Local Matters: Five Books on Place
Waking in Winter, by Anna Wigley. Gomer Press, 80 pp., $11.99.
Heaven Overland, by Jim Murphy. Kennesaw State University Press, 116 pp., $14.95.
Cultural Studies, by Kevin A. González. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 96 pp., $15.95.
A Sunday in God-Years: Poems, by Michelle Boisseau. University of Arkansas Press, 104 pp., $16.
Waterlight: Selected Poems, by Kathleen Jamie. Graywolf Press, 140 pp., $14.
Where in the world are we? Sometimes when I open a new book by a contemporary poet, I ask myself that by the time I reach the third or fourth poem. Like novels, poems often attract me when they ground me, rather than grinding me down with unnecessary literal detail or attempts to seem intellectually important. Unlocalized poems of the mind are necessary and engaging, but these days too few poems seem to rise out of a complex and sophisticated sense of location, perhaps because poets are busy running from place to place, gleaning whatever is to be had from a cursory connection to any given landing spot.
The poets under discussion here are fastened to particular locales in more than pedestrian ways, and they are all interested in exploring the details of the places from which they write. Together they show what can still be done with quiet attentiveness to the people, languages, flora, and fauna of immediate surroundings—even if what they are working from is largely mental or emotional landscape. And that attention gives each of these poets a point of view as well as a position from which to make those larger leaps into speculation that the best poetry provides.
Anna Wigley’s slender third volume, Waking in Winter, shows that this young Welsh writer knows her native land. The poems, most of which are on the short side at twenty-five to thirty-five lines, focus largely on plants and animals that many of us in the United States will recognize even though they are placed securely in the Welsh countryside. The book has no section breaks, and so the details build in quick succession. Wigley’s work is accessible without being too easy; her metaphors and tropes are what raise the work from simple descriptions to meditations on the relationship between humans and the environment. Even individual titles, “Daisies,” “Poplar,” “Ram,” “Buzzard,” “Miserable Weather,” “The Missing Cats of Roath,” reveal that her concerns are local (the only exception being the poem about foot-binding in China called “Lotuses,” which frankly does not seem to belong in this collection at all). Some might argue that her concerns are, therefore, small, but the language Wigley uses takes the poems into unexpectedly large fields of inquiry.
The poems about animals often begin with description, but even in these beginnings Wigley draws out metaphor with tone and image. The animal in “Ram” is a rotting corpse, and the poem lingers on the tiny markers of decay. It is not an ugly poem, however. The dead ram is made up of “One black leather hoof / . . . / near the rag of wool.” The ribcage is a “nest” in which flies “sup and pool,” and the body has become “the spoil / of beetle and crow” as the “pale summer sun / [cooks] / his banquet of coils, / the steaks of muscle.” At this point, we might expect the speaker to turn away in disgust, but she doesn’t. Instead, she concludes, “there’s something peaceful / in his lack of will, / his gift of himself / to the hungriest worm / —like a fallen apple.” The dead ram has become an emblem of reversal in nature as well as a memento mori for the human viewer, who will herself one day become such a meal.
This intense viewing of natural processes also figures in “Kittening,” in which the speaker and an unknown companion watch their cat give birth. The subject lends itself all too easily to mawkishness, but here, the cat, “surrendered / to her own thick bliss” as the kittens appear, is anything but cute. She is practical about the business of cleaning the newborns, turning “to lick them as if / tidying some morsel she’d dropped,” a level-headedness in the face of new life that astonishes the viewers. They feel “like visitors / to some Biblical scene / domesticated in a corner: / Lazarus rising from his bed of twenty years / while his wife cooked breakfast next door.”
Even the buzzard, that most repellent of birds, is given dignity as he takes his place in the cycle of birth and death that these animal poems so gracefully illustrate:
He seems not to watch but to sail
complete in the ocean of his silence,
drawing the exquisite circles
like a painter using himself
as the brush, stroking the sky’s canvas
with dark-barred bristles.
. . .
Even when he falls, he drops
like water swirling round a hole,
never breaking for a moment the slow
rhythm of his curving glide;
seeming less to dive than to faint
earthwards, a soundless kite
no longer lifted by the wind.
The kite at the end of “Buzzard” takes the poem in two directions. The kite can be, of course, a paper kite governed by a person, but for this Welsh poet the shadow of the red kite of Wales, a bird of prey endangered by human encroachment on its feeding territories, is also present.
