Xylotheque by Yelizaveta Renfro
University of New Mexico Press, 2014; 153 pp
Reviewed by Gwendolyn Edward
Renfro’s newest work, Xylotheque, is a solid collection often departing from traditional narrative non-fiction. The central image of trees—oaks, mulberries, redwoods, navel, and others—is a lens by which Renfro contemplates time and experience. She says in “Song of the Redwood Tree”: “It is in the looking Walt Whitman. We must look to our fullest capacity. We must look until we see. And even if we never see, we must still look. We must never cease looking.” And this is what Renfro does: she looks and sees, finding connections between the nature that stirs her, the trees that mark her life and the lives of her family and children, and in turn braids her occupations over the years (crime reporter, journalist, cemetery plot sales woman) with mediations and investigations into history and understandings of death and loss.
“Soviet Trees” employs a second person point of view and recalls Renfro’s estrangement and demonstrations of power and foreignness in a camp for Soviet girls, blurring the lines between reader and writer and speaking to cultural alienation and questions of identity. Present tense narration depicting the past and present alike in “Navel Country” has a disturbing effect in collapsing time and place, and “Quercus” and “Living at the Tree Line” utilize section headers, resulting in a satisfyingly dizzying understanding of how seemingly very different subject matters come together in mutual contemplation. “Cause of Death” is a series of fragments and “Translation: Perevod” in dairy form exhibits a mix of honest, unforgiving narration and reflection.
Renfro isn’t afraid to take risks; Xylotheque has an essay for even the most discerning readers. Though at time dense and slow to read, the collection’s feel mirrors the author’s own messages: time is not only essential to understanding; it is embodied in the lands around us, giving us slight hints about why we’ve become what we are: “Finally, what the trees teach, what they mean, why they are crucial to who you are will still remain beyond your grasp, but you will continue reaching nonetheless.”