Selected by Sally Keith as a winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series, this debut collection is a ruminative catalogue of overgrowth and the places that haunt us.
With Devon Walker-Figueroa as our Virgil, we begin in the collection’s eponymous town of Philomath, Oregon. We drift through the general store, into the Nazarene Church, past people plucking at the brambles of a place that won’t let them go. We move beyond the town into fields and farmland—and further still, along highways, into a cursed Californian town, a museum in Florence. We wander with a kind of animal logic, like a beast with “a mind to get loose / from a valley fallowing / towards foul,” through the tense, overlapping space between movement and stillness.
An explorer at the edge of the sublime, Walker-Figueroa writes in quiet awe of nature, of memory, and of a beauty that is “merely existence carrying on and carrying on.” In her wanderings, she guides readers toward a kind of witness that doesn’t flinch from the bleak or bizarre: A vineyard engulfed in flames is reclaimed by the fields. A sow smothers its young, then bears more. A neighbor chews locusts in his yard.
For in Philomath, it is the poet’s (sometimes reluctant) obligation “to keep an eye / on what is left” of the people and places that have impacted us. And there is always something left, whether it is the smell of burnt grapes, a twelfth-century bronze, or even a lock of hair.
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Praise and Prizes
“Winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series, this debut from Walker-Figueroa ponders beauty, nature, and the landscape of Philomath, Oregon.”
Walker-Figueroa’s work is powerful, at times mysterious, and a thrilling study of memory, time and events both quotidian and historic . . . Philomath is sure to be a notable debut.”
“Devon Walker-Figueroa’s Philomath reimagines King’s Valley, OR—where the author grew up, now a ghost town—in all its beauty and discordance.”
“I couldn’t be more delighted than to have found Devon Walker-Figueroa’s Philomath. Philomath is a place, a small town near Kings Valley, Oregon. Here, the neighbor eats locusts and every daughter is blonde. If one of the book’s motives is ‘Find[ing] a way out of this valley named for a family so dead / everyone calls them Kings,’ the means is music. There is a harp, a violin, Gregorian chants, and hymns, but what drew me in was the music of the sentence, of the poetic line. One truly senses a poet trying to hear the world around her, in all of its trouble, complexity and joy. If whatever it means ‘to become’ has a sound, Devon Walker-Figueroa can hear it, ‘the way a blood’s fever can outlast the mind’s.’”
“Devon Walker-Figueroa is that rare being—a poet who is both a brilliantly heartrending lyricist and a scathingly precise portraitist; a poet who experiments with the forms of verse, and a natural-born storyteller whose sympathy for the vividly rendered residents of Philomath recalls the Tilbury town of Edwin Arlington Robinson and the Winesburg, Ohio of Sherwood Anderson. This is poetry throwing off sparks with the élan of Ai, Raymond Carver, and Sharon Olds—though Walker-Figueroa is a totally original voice.”
“This is 'the sound of becoming,' 'every you also/ a me.' This is the haunted Northwest, its 'trespasses/ unwittingly made.' This is the poet who knows all about 'a harp with forty strings of gut/ and one of gold,' who has turned that harp from agony to harmony with the songs of her childhood and teens. These are the steers and the steering and the wrong turns and the turnings of a verse so modern that its reverses point into the future and all the way back past the mill on the Floss; these are the memories, the parables, 'the closest/ you can get to civilization out here,' as if we did not have to civilize ourselves, as if this poet and her music could not take us 'Out of Body,' out of the ghost town called Bodie, out of a scary family history, out of martyrdom, out of time. It's a tome against self-erasure, for recollection, for staying and moving on and even thriving where so many have already fallen.”
“Humming, whirring, and burning with ghosts, prayer, and grief, Devon Walker-Figueroa’s incandescent Philomath—lit by loss and longing, and radiant with intelligence—is ablaze.”
“In Philomath, Devon Walker-Figueroa, with rare insight, writes an America so absolutely American it has been forgotten by America, an America so American one can’t believe it exists unless one has lived there, and if one has lived there one recognizes it everywhere. Walker-Figueroa sees not only beyond our ideas about ourselves, but all the way to us being ourselves. Hers are the truest poems being written.”