The following review of Laura Chester’s new book RIDING BARRANCA is by acclaimed poet and author Lyn Lifshin. Her many books include several about racehorses, including The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian; Barbaro:Beyond Brokenness; and coming in 2014, Secretariat: The Red Freak, the Miracle, all from Texas Review Press. Also forthcoming is a chapbook, Lost in the Fog from Finishing Line Press.
Choosing to Ride Out: A Review of Laura Chester’s RIDING BARRANCA by Lyn Lifshin
As soon as I saw the stunning, breathtaking cover of Laura Chester’s Riding Barranca, a startlingly beautiful image of horse and woman moving through rippling water, moving as one, mirroring the magical ride that’s about to unfold, I felt I was in for an amazing journey.
In Riding Barranca Chester lets us inside her world where the beauty and silence of nature tangle with complicated, often searing family relationships. These passages, italicized in the book, memories of being knifed with verbal assaults from a mother who demands—“Whose genes are in you,” are a counterpoint to the soothing sound of “the horse’s hooves on the hard packed road.”
In another section she writes, “When my parents were passing through New York and I wanted to have a meal with them—my mother’s response was, ‘This is our time to be alone together, Laura. We’re only seeing the people we really want to see.’ ” When she asks to stay in the pink room, her mother responds, “But that ‘s a nice room…” Like a Greek chorus, her words move the reader though years of intense landscapes, both inner and outer, sometimes to familiar and almost forbidden places, scary vistas she can’t help but come back from changed. The calmer landscapes with “the scent of juniper and sweet fern that smells mildly like peppermint when crushed by the horses’ hooves,” and the still painful memories move like dancers on a dance floor—first one leads, then the other.
I didn’t want this book to end which is always a good sign that I am in the presence of intensely beautiful writing and magic. A cremation on the banks of the Ganges takes her back to the cremation of her mother in Wisconsin. A risky horse ride in India reminds her of a time when her father rode into a bull pasture with a bull whip in hand while she was on a pony, a trigger for anxiety. On Barranca, with the calmness and ease of a good horse, she sees things she hasn’t before. She has also learned to say, “No, I do not want to do this.” Through landscapes, often silent and refreshing, sacred as a church, family history reshapes itself like pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope, always there but seen at a different angle.
I can’t imagine anyone not fascinated by the connection between humans and animals that Chester explores. Dogs and cats, not just horses, can soothe, console and connect. Anyone close to an animal knows these creatures merge with the history of one’s life and bring emotions that are rare and powerful.
The mother and daughter relationship, central to Chester’s year of watching her mother go through the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease, is revealed in some of the most moving passages—extremely intense, often painful, heartbreaking and raw, yet singing as they must have years before. Having edited Tangled Vines, a collection of mother and daughter poems, I was not surprised how powerful Chester’s writing is about this relationship: intense, ambivalent, passionate, difficult, fierce, never easy or simple, a relationship that never ends, not even with death.
At the heart of the best connection, there is always some darkness, envy, ambivalence, combined with a longing attempt to win the mother’s love, approval. Riding her beautiful, beloved Missouri Foxtrotter, Barranca, Chester takes us deep into the forest of many family relationships with their estrangements, reconciliations that no family is without—betrayals, rage, sickness and death, as well as support and comfort.
Like the dappled light Chester and her horse move under, the book goes from joyous moments laughing with girlfriends under the stars, to hurtful, terrible darkness that could trap a less strong, stubbornly determined woman, one who has survived literal and emotional falls. Riding lifts us into another realm, “purging the daily grumble and allowing our spirits to soar.”
So many examples of beauty and strength and sensuousness: “The woodland trail is surrounded by thin, dark-skinned birch-like trees, and if you break off a twig and give it a chew, it tastes vaguely like root beer.” Later, “There is the faint smell of grape on the road home, followed by fresh tar and then mown fields. It is so mild and blissful that I feel I could almost fall asleep in the saddle.” So many beautiful passages about Indian summer—“watching the dark wet shine of Barranca’s skin as it dries in the afternoon sun.” Scenes from India—“a woman in a bright red sari carries a huge bundle of sticks on her head.” I can see the dark wood paneling, glass cabinets and jewelry at the Gem Palace, as well as the blue moon rising over the Huachucas—-“Suddenly the moon is there is full form, balanced on the mountain line and rising surely. Revealing its golden appearance…”
It is quite a ride with Laura Chester and Barranca. “While riding, memories so often surface and percolate. I wonder where these odd thoughts come from, similar to the musings of a twilight reverie arriving like unexpected houseguests. Images arise…family members appear as if to remind us they will inhabit us forever.”
One of the most beautiful passages of the book is toward the end when she thanks her mother for the good things. It is too long to quote all of it, but I can’t end without adding a little: “Thank you for being honestly passionate, for remaining steadfast, marrying this man, leaping into an unknown world—the cold, often hostile, uninviting North…thank you for the magical Christmases, the stockings and gifts beneath our tinsel laden tree.…Thank you for our wonderful homes, raising us in places of order and beauty…thank you for showing us emotion—letting us know that love is not easy, but it is always worth it.”
She leaves us with what she’s learned: “Riding Barranca puts me in the moment, which is where I want to live.” This is a beautiful, special book. It will touch everyone who reads it. I couldn’t recommend it more.
RIDING BARRANCA is available from the TSB online bookstore.