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An American Map: Essays
By Anne-Marie Oomen
Wayne State University Press, 2010
Review by John Palen

My favorite of the 15 essays in this admirable new collection is “The Underpass: Washington, D.C.” In ten pages it combines all of Oomen’s considerable strengths: Use of place as a gateway to memory; an astonishing ability to capture and render detail; and a narrative about the present that is gripping in its own right and allows Oomen to come to terms with the past. For the first time since she participated in the 1973 Nixon inauguration protest, Oomen visits the capitol, this time to see one of her students accept a national award. The visit opens up bitter memories of the march, the war, and two college classmates who died in it, their names forgotten now and poignantly merged with the thousands of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

Then, in a surprising turn, Oomen and her husband David decide to walk to Kennedy Center, where her student is to be honored. Neither has realized that they will lose sight of their destination in a maze of berms, troughs, abandoned highway structures and a multi-lane highway that is anything but pedestrian friendly.

In heels through broken glass and trash, a “wicked blister” forming, Oomen finds herself in an underpass, where she and David suddenly realize they are walking through someone else’s home. “There are two who live there,” she writes, “and they have made a place to sleep of a refrigerator box and some tarp, maybe part of a tent.” The confrontation is nasty, and Oomen reacts with a combination of hurt, guilt, anger and confusion. Oomen’s great skill is to find the connections. At the end of this essay, she confronts the inhumane highway that blocks her way from the place where something good is to happen. The highway becomes symbolic of the Vietnam war, the other wars that followed, the homeless men, and much else that has happened to America.

“What have I done in these thirty years?” she asks. Giving the only answer she can, she writes: “I lift my skirts and straddle the guardrail and step forward as dozens of cars hit their brakes and horns.” It’s a stunning ending to a stunning essay.

In other pieces Oomen explores such topics as trout-fishing with an estranged sister in Colorado, snorkeling among unexploded ordnance at Culebra, Puerto Rico, hunting for the spirit of Cochise in Arizona, and stilling the chatter in her head on Mount Ranier in Washington State. Varying in location and tone, the essays have in common a commitment to fresh language and to preserving the particularity of places “where meaning and geography and people are linked so closely they make the stories that give us identity.”

Oomen, who grew up on the family asparagus farm in Michigan, teaches creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy. Her previous books include Pulling Down the Barn and House of Fields, both published by Wayne State University Press, and poetry books Seasons of the Sleeping Bear, Moniker, and Uncoded Woman. She has written and produced seven plays. An American Map is another in Wayne State’s Made in Michigan Writers Series, which also includes Laura Kasischke’s Eden Springs, reviewed here last March. Anne-Marie Oomen’s latest work continues the series’ high standards.

Reviewer John Palen’s Open Communion: New and Selected Poems, was published by Mayapple Press in 2004. Since then he has had chapbooks published by March Street Press and Pudding House, and has recent work appearing in Clapboard House, Ragazine, Off the Coast, Bare Root Review, and Jelly Bucket. After 36 years as a Michigander, he is now living and writing in Central Illinois.

© John Palen, 2011