In Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s debut collection, Steam Laundry, poems rely wholly on the energy of a true historical narrative and the small details that elucidate the experiences of a singular life. The life belonged to Sarah Ellen Gibson – an Alaskan pioneer who follows her husband, Joe, to pursue Yukon gold claims, and later independently starts a roadhouse and laundry in Fairbanks. This research-backed “novel in poems” accumulates in the form of persona poems voiced primarily by Sarah, augmented by photographs, receipts, and correspondence from the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives.
Sarah’s strained marriage to Joe stands at the center of the book, an apt metaphor for the loose promises and inhospitable landscapes of Klondike boomtowns. Joe journeys to the Klondike, where “there’s so much rain/ … that the horses sink/ to their necks,” Sarah remains behind, reporting on life with their two sons: “The boys they once were/ fade more with each morning’s sun.” The correspondence between the two spouses grows steadily bleaker as Joe’s work keeps him isolated. Sarah muses bitterly about Alaska’s bloated promises: “imagine the struggle/ it will be to carry bags full of gold dust/ down from the hills.” She follows this sarcastic image with an ominous prediction that reflects both the realities of the gold rush and her unspoken fears for Joe: “If there are more men than stones,/ there are more men to come./ The beach will be built of their bones before long.”
While Joe and Sarah’s slow separation makes a bitterly beautiful accompaniment to the larger arc of upheaval, hope, and loss the Yukon gold rush represents, Steam Laundry’s faithful use of historical record sometimes strains its verse and form. The decision to use only the old-fashioned diction available to her personas confines O’Donnell to a repetitive and sometimes unimaginative set of signifiers. Many of the poems hinge on lists of items. Talismans of drunkenness surround Joe (a bottle, a glass, a stool); the accoutrements of household work (“the washtub, the iron kettle, the laundry wringer”) decorate Sarah’s fledgling independence. O’Donnell’s emphasis on historical accuracy even dictates the book’s physical form: documents and photographs of frontier life demand wide pages for legibility, so the poems, which occupy slim columns, swim distractingly between oversized horizontal and vertical margins.
Despite these occasional clashes of content and form, Steam Laundry deserves attention for its resurrection of an untold frontier story. Sarah’s voice has charm and clarity reminiscent of Elinore Pruitt Stewart in Letters of a Woman Homesteader. As Joe travels the Yukon trail, Sarah reflects on the strength it takes to raise her two sons, and how her vacant marriage has matured over time: “I’m not so lonesome/ as I thought I’d be,” she concludes. As captured by O’Donnell, Sarah has pluck and grace, and an undeniable stubborn streak that resonates, even as her fortunes sour and the sobering realities of marital and economic discord dawn. Bleak yet bracing, this pioneering history ultimately delights.