Wigley is as careful in her consideration of flowers and trees as she is in that of animals, but again she avoids the easy metaphor or sentimental appreciation. Summer, in “Learning to Swim,” is remembered mostly through the “green musk” of the scent of ferns; daisies are “wind-harried” and “astringent.” “Poplar” provides an occasion not only to link the tree with the water that nourishes it, but also, in the repeated word “frail,” to embed the subtlest of warnings that the natural environment is delicately balanced:
Even in the faintest bird-breath breeze
the bright stream trembles,
and sighs with the soft exhalation
of thin water
wooing a million shell-frail stones.
Interspersed among these poems are also reflections on friends and family, linking human beings to the non-human world. Illness and death are never far away, and Wigley’s insistence upon the beauty of the natural cycles to which animals and plants succumb is a counterweight to inevitable grief. The last eight poems of the book redeploy earlier images to make sense of sudden death. These are all short poems, but I will quote here just one, “Transformation”:
Now you are kin to flowers and grass:
the crumpled head of a daisy snicked from its root,
the hank of cut lawn drying to straw.
We all saw it so plainly there
on the hospital bed: your bruised shell,
your poor nose pinched and yellow.
How immeasurably you were beyond us,
translated to a husk, a dropped leaf.
No time, no notice given.
Not even you were informed.
This poem seems simple, but its clear surface is somewhat deceptive. One controlling metaphor—that of the person as plant life—is not especially difficult, though it is rendered beautifully. “Transformation,” however, is also linked to language; a person, in death, is not just changed but “translated” into the text of the non-human world—which is larger than ours, “beyond us.” That metaphor is further complicated by the paradox of the last punning word of the poem, “informed,” which suggests that when we are in the form we recognize—human form—we are actually “[n]ot . . . informed.” In our mortal bodies, we are less than we think, and even on the threshold of death, we can’t quite see the size of the realm we are about to enter. This is a graceful elegy, and it does what the best elegies do: provide a brief meditation on mortality and human being.
And this is the real beauty of Anna Wigley’s Waking in Winter: her ability to use linguistic connections, slant rhyme, and allusion to make of the most quotidian subjects—life in small-town Wales—a book that takes on the great cycles of birth, growth, decay, and death. The book is shot through with moments of natural theology, as when the daisies sing “chaste, plainsong hosannas,” and if the book has a weakness, it lies in the occasional appearance of excessive and untempered joy. This is a minor complaint, because creating a sacramental tone is less Wigley’s concern than finding empathy with the smallest, least valued beings among us. And this she does with an unsentimental beauty that few young poets can match.
Heaven Overland, Jim Murphy’s new collection, is a crisp, often funny series of poems about the open highway and the cars we Americans love to drive. The cover features a photo of an aggressive 1950s Cadillac that seems to be headed for the skies, and the poems are by turns swaggering, teasing, belligerent, and nostalgic. The radio is always blaring in the background as the poems, in this roadtrip of a book, travel through the places that mark our often blighted history.
Broken into four “Routes,” the book opens with one of the best poems in the collection, “The Family Cadillac for Sale.” The informal but precise diction of the couplets creates a chatty, salesman’s tone that tells the history of middle-class twentieth-century American greed and materialism as it traces the car’s glory days and present state of decay. It’s almost convincing enough to make someone want to buy this car—almost. Here are the first four stanzas:
And here it is—after fifteen years of grinding
desire and denial, five hundred dollars
down and sixty months of drafts on that
unaccountable dark reservoir—an all-American
thrill in excess—our blazing El Dorado, one long
dream of comfort in the urban wilderness—
driven only thirty-nine short years from Detroit
to a corner lot off Rampart Street in New Orleans.
Not every poem in the book uses a metonymic object to chronicle an age as successfully as this poem, but this one certainly sets the tone and subject for the rest of the collection. Many of the poems, in fact, are difficult to quote effectively, because they are catalogs of the places and songs that have become emblematic of mid-twentieth-century America. The car is America in many of the poems, and the driver becomes, then, a native of everywhere.
South Carolina is one stopping place, and in “Charleston Language Lessons” the issue of race, frequently touched upon in this book, comes to the surface during a conversation in a churchyard. Despite the heavy-handed final image, the poem is a finely drawn narrative of the sudden intrusion of the horrors of American history into the quotidian pleasures of a holiday afternoon:
our own impatient talk of drinks and dinner—
all of it wrung out and almost forgotten
before our sweat beads fall,
caught up in what’s dimly legible—
Josiah Everett, born in Liverpool and sixteen
years a trader
at Havana and Barbadoes—
Who did arrive at Charles Town for his good
health this April past
succumbed to a foreigner’s fever on—
Enough to halt the forward
motion of our play, enough to stop
our chatter in the cunning history of terms—
among bent tendrils and cracking pathways,
one juju bundle, freshly placed
beneath the whitewashed pediment.
