of belonging in the world outside that realm; I hope I too can do the same someday.
Let’s hope this worthwhile collection doesn’t fly under the radar. This is the type of poetry that, were he still alive, Jim Harrison would likely have enjoyed. Those who enjoy his work would be well-advised to pick up this book.