Four Hinterland Abstractions

I read a poem recently, titled “Four Hinterland Abstractions,” by Ray Young Bear, and published in The New Yorker a little over a month ago. It is choc-a-block full of things, things I loved and things I didn’t understand.

Let’s think about the word “hinterland” to start. According to research (Wikipedia), a hinterland is “the land behind,” as in, the land behind a seaside town or port. In the first of four parts, the speaker describes a truck that “tipped / over on the interstate / somewhere”. The speaker says “this valley / was sculpted by the once lovely / wings of a vulture”. Here, the hinterland is not literally the land behind a body of water, but the land that was left behind.

This theme of ancestry and history continues in the second part, where nighttime fireflies compel the speaker and his children to “place ourselves / beside the weeping / willow grandfather”. Here, the mention of children and grandfather in the same stanza accentuates the generational quality of not only family but our lives on this earth. I love the way the above lines are formatted. The verb “weeping” and “grandfather” seem to go together in my mind, and on first reading I ignored the word “willow” by accident. It seemed to personify the tree, and was well done on the writer’s part.

The third part of the poem was the most confusing to me. It was more abstract. I got caught by the lines “a winsome / ghost that’s awash in green / & yellow pulsating colors”. What does this mean? How does it relate to hinterland?

The fourth and final part was also beautiful. The speaker meets a man, possibly a young soldier “wearing boots covered / with ochre grains of distant / battlefields”. The battlefields are the hinterlands, the far away place. The soldier “reached down / & crushed several into small / clouds,” only adding to their place in the background of the past, while he stands in the foreground, the present.



One Reply to “Four Hinterland Abstractions”

  1. I love the way you’re delving into words here, Maya, and seeing how they generate and give rise to the poem yet still leave room for surprise. It’s as if a poem needs to be a highly plausible machine, never improbable, and yet still a surprise (which probably also describes the best machines, too – if they weren’t a surprise, they wouldn’t be new, and if they weren’t plausible they would not work).

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