Other places take the speaker into private rather than cultural history. Petty theft and teenage angst figure largely in these poems. One example of these is “Opposite of Berryland,” in which musicians are the signposts for the various stages of this very American speaker’s childhood and adolescence: “. . . I’m looting through my cousin’s music, / at best pissed off, about to steal. There’s no defense / once the buzz-saw cuts come over the headphones— / so mean and lethal, all the burned-out huffer basement / bands—The Stooges, Stones, Ramones, The MC5— / minstrel singers bent to history, players on private planes.” The speaker understands his anger only in retrospect, however: “What would / take me years to learn about corruption is right / there inside the sleeves. . . . / . . . At sixteen, for me / it’s all the same vague notion—something casual / and grave I have to parrot for my life.”
Elvis, of course, makes his appearance in “A Superior Hairdressing.” This time the road is in the singer’s memory as he creates his perfect pompadour with the ironically named “Black and White Pomade”: “Before an open mirror’s makeup lights and a pale / feathery sway of dancers, nearly visible history / exists behind him—Tupelo branch to Memphis brick, // jalopy rumbleseat to the smooth blue Lincoln . . . the forms combine and jell.” The Rolling Stones show up in Fordyce, Mississippi (“Fordyce One July”) to the discomfort of the local sheriff; Sarah Vaughan sings in a hotel in an unnamed city (“Sarah Vaughan’s Voice at Thirty Stories”); Gram Parsons’ grave is “rumored to be” in the Garden of Memories in “rude Metairie, on 61, the Airline Highway.” Music is all over these poems, and the poems move all over America, traversing its roads and interrogating its history.
It would be remiss not to mention a glaring flaw in the production of this book, a flaw that I don’t think can be charged to the author. The layout of Heaven Overland is perfectly atrocious. If poems are one page long, they lie on the left, and the right page is blank. This makes about a third of the book’s 95 pages completely unnecessary. On top of that, after the prologue poem and before the epilogue poem, several pages with pale imprints of the section-break logo are just stuck in with no apparent rhyme or reason. At least two epigraphs seem misplaced (one of them, a quotation from Chuck Berry, is in the middle of a section). Pity the poor trees that were sacrificed to make this book physically almost twice as long as it needed to be. And shame on the publisher that let a manuscript go to print in this condition. All books (including mine) have errors in them, but this book’s layout problems are far beyond simple error. My sympathies to Mr. Murphy, who must have felt his heart skid sideways when he saw the book for the first time.
That is not the note, however, on which I would like to end. The writing in Heaven Overland is smart and wise without pretension. The allusions work together with the conceit of a road trip to create a book that has as its larger task an account of American glory and failure in the late twentieth century. Many books of personal poems try this, but fall beneath the weight of self-importance or self-pity. Jim Murphy’s Heaven Overland does not; please overlook the layout problems and read this book for its poems.
Kevin A. González’s place is Madison, Wisconsin, though his debut collection, Cultural Studies, locates the self at a crossroads. He usually uses a second-person speaker, a risky tactic for any writer, but in these poems it creates a doubled narrator who is often trying to figure out who he is. Caught between the middle America of Wisconsin and his Puerto Rican heritage, the speaker in these poems reveals an interior space that is as clearly mapped out as any town.
Most of the poems have the word “cultural” in their titles; while this gets a bit tedious, it also provides a link among the poems, and the poems refer so directly to each other that Cultural Studies reads almost like a book-length poem. These are personal lyrics, for the most part, and when González is at his best, he uses a leisurely conversational tone to recall the incidents of his childhood and young adulthood. The most powerful poems involve his father, who is sneering and taunting when he isn’t absent. In “How to Learn English as a Second Language,” González puts that second-person narrative to good work as the speaker tries to prepare himself for a paternal visit:
Your mother will be right: he will not show up
at noon. At 12:20, you will recognize the horn,
its wail like an amplified conch,
but you will not recognize your father—
the gray stubble, the violent tan.
When he asks where you’d like to go,
say the movies, say la feria, say the moon:
it won’t matter . . .
