"Love of learning" is what Philomath means. This side of a ghosttown, what kids are here hang out in gravel parking lots & huntpixelated deer at The Woodsman. They break into gutted sanctuariesof timber mills, looking for places to leave their neon aerosoled names. In Philomath,Begg's Tires is the only place to buy new chains, Cherry Tree's the bestprice on feed, & Ray's has everything from meds to milk to LuckyStrikes & pocket knives. The only outlet in Philomath sells wood, the kind that growsjust here & in the holy lands. True Value boasts all the sturdy deadbolts for when the back door's gone busted again. My friendMegan is still giving out blow jobs to mechanics & drinkingred cough syrup until she doesn't care about her step-dad walking around, covered in nothing but sweat & dirt. "Me & you aregonna get trashed tonight," she says to me every night. I ask my dad if Megan can movein, & he says, "Twelve cats & two dogs are enough." In Philomath, I'd be lyingif I said people don't get saved every week at the Nazarene Church, whereMegan & I go to Vacation Bible School & sing about going "straightto heaven or down the hole," where the pastor slips nylons over our faces & tells us to suckpudding from a bucket just to show how far we'll go to be forgiven. We swallow it allbecause this is how you get close to God in Philomath. When Megan's dad learnsshe's saved & he's not, he teaches her a lesson about beingsorry & how God is not watching Philomath. On Monday, Megan's eyescan hardly open, & our school bans Liquid Paper & permanentmarkers & the word "bomb," because they could cause usto die before our time. Megan spends breaks in the bathroom & I know notto follow her. I go to the library, where I check out A Season in Hell because they don'thave Illuminations & never will, & I feel alone around all the smart kids who raise uppigs to pay for college. They belong to 4-H & know how to sell livingmeat to the highest bidder. They get made fun of by people like Megan & me& the boys who only wear camo & talk about the beauty of a deerspitting up its life & most anybody the teachers have given upon, which is nearly everyone. I care about Philomath & its "Loveof Learning" bumper stickers that turn invisible under mud, its historicalsociety that hangs quilts over the walls of Paul'sPlace (where loggers get Bottomless Joe), that documents every haunting,every sighting of a ghost, & Megan is still in the bathroom stall, learning what it meansto be in Philomath for good.
Devon Walker-Figueroa is the author of Philomath, selected for the 2020 National Poetry Series by Sally Keith. A graduate of Bennington College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Walker-Figueroa’s work can be found in the American Poetry Review, The Nation, POETRY, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Devon is the recipient of the New England Review’s Emerging Writer Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, and a Jill Davis Fellowship at NYU, where she currently teaches undergraduate creative writing courses.
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.