Following a story of immigration and assimilation, Learning to Love a Western Sky (Airlie Press, 2020) is a wistful and sentimental collection of poetry by Amelia Díaz Ettinger. Separated into four parts, each section is punctuated by warm illustrations of a village. Ettinger’s poetry paints a new kind of homesickness as she contemplates life as an unending entanglement of the past and the future.
The opening poems of Learning to Love a Western Sky travel back in time to reminisce in distant but dreamy memories. Ettinger’s rich and profound imagery astounds readers, creating captivating scenes of nostalgia and a deep sense of loneliness. “Dia de los Muertes” is one such poem filled with gorgeous and powerful imagery as Ettinger captures grief as the brisk transition from fall to winter. The speaker says: “Dew covers this gray day, / light struggles to reach ground, / but cold has no trouble / filling space with living remains. // Cold whispers its name / at night in the coyote’s call. / At dawn the bulging elk, / the slowing heartbeat of a dying friend.”
The natural world plays a significant role in Ettinger’s poems and overall storytelling. While exploring major milestones such as migration and death throughout the collection, Ettinger often uses the weather as an indicator for a period of change.
The collection also touches on themes of loss, nature, and diaspora as Ettinger revisits the past. In “Lost Night”, Ettinger captures the comfort and solace that nature brings in the face of grief. The speaker remembers, “At the bottom of the walk / there is a guava tree, / the girl sits in its lap sighing. / Her braids unmade / by a gentle breeze, / she stiffens her tender shoulders.”
“Lost Night” explores the mutual agreement of giving and receiving that characterizes spiritual, intellectual, and physical ties to land, particularly to one’s homeland. To find a home somewhere is to dig your feet into the ground and set your roots. In this poem, Ettinger verbalizes the immense sense of loss that comes with leaving your roots behind for another country, especially one you are struggling to connect to. The speaker comes to realize their roots remain in the Caribbean through reminiscing, recognizing that their home is suddenly a figment of the past, seeming to only exist in their memories.
In the middle of the collection, this natural imagery is repurposed to tell stories of heartbreak and longing. Before this point, nature was a loving and attentive force. While nature remains a source of comfort and familiarity, it also becomes a descriptor for pain and detachment. Throughout most of the collection, the sky and the land are used to discuss endings and their many forms, including death and heartbreak. “Betrayal in Hunting Season” is a gorgeous example, as Ettinger writes “Autumn is inside me / with colors going sepia. / Orange and rust stolen / by her kisses. / Did she taste of honey and berries? / Certainly not apricots; leave me those.”
“Her Husband’s Hands”, a poem written for a family member, combines these two purposes as Ettinger uses nature to tell of how heartbreak makes a home in grief. The speaker draws inspiration from the earth to describe her husband’s hands: “Those hands carried home / a shell, like for a snail. / The water of our dreams / every day till the end.”
Recurring themes of youth and aging compliment Ettinger’s exploration of life in a foreign land. In a couple of poems, Ettinger uses body image to touch on aging, health, and the small changes that occur in self-examination routines, detailing the odd experiences of ageing in an unfamiliar country that does not feel quite like home.
She also writes about aging through the perspective of love and desirability. The speaker of “Today” says “we are afraid of growing old” and continues the conversation in “Today Talks Back”, responding with “fear was not of age…The certainty is tomorrow / when there will be no touch.”
I found her brief examination of desirability interesting as touch became a diminished expression of love and desire with age. In “Old Age”, she writes: “You become invisible. / A woman no longer desired. / But the body continues.”
Learning to Love a Western Sky touches on a wide array of important topics that Amelia Díaz Ettinger captures beautifully. There were times when I hoped Ettinger would delve deeper into the stories she chose to tell, particularly those of migration and integration. I found myself wanting to read more about Ettinger’s perspective on building new relationships (with land, people, and so on), and renewing connections with one’s homeland. It would have been interesting to see how these parts of life change through her poetry and how nature would have been used to explore these new dynamics. Still, Ettinger’s well-crafted and gorgeous symbolism makes the collection a very enjoyable and light read filled with nostalgia and yearning.
Iqra Abid (she/her) is a young, Pakistani, Muslim writer based in Canada. She is currently a student at McMaster University studying Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Kiwi Collective Magazine. Her work can be found in various publications such as Stone Fruit Magazine, Tiny Spoon Lit Magazine, Scorpion Magazine, and more. You can find her on Instagram at @iqraabidpoetry.