The experience does not improve much from here, and this long poem moves from specific to general disappointment over the years. Certain words in English become tied to the speaker’s memories of his father’s lovers and favorite bars and casinos, but learning a second language does not take either one of them away from the failure of the relationship. The poem ends with a list of words and what they signify: “Abandon will be your first beer, / . . . / Independence, the moment you realize / the only hands reaching out to you belong to clocks. / . . . / Fortune will be every time your father hits / All-Fruits on the slot. Innocence / will come right after Fortune— every time / you say, Let’s quit while we’re ahead, / not knowing how far behind you really are.”
Other poems about childhood capture through simile and controlling metaphor—the two tropes that González uses most—the difficulties of growing up in the United States that most boys face. “Ground Rules at Isla Verde Beach” is a wonderful poem with baseball as its central source of imagery. It’s a game of controlled and managed aggression, and learning its rules becomes emblematic of learning the rules of socialization. The poem begins in medias res, but the middle, for this group of kids, is where everyone has agreed beforehand to pause the game:
First off: it doesn’t matter what inning it is or how many outs
there are, at 4:30 there’s a break for half an hour so everyone can run
upstairs & watch Los Simpson, & at five, whoever was on base
goes back to standing on their bag, unless there’s a decent movie
on Tele-Once, which almost never happens, & whoever was hitting
goes back to the plate, & if it’s ten past five & you’re still gone,
the game starts without you.
The boys in this poem do not always get along this well; there are fights and comparisons of sexual experience. But the poem ends on a note of earned optimism. Despite their conflicts, the boys can all count on gathering to play the game, and the poem concludes with their spirit of camaraderie: “Tonight’s a late game, no movie / on Tele-Once. Are you ready? You can hit first. Batter up, let’s go.”
When González is at his best, he is writing some of the best new poems about American boyhood around, but too often the poems get bogged down in reflections on the poetry business, particularly the MFA workshop. I can think of no easier way to kill a poem before it’s even begun; one of them is actually titled “How to Win a Poetry Contest,” which marks it immediately, for me, as a student poem. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a couple of references in the book to the banal competitiveness of MFA workshops, or to satirically deflate the occasional self-importance of the poetry industry, but to use poems so obviously to dig at people with whom the poet has crossed swords is just tiresome. The poem begins badly enough, “Don’t use ampersands / & don’t drop your professor’s name. / Do exactly as Terrance Hayes taught you: / be a courteous poet.” Now, I don’t know if Terrance Hayes actually taught Kevin González, and I don’t care. I’m ready to turn the page already. But the poem goes on, complaining about a woman who left him, complaining about his father. To top it off, he uses “lay” for “lie.” This is a common error in freshman composition papers, but how sorry can I feel for a poet complaining about how badly he and his writing have been treated when he doesn’t know his verb forms? The worst offender in this category, however, is surely “Cultural Soliloquy,” which is a catalogue of all the horrible people, which the poet has neatly boxed into types, whom he encountered during his MFA work. He goes after vegetarians, Midwesterners, the standard categories of poet (Experimentalist, Beat, Confessional—though does anyone really presume to write Beat poetry anymore?). His ranting is dull and self-indulgent, and the book would be much better if a tough-minded editor had told him to cut them.
Happily, however, this is not the end of Cultural Studies. The book’s final section (oddly titled “Notes”) is made up of poems about the construction of the self, death, boxers, and a fire recalled from childhood. All are strong poems, but I would like to single out one, “The Night Tito Trinidad KO’ed Fernando Vargas,” for its finely wrought imagery and deft handling of tone. The speaker and his friends drink beer in the bed of a pick-up truck:
We didn’t care the bottles rolled
into each other, their acute chime
beneath the blasting horns & gunshots
echoing off the curb’s molded lip.
We didn’t care, in the numbing pool
of ice & glass, that we live in a colony
& the stripes of our waving flag
yield a black shadow beneath
the pirated fireworks. We wanted only
the smiles of lemons wrung
into our bottles . . .
Anyone who can write a poem like this has found his real subject. The slant rhymes, the personification in “the smiles of lemons,” and the metaphoric richness of that “black shadow” under the fireworks make me want to read the poem over and over. This is what Cultural Studies does best, and Kevin González surely has more like this one to come.
