Dusk falls on Las Vegas, and poet Heather Lang-Cassera text-messages to say she’ll be late for our interview. She is, at the moment, navigating her way back from Bowl of Fire, an Aztec mound-rich wilderness in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, an hour east of the Strip. By the light of her iPhone, she manages to locate trail markings. This means she’ll soon head to her downtown Las Vegas home, where she lives with her husband (a Cirque du Soleil technical manager) and two dogs. Then she’ll hop on her stylish Triumph Bonneville T100 and meet me at the coffee shop blocks away to chat about her powerful new collection of verse.
“I hope you like the book,” she texts, after letting me know she’s back in the valley.
I reply that I didn’t like it. I tell her it unflinchingly addresses the violence that corrodes the American soul and possesses a nature-infused sentiment unlike anything in poetry at the moment.
She replies with a thumbs-up emoji.
It’s easy to compliment a writer working at the level of Lang-Cassera. A Nevada State College professor, she recently brought out Gathering Broken Light with Unsolicited Press in Portland, among the best contemporary poetry publishers. The book hit shelves the same week Las Vegas remembered victims of the 1 October shooting, a tragedy that occurred four years ago and still defines the indefatigable nature of a blue-collar town (#VegasStrong), reeling now, like other service-economy cities, from unemployment caused by COVID-19. Lang-Cassera is giving all royalties from her book to the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center to support survivors, a gesture that motivates her to speak about Gathering Broken Light and gun violence.
When we finally sit down for coffee later in the evening, she confesses that setting out to write a series of untitled poems centered on the trauma and grief of a mass shooting was daunting, but also “necessary” for her. She had friends and students who survived the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest concert, a few texting her as it happened. But her book isn’t a graphic retelling. Instead, Gathering Broken Light succeeds because its speaker searches for answers beyond the concrete and neon, until she enters the harsh yet healing environment of the Mojave Desert, where “[t]he prickly pear flickers/silent in the late heat, with flame/-like petals.” In fact, Heather wandered the desert trails in the days and weeks following the tragedy, writing poems of grief as they poured out of her and into her notebook, which she keeps in her motorcycle saddlebag. Her verse arrived in fragments mostly; sometimes fully formed.
“I didn’t just write,” she says. “I took film photos of the desert as a way of processing. Both the quiet and the practice of close looking offered gentle spaces for contemplation. They anchored me, you know?”
The dislocation was severe. She began to hear stories of those tasked with literally picking up the pieces of this unspeakable crime. Items like the “crumpled napkins” became tinged with loss, resulting in ekphrastic couplets like “[a] trampled cup reminds us of a snow globe/which reminds us of dreaming.” To keep the poems from veering into melancholy amplification, she discarded countless pages. She assumed relying on strict formalism would save the project—at one point the manuscript included a sonnet. But the rhyme scheme and the iambic pentameter felt too controlled. The form didn’t fit the unpredictable nature of grief, trauma or memory.
“What happened on 1 October still seems, and will forever be, unfathomable,” she says, sounding like a priest throwing up her hands at the mystery of evil. “For this reason, images and metaphors that begin to approach the expected feel disingenuous to me.”
I tell her that her remark on disingenuous writing reminds me of philosopher Theodor Adorno’s quote: “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Of course, a mass shooting and the Holocaust are incomparable, yet how can one possibly make literary sense of malevolence?
“That, for me, is the mission of poetry: to sit with something that can’t be figured out, to try to understand something that ultimately can’t be fathomed,” she says. “When I know how I feel about something, I turn to writing prose—short stories, essays. I turn to poetry when I can’t comprehend something, both as a writer and a reader.”
Another Las Vegas poet, Jennifer Battisti, author of the recently published mixed-genre collection Off Boulder Highway, says of Lang-Cassera’s book: “Reading [Gathering Broken Light] I feel invited to bring my own heartache.”
Indeed, everyone I talk to about the book feels the same way. They want Gathering Broken Light to carve out a new literary space for grief, allowing impacted communities to pause and remember those most affected.
There is a haunting image in the book that lingers—that of a desert tortoise trudging across the sand with a topographic map on her shell. A few stanzas in, the reader understands the map is a secret guide to navigating the contours of grief.
But how do freshly scarred communities—there were, after all, 696 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2020—recover from these horrific acts in linear or non-linear fashion when they’re also facing the ravages of COVID-19?
“I do fear the ways in which the isolation brought on by COVID-19 might be damaging to individual and community wellness and healing,” she says. “I have also witnessed some folks, especially early in the pandemic, who found the additional time and space helpful to them as they engaged in mindful practices, like writing, which can allow folks to sit with, and maybe even to process, a variety of more difficult experiences.”
There is mindfulness at work in Gathering Broken Light. It is at times prayerful, even if many detest the “thoughts and prayers” that follow mass shootings. While Lang-Cassera’s speaker never utters the name of a divinity, her book offers a spiritual balm to agnostic readers. Is it likely the poet continues to interrogate a “higher authority” while traversing the natural world?
“Do I find myself asking more questions?” she says. “Constantly and increasingly. These days I spend every moment I can wandering, by foot and by motorcycle, throughout the Southwest. There’s something about the severity and the beauty of the Mojave Desert that reminds me of grief’s devastating sorrow and profound love. But a poet doesn’t need to wander the desert. The natural world is everywhere and anywhere.”
Lang-Cassera stops short of preachy sentiments when discussing gun violence; she is an artist who chooses to let images and metaphors express her views. Rather than rant, she is busy teaching her students to write well and with passion and living her best life under her own rules. I tell her as much in the parking lot before she dons her helmet and snaps her motorcycle engine to life. It has been the weirdest and loveliest conversation I’ve ever had with a professor-poet about her book.
She gives me a gloved thumbs-up, the non-emoji kind, and roars onto the neon Strip.