Image of Overland
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
Copper Canyon Press
Reviewed by: 

“Eilbert’s book is a testament to the act of seeing, of witnessing, of experiencing and still—as in, nonetheless; as in, despite it all—not turning away.”

"How easy language pretends utility," writes poet and journalist Natalie Eilbert in the final of four poems titled "The Lake" in her newest book, Overland. And yet, in this riveting, complex, and moving collection of poetry, Eilbert uses language expertly and adroitly, braiding multiple experiences of violence—physical and emotional and even philosophical—to reveal how humans habitually destroy that which they most need: the environment and each other.

Eilbert's refutation of language in this poem from her third collection—"language is an imposter of history"—" I am most alone when I grieve through / language, when I become the privilege of language"—would be almost wryly funny if she were not so adept at, and deeply rooted in, language. Because as a journalist and as a poet, she wears an earnest and honest appreciation for etymology, often using repetition in her poems as a way to explore how definitions and the meanings of particular phrases can change in an intimate and highly personal way over one's lifetime.

In "Bacterium," for instance, Eilbert creates a poem that suggests the titular one-celled organism's spherical shape with chains of couplets linked by a repeated single line: "my mother." The poem changes, as it must, while continuing to use the language that came earlier, rearranged. Through the poem's long lines and (at first, seeming) non sequiturs, we witness the infinite interconnectedness of the world:  "Humans continue the first line of their suicide letter. / An enzyme invents us, we invent enzymes. The plastic we make, / we must eat it" and

                                                                   In simple utterances

we designed us. Time draws a circle, we must eat it. We make the plastic, enzymes invent we, us invents an enzyme to continue

the first line of a suicide letter.

Eilbert's ability to circle back to the earlier language of the poem in such a way that feels humble and utterly sincere is remarkable. What might be an ambitious technical undertaking for another poet here feels organic and natural—there's a beautiful clarity to the poem—and demonstrates how a thing evolves (even a thing that might, ultimately, be an agent of destruction).

Throughout the book, the erosion and erasure of the Earth's surfaces, its life-giving resources, and its creatures, are conflated with erosion of meaning, and it's important to note that Eilbert rarely relies on the environment for metaphor. Rather, what happens to the women in these poems is happening also to the Great Barrier Reef, to California forests, to rivers, to insects, to the most minute and unseeable organisms. There's a sense of parallel violations, a concurrence of traumas within and without.

With Overland, Eilbert is writing timeless poems about a very specific moment in time—inequities, atrocities, and environmental catastrophes of the 21st century as birthed by the 19th and 20th centuries—so it makes sense that pop culture references like Orbit gum wrappers, the Blair Witch Project, clickbait, and keeping notes in one's phone abound.

One of the more subtle but apt references appears as a visual in each of the "Lake" poems: sections are divided not by the traditional choice of asterisks or Roman numerals, but by the squares or boxes that appear when a mistranslation occurs during a document conversion. This is particularly poignant in the book's second "Lake" poem, which wrestles with identity, being seen, being seen accurately, and writing "in order to know anything":

the poem is a vampire

            in want of no further information—


            the heart's clotted data

            I find difficult to name.




What is the locus

of the project, the tea not steeped,

                        eucalyptus shine of earthlings—


I would like a poem to be postcountry


            having decided that the most

                        significant change

            humanity can make

                                    is a complete flushing out

            of borders.

The poems of Overland are dense in sound and in meaning: long, complex sentences that demand rereading—not because they defy sense, but because they arrest it. There's a bravery in her formal choices that evokes surprise and delight. One wants to follow the track of the poet's thoughts, especially as the book's tone and momentum becomes progressively more intense; the third "Lake" poem is a particularly devastating accomplishment, exploring depression and suicide while referencing mythology, Eudora Welty, Watership Down, and Virginia Woolf:

                           Woolf, early in To the Lighthouse,

writes about the prose of salt, on boredom perhaps,


            and I think of the prose of salt,

the bored light I have missed slumped


                            atop a failure inventory, panic

igniting the roan hills of my heart

There are many writers whose names grace these pages, from children's book author Richard Scarry to Eilbert's contemporaries like Jesse Ball and Megan Fernandes, as well as predecessors like Rebecca Solnit, Alice Notley, Clarice Lispector, and Elena Ferrante. It's evident that Eilbert is as much a reader as she is a writer, and that she's thinking about the world much as a philosopher would—but without the pretension or obliqueness the term "philosopher-poet" brings to mind.

Instead, her references reveal that despite the loneliness and despair often expressed by the speaker, this is a poet still very much engaged with the world: stricken, perhaps, and made disconsolate by the ways in which humanity has failed each other and the land we've occupied (although never rightly owned, as she reminds us). Eilbert’s book is a testament to the act of seeing, of witnessing, of experiencing and still—as in, nonetheless; as in, despite it all—not turning away.