Michelle Boisseau has always been a poet of detail. In her fourth collection, A Sunday in God-Years, she has taken that eye for the specific and used it as a stepping-off place for a series of poems about history in the American South. The hub of the book is the ancestral Boisseau farm in Virgina, but the spokes reach to Ohio, Kentucky, and even Italy, as the poet tries to escape the heritage to which she is relentlessly drawn back.
This collection centers on the fifteen-part poem “Reckonings,” even though it is only the third poem in the book. “Reckonings” is a splendid poem that through several voices tells of the speaker’s return to the site of the old Boisseau place. The poem also recalls the names of slave ships and recounts the escape of a slave named Gibson. The poet uses list poems, dramatic monologues, contemporary first-person lyrics, and reprints of want ads for escaped slaves to make up this dense and important poem. The guilt of the speaker, who has inherited the privilege and skin color of the owner, along with his name, is clearly present without becoming self-pitying, because the attention of the poems remains as much outside the self as within. Here is part of the tenth section of “Reckonings,” titled “Spear-Side and Distaff”:
No one but me has come this way lately,
touched the runnels of bark, smelled the sweetness
of decay and slapped impediments
glinting like spider silk along the trail.
From him the slope of my nose, from her
freckles. And who’s responsible for these
lead moods? Boisseau, Parham, Hill,
Bradley, Fitzpatrick, Holt, Holmes,
and I’m square in seventeenth-century
Virginia where the hush grows huge and sulky
as a scolded jury. And the evidence?
Impurely circumstantial. The circumstances?
Dangling husks that blur the branches, the way
the fallen cushion and obliterate.
“Fitz Patrick Boisseau,” the prose poem that follows “Reckonings,” traces more literally the family line, and links the personal past to the historical. The second stanza begins, “How quickly we cross the border into slavery, stepping over it as over the low wall around a grave plot or show garden. Soil gone acid from two centuries of ruinous tobacco farming, old Virginia’s cash crop became its slave nursery.” I’m not often a fan of the prose poem, but this one, more unembellished than most, is impossible to stop reading.
The second section of A Sunday in God-Years is made up of much shorter poems that extend the speaker’s geographical range. She is still in Virginia, for the most part, and still caught in the difficulties of the family history, but some of the poems mark an escape into other cultures and beliefs. “Monstrance” is one such poem, featuring a “cranky and cratered” speaker who nevertheless finds herself moved by a religious service:
In famous churches when the chanting
carries me into the showy moment—
hoc est enim corpus meum—the golden
rays lifted, bells shaken, incense tempest,
and I’m moved by what I don’t believe,
I don’t envy believers any more
than I envy beauty its ease, the ocean
its industry. The sun its long and lonely life.
The poems in this section are no more happy than those of the first section, but one poem, “Night Valley,” does introduce a counter-emotion that, while not exactly joy, is not despair, either. The speaker and her friends are in Italy (hard not to feel even a smidgeon of pleasure there), and having walked, “Rosemary and wild fennel krst, krst / underfoot,” they pause. She is in another historical spot, but in Italy the speaker is freed, for the moment, from her personal debt to the past, and the beauty of the land cannot be marred even by her knowledge of the violence that has taken place here:
seizes a distance it would take
a day to travel—inscrutable
Etruscans, grave centurions,
Huns and Lombards, St. Francis
on a donkey, Medici popes
trailing brocaded buglers, pockets
of partisans, U.S. army tanks, tour
buses with red curtains drawn. Ripe
fruit bursts. We were born for longing.
That last word suggests the human propensity not only for desire but for taking the long view—for examining history in an attempt to understand the present. And fittingly the final section of the book returns to both the American past and the long poem. “Across the Borderlands, the Wind” is not as long as “Reckonings,” but it speaks back to the earlier poem in its historical voices. This poem moves to Kansas and traces the story of Quantrill’s raiders, then shifts to the Ohio childhood of the speaker, when she could “look down from Eden Park / on Kentucky.” But the poet has shown that her family home was no paradise. The childish pride of looking down on “the poor / former slave state” implicates her and her family in the guilty history of slavery, especially when her father mentions “his grandfather’s rumored / riches, slaves lost in old Virginia.” Her brother Pat’s death is part of the tangle of the family’s history, too, because he “spent twenty years on the warm side / of brilliant, kind, funny, admirable, then thirty-three years / wandering the woods of the madlands” (“Fitz Patrick Boisseau”). But his last days in the ICU also provide “the terrible comfort” the speaker “will take / from time slipping at the door” (“Across the Borderlands, the Wind”).
