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'Spirit Horse' is a fine, loving book of poetry

Among the best things about poetry is its capacity to surprise us. In a culture swimming in words -- in a language glut, really -- reading something fresh and different is a welcome thing.

Among the best things about poetry is its capacity to surprise us. In a culture swimming in words -- in a language glut, really -- reading something fresh and different is a welcome thing.
The craft of poetry focuses heavily on imagery, in the inclusive sense of conveying a visual image, a sound, a feeling, a concrete experience. So the language, often the very best plain language, takes on additional power. Seeing an experience we relate to in someone else's context, if we approach it with an open heart, can be deeply surprising.
And poems are freed from many of the form and content constraints prose writers face. Yet those who write poetry with hopes of being read must fight so hard for an audience that they commonly remember the oft-ignored prime directive of all writing: Do not waste the reader's time. Those combined forces can lead to remarkable -- and surprising -- work.
(To be fair, poets have it easier -- poems are rarely written on assignment or on deadline.)
Al Hunter's "Spirit Horses" is filled with surprising poems which will make you look twice. Hunter, an Anishinaabe from Manitou Rapids, Ontario, led (with his wife Sandra Indian) a 1,200-mile "Walk to Remember" around Lake Superior in 2000, and his poetry has been widely published, including inclusion in Poetry Harbor's 1995 release "Days of Obsidian, Days of Grace." "Spirit Horses" is his first book.
Hunter's poems ring with a spiritual reverence for all of creation that never once feels cloying or put on.
OK, maybe once or twice. Hunter is also a well-known environmentalist, so if you are reading Hunter's poem "Altered," for instance, you will get a series of wonderfully detailed images about a warm winter that ends with this line: "It seems that the patterns of creation are changing with migrations forever altered."
As is unfortunately the case with too much overtly environmental writing, this last line is one step too far. Yes, a warm winter or two is noteworthy and may mean something -- or maybe not. Oddly enough, the mid-1990s, the time period of the poem, include a couple of particularly harsh winters in Duluth. Moreover, I haven't heard any environmentalists, for instance, worried about global cooling after the downright chilly spring in these parts.
But no matter. Hunter's writing includes stunning detail on the color of winter sky, tinging snow with blue, on the play of light in the darkness, on the frost on trees and the posture of rocks. In a wonderful prose poem, "Letter Mailed, Posthumously," Hunter says even leafless trees are feathers. His views of the midwinter landscape parallel passages like the following, which reminds me of questions raised by Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground" without the self-loathing narrator:
Often I wonder why we find it so easy to find despair or create despair in our lives. We are so good, so practiced at creating fiction from illusions -- other people's illusions that keep us prisoners from ourselves, within ourselves. We need to write, to tell, to sing, to pray, to dance, to scream, to yell, to rejoice, to recite, to incite, to chant, to cant, to speak our own stories, even if it means creating our own fiction from our own illusions.
  Why do we wait? The longest journey is from the head to the heart.
In fact, "Spirit Horses" is largely devoid of self-loathing, also refreshing in today's climate. Hunter's poem "The Spirit of Creation" is as positive a view of humanity and its place in the world as you are likely to find, an affirmation of life. This is a contrast to the view pushed in much of our world of words.
For personal reasons, I loved "The One Who Climbs Hills." The personal reason is simply that I am one who climbs hills -- I never pass one along a trail or even a road without a sudden impulse to walk to the top.
The two following poems -- "The Light" and "Storm Dancers" -- have images that make them compelling, as well.
"Breathing Butterflies," which is about just what the title says, is fun.
From a technical standpoint, Hunter does make a literary reference or two, but is still highly readable, written in plain language.
An interesting facet of the work is frequent use of repeated lines, as if the work was meant to be set to music. I am sure those who attend Hunter's reading Saturday will get a deeper sense of these poems.
I did have trouble understanding a few of the poems, possibly because much of it is infused with Anishinaabe culture and I'm no expert on that. But I don't think "Spirit Horses" will give readers much trouble in that regard.
"Spirit Horses" is a loving, gratifying book that evoked a sort of deep smile in me as I read it. It's a recommended summer read.
Review
The book: "Spirit Horses," Kegedonce Press, 2002.
Author: Al Hunter
ISBN: 0-9697120-8-1
Cost: $10.95
Author event: Hunter will read his work Saturday, June 1, at 8 p.m. at the Dewitt-Seitz community room. Frank Montano will also play music. The event is free, and will be accompanied by a book signing (and copies of "Spirit Horses" for sale).
Recommendation: Hunter's poems ring with spiritual energy and retain the capacity to surprise. A delightful, wonderful book, well worth reading, despite a tangent or two.
Kyle Eller is features editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at kyle.eller@duluth.com or 723-1207.

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