Review by Annie Dawid
Phantom Canyon, a rough and rustic valley in the Front Range, inspires Colorado essayist and poet Kathryn Winograd to write a series of visceral essays that both wound and heal. Rich with mining history and the detritus of a formerly prosperous life, the area surrounding Phantom Canyon, including the once-gilded Victor, acts as muse for Winograd’s recent collection Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation (Conundrum Press) which contains 23 lyrical prose pieces. The collection informs readers about this storied sector of Central Colorado, mining Winograd’s personal history as it simultaneously explores the depths of damage on the natural world, damage caused by men, including that inflicted on Winograd’s thirteen-year-old self.
Born in the Midwest, Winograd migrated to Colorado in the 1980s, where she married her Denver-born husband, Leonard. Leonard appears as a skeptical counterpoint to the author, punctuating various essays with his urban, sometimes cynical wit. A graduate of the University of Denver’s Ph.D. program in Literature and Creative Writing, Winograd now directs the Writers Studio at Arapahoe Community College, where she has taught for the last decade. When she and Leonard bought land in Teller County her writing veered to prose from her former province of poetry, melding the best of both worlds in the form of the lyric essay. Her first book, Air into Breath (Ashland Poetry Press), won the 2002 Colorado Book Award. Most of the pieces in Phantom Canyon have won prizes and appeared in literary reviews. “Bathing,” a painful, purging short piece near end of the collection, was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2011 and is included, with another work by Winograd, (Note to Self): The Lyric Essay, in the sixth edition of The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of Creative Nonfiction.
In the introductory essay, “Dark Skies,” Winograd invites the reader to enter the sometimes frightening nighttime landscape of her high altitude refuge, her retreat from the blinding suburbs. “Darkness is overwhelming, immense, a black shroud between the world and me. What do we miss in a place of no real night, a place of misdirected streetlights, of scattering aerosols, of sign illuminations, and diurnal moths battering at our lighted windows?”
In the course of these lyrical prose pieces, we will learn what we miss while also entering Winograd’s past as she integrates the rape she experienced as a young woman in Ohio during an era of silent shaming. In the author’s hearing, a female classmate asks another, “Why would anyone want to rape her?”
This essay leaves the reader pained and awed that Winograd survived such treatment yet can still create miraculous beauty from the unholy horror. This same beauty is evident everywhere in Phantom Canyon.
In “Heresy of the Holy” Winograd meditates on the suicide of a former classmate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
“Even here, in this place I think holy, my neighbors fence their land and warn me of prosecution for my trespasses. I stumble over scat and elk droppings, and the long bones of steers. I have no God. I am no man nor Thoreau nor Emerson. I am an aging woman, like this woman poet I once knew, a half-menopausal woman in a field full of dull barbed wire, where desperate cattle trample down the muddy leaks of a spring to drink in the drought of this winter, and where micro bursts of wind slay whole stands of trees, and people I do not know throw their trash and mattress springs into these glory holes I love.”
Winograd acknowledges the whole of nature as well as our human natures, the damage and the wonder are everpresent. “And then an elk bugles and five appear over the ridge, stand listening to me. Then a river of elk—fifty, seventy—pound across the clearing, disappear into the trees, the bull elk left standing, bugling back to my small high blasts, wild along the stone ridges.”
Like Winograd, readers will find themselves amazed, stunned by what they have witnessed. Like the elk, they can only marvel at the sound of that woman, whose voice elicits the tender, naked self, leaving all privileged to have heard it.