Time gets its way eventually, despite the speaker’s efforts to stop it, to turn it, to understand it. By the last poem, she decides to “let the chalk pillars of [her] grief collapse.” She says, “let go, we’re taught, just lean back, / spread your arms. Give yourself to the water / and the water will hold you” (“When I Consider”). The image is one of secular baptism, and in light of the title’s allusion to Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” it ends the book on a note of reluctant acceptance of the past—knowing that understanding it better may allow us to create a different future. It is a mature, wise image, one that perfectly concludes this remarkable book.
Kathleen Jamie is known for both her poetry and her essays on the natural world. This Scottish writer has always focused on the local, often as a political act. Her poems are concerned with the birds, animals, trees, and flowers of Scotland, but she is also dedicated to writing about her country’s identity apart from England and about the roles of women in creating the national character. Her latest book, Waterlight: Selected Poems, gives new readers an overview of Jamie’s three collections, The Tree House, Jizzen, and Mr. and Mrs. Scotland Are Dead, and reminds those who have read Jamie’s work before of her importance to contemporary Scots poetry.
All three books are centered in Scotland, though a brief foray into Ontario occasions three poems in the second book. Like Anna Wigley, Jamie uses descriptive imagery of her country to mark its distinctiveness. Like many other Welsh and Scottish poets, Jamie wants to free nature poetry from the dominance of the English pastoral. Sometimes she does this through celebrations of small and undervalued topics; like Wigley, Jamie includes a poem titled “Daisies,” and, curiously, two poems titled “Rhododendron.” There are poems about frogs and alder trees, falcons and pipistrelles, all easy to find because their topics are their titles. At other times, she uses words in dialect, as in “The Wishing Tree,” where “smirr” subtly shifts the poem’s locale northward:
To look at me
through a smirr of rain
is to taste the iron
in your own blood
because I hoard
the common currency
of longing: each wish
each secret assignation.
My limbs lift, scabbed
with greenish coins
I draw into my slow wood
fleur-de-lys, the enthroned Brittannia.
Behind me, the land
reaches towards the Atlantic.
And though I’m poisoned
choking on the small change
of human hope,
daily beaten into me
look: I am still alive—
in fact, in bud.
Jamie maintains the quietly hopeful tone of this poem, the first in the book, throughout her work, even when she finds herself at odds with the Christian tradition of Scotland: Presbyterianism. Unsurprisingly, at such a moment she turns to her garden in “The Buddleia.”
Come evening, it’s almost too late
to walk in the garden, and try
once again, to retire the masculine
God of my youth
by evoking instead the divine
in the lupines, or foxgloves, or self-
whose heavy horns flush as they
open to flower, and draw
these bumbling, well-meaning bees
which remind me again,
of my father . . . whom, Christ,
I’ve forgotten to call.
The self-satirizing end, calling on the very figure she means to flee, is typical of Jamie, and it prevents her poems from becoming didactic or severe.
Jamie is also serious about language as it manifests its identity, and several poems in the collection are written entirely in dialect. Some can be tough going for an American reader, but they are worth the effort they require, because these poems are some of the most lyrically beautiful of Jamie’s work. Waterlight ends with “Skeins o Geese.” The poem is classic Kathleen Jamie, linking the natural world with the written word, and recognizing wistfully the transitory character of any individual life.
Skeins o geese write a word
across the sky. A word
struck lik a gong
afore I wis born.
The sky moves like cattle, lowin.
I’m as empty as stane, the fields
ploo’d but now sown, naked
an blin as a stane. Blin
tae the word, blin
tae a’ soon but geese ca’ing.
Wire twists lik archaic script
roon a gate. The barbs
sing tae the wind as though
it was deef. The word whustles
ower high for ma senses. Awa.
No lik the past which lies
strewn aroun. Nor sudden death.
No like a lover we’ll ken
an connect wi forever.
The hem of its goin drags across the sky.
Whit dae birds write on the dusk?
A word niver spoken or read.
The skeins turn hame,
on the wind’s dumb moan, a soun
maybe human, bereft.
With its attention to the cold wind and stones, and its meditation on old languages and writing, the poem could be located nowhere but Scotland. Not only Waterlight but all of these books left me knowing exactly where I am and content to stay there for a while. All of these poets place themselves in a locale, either physically or emotionally. They stop and look around. Then they think. And that is what gives this group of books its collective strength, as different as they are in diction, tone, and detail: a shared unwillingness to give up either mind or body, either idea or ground. They all demand both. I feel right at home.