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'Rough Beauty' recounts a poet's journey from self-reliance to community living

When award-winning poet Karen Auvinen loses all in a fire, she must decide what kind of life to rebuild.

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Rough Beauty:
Forty Seasons of Mountain Living
By Karen Auvinen
Scribner
320 pp.

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Fire is a finicky element. It destroys; but it also tempers and purifies. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the life of Karen Auvinen. In her new memoir, Rough Beauty, the award-winning poet recounts her struggle to rebuild her life after a devastating fire left her with nothing but the opportunity to begin again.

In the opening pages, Auvinen recounts the experience from years before, the day she drove her truck up a mountain road in the Colorado Rockies, her beloved dog Elvis riding shotgun beside her. That warm glow of a fire that she spotted up ahead – it was coming from her isolated mountain cabin. Rather than cozy and inviting, this fire was destroying her life. It had ravaged her home, consumed her belongings, and obliterated all traces of her daily life.

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Auvinen had fought hard for her mountain life, a fight fueled by grit and determination. Nearly 40, she had put miles between herself and her dysfunctional family. She had made her way through grad school and had crafted a life based on independence and self-reliance. Living on the outskirts of town, high up in the hills of Colorado, she supported herself with a collection of part-time jobs that allowed her the freedom to write.  

But that first night after the fire, sitting in a motel room paid for by the Red Cross, dressed in second-hand clothes given to her by local townspeople – the same ones she had kept at a distance for years – she admitted it was near impossible to feel self-sufficient when she needed everything.

Fighting back against the grief, Auvinen confronted her choices. With no physical remnants of her life, she realized she could easily disappear. Or, she could craft a new life. Ever the fighter, she started over. But this time, as if tempered by the fire, Auvinen surrendered to those powers beyond herself – the rhythm of nature, the change of seasons, the simple kindnesses expressed by those around her.

She started by simply following the instinctive wisdom of her dog. Elvis lived in the present. He knew to begin with food and shelter. The two found another cabin, this one just as remote as the first, where Auvinen allowed herself time to heal.

In a narrative that reads like a captivating novel, Auvinen’s tale covers the next ten years of her life. She marks time, not by years, but by the changing seasons. She observes the world around her – the bear she watches from a distance and the fox she lures up onto her deck with cooked chicken. She navigates the storms of each season – pelting spring rains and paralyzing winter snowfalls. She finds solace in daily routines.

Auvinen embraces her isolated life. She draws from Zen wisdom the understanding that being “alone” need not mean “lonely.” Rather, she discovers opportunity in her solitude, an occasion to live a life free of distraction, a life that is genuine and authentic. In this authenticity she heals and sheds the grit of her previous experiences. She discovers tenderness.

This openness provides opportunities to forge connections with her nearest neighbors, the collection of quirky residents of Jamestown, Colo., a town that describes itself as “The Home of the Somewhat Feral.”  In some ways, she had no choice. It is near impossible, after all, to live unnoticed in a town where everyone knows of the fateful fire. As she mends, she doesn’t simply respond to peoples’ well-intended queries asking how she is doing. She forges real connections.

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Auvinen celebrates holidays with her neighbors in the town center. She invites friends to her home for meals. When she joins the local arts organization, she mounts something akin to a coup as she gathers forces with others against the old guard who resist change. They organize poetry nights and classes taught by local artists. After all, this is her town, too, she declares.

And while she sees such activities as a means to stake her claim in the quirky town, one might also argue that she is yielding to yet another power larger than herself – the rhythms and traditions of small town life. Jamestown might be a little more eccentric than most, but this simply provides comedic material for this gifted writer. But Auvinen’s candor as she recounts how she wrestles with her impulsion to grow and to fight against outgrown or unreasonable restraints reveals her admirable courage.

Hers is a voice not found often enough in literature – a woman who eschews the prescribed role outlined for her by her family and discovers her own path. Refined by the fires of her experiences, Auvinen discovers her authentic self.