Attending to the Earth

Nine Acres, by Nathaniel Perry, The American Poetry Review, 60 pp., $14.

Sanderlings, by Geri Doran, Tupelo Press, 60 pp., $16.95.

The Children, by Paula Bohince, Sarabande, 73 pp., $14.95.

The Names of Birds, by Tom Crawford, Sherman Asher, 143 pp., $14.95.

 

Despite increased global temperatures, devastating storms, drought, even earthquakes and tsunamis, as we march deeper into the technological and postindustrial abyss of the twenty-first century, often spending more time with our iPhones and tablets than with the abundant life that flourishes around us, fewer and fewer humans find any deep and meaningful connection with the earth and the myriad species it nurtures and sustains. Over the stretches of human-time, one role of the poet has been that of seer, even prophet or oracle, and while the four poets whose work comprises this review do not speak in the same voice or register, their poetry does suggest the complex and potentially difficult relationship we have with the earth in our present moment. Their work also demonstrates an intimacy and filial love for birds, for flowers, for trees, for the fish in the sea and the animals that walk the land.

Never facile, nor nostalgic and sentimental, these poets challenge us to reconsider our understanding of this spinning world we find our feet planted upon and the role poetry might play in further exploring that relationship, or perhaps even healing its fractured bonds.

I

Nathaniel Perry’s first book, Nine Acres, winner of The American Poetry Review/Honickman Prize, was selected by Marie Howe for what she suggests is its ability to restore and refresh, and that restoration, that refreshment, is linked to Perry’s own intimate relationship to the acreage he tills and cares for in Virginia.

The farmer has held a distinct place in American letters, beginning as early as 1782 when J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur published Letters from an American Farmer. Certainly Robert Frost’s place as a failed farmer who made good as a poet suggests there is fertile ground for a writer who scratches the earth, attempting to bring forth the plants that will feed him and the poems he will write. More recently we’ve seen a flourishing of writers who live in rural regions, often on old farms, growing their own food, raising animals, foraging for wild edibles, learning their place on earth.

Perry’s poems are filled with lush details of moments spent knowing his place in the world. For example, in “Bees,” Perry writes that he was with his “boy in the woods, teaching / him words (woodsorrel, finch) and what sounds // the wind can make.” Like Wendell Berry, Maxine Kumin, Mary Swander, and Maurice Manning, to name a few contemporary poets who work in this tradition, Perry continually reminds the reader of his particular place and way of life, of rhythms attuned to weather and precipitation, the cycles of birth and death at the center of this “back to the land” poetry. What such writers hold in common is a deep attentiveness to a particular place and their stewardship of that place. Reading their work, we witness the ways that such care allows a person to travel as deeply and as widely as any far-flung adventurer abroad, creating a local bond from which art grows organically.

Ever so appropriately, Perry uses as his infrastructure an agricultural text by M.G. Kains, Five Acres and Independence, published in 1935. Like seeds started in a greenhouse (or in a home near a window with a southern exposure), Perry transplants Kains’ fifty-two chapter titles to serve as the titles of his fifty-two poems. Thus, we are treated to such practical monikers as “The Farm to Choose,” “Soil-Surface Management,” “Green Manures and Cover Crops,” and “Storage of Fruits and Vegetables.”

We would do well to remember that the word “verse” has an ancient relationship with our agricultural past, suggesting that the turn in a poem is metaphorically like the turn in a field as we till it, creating a furrow that runs back in the direction we have come. The furrows that Perry plows in each poem consist of four quatrains, utilizing end rhyme and meter, and if this sounds potentially plodding and predictable as a plow horse, it is anything but.

In the book’s first poem, simply titled “Introduction,” the speaker is confronted by a coyote while out for a walk with his son and the family dog. The coyote stops to stand and look at the father and his boy, and the poet, as he attempts to read the animal’s face, confesses that “all I got was the starkness / of form: that which hunts before me, / that which is not dark in the darkness.” In a sense, many of the poems in this superb debut meditate upon the idea of what is not “dark in the darkness,” or at the very least problematize the crass dichotomy between our ideas of light and dark, right and wrong.

Perhaps one of the greatest traps in writing about the rural or agricultural world is the fond (and potentially dishonest) look backward toward an Edenic past, the sentimentality of the pastoral writ large. Thankfully, Perry does not stumble into this trap, and, in “Essentials of Spraying and Dusting,” he exhibits an involvedness and an honesty about the land and his neighbors that belies any facile mythic-pastoral or any easy environmental alternative.

Lee’s putting poison on his corn.
Though I’d never raise the issue, I try
not to think what else is in his creek
besides the chapel light of high

morning sun and hoof prints from the deer
and jailbreak cows and my dogs, lost
in the wildness of wild water.

Here the poet combines different registers of language to include the more expected beauty of nature—“the chapel light of high // morning sun”—with the reality of the most prevalent farming practice—“Lee’s putting poison on his corn.”

The use of insecticides, pesticides, and commercial fertilizers was originally implemented to increase yields and to make it possible to farm larger and larger acreages without the need for more human or animal help. Ironically (and sadly), these same practices often hurt farmers—in health and in finances—and so we learn this is to be the last year Lee will put in corn.

       —he told me he can’t
farm it alone anymore, one man
on a tractor not antagonist
enough to manage this greening canvas.

Lee’s putting poison on his corn,
his daddy put poison on the corn.
And it grew! So many things, so many
things in us when we are born.

The beauty and lyricism of that “chapel light” and the “wildness of wild water”—as much a part of Perry’s nine acres as those deer and jailbreak cows, is balanced three times by the refrain “Lee’s putting poison on his corn.” And despite the corn and the exclamatory way in which it grew, the poem ends darkly with the implicit threat of “So many things, so many / things in us when we are born.”

Perhaps what is most satisfying in this volume—besides the fully realized subsistence farm and the manner in which Perry situates it in a rural region of contemporary Virginia, with its attendant uses and abuses—is the layering of family with the life of the farm, the folding in of place with the love of a husband for a wife, an apropos reminder of the derivation of husbandry.

“The field we bought is filled with clover,” the poet observes in “Soils and their Care,” declaring “You are still my lover, I am still / yours.” Though his need for such a declaration is unclear as the poem begins, we learn that they have a child on the way and that in reminiscing about the year they lived in London—“you were my lover there / as well, and I was yours”—the tug of what might be lost and the fragility of the future weighs upon him. He concludes the poem with a rhetorical question: “And what, exactly, binds / this August meadow and that year?” And, as in so many of Perry’s poems, with plainspoken speech he sends a shudder through the reader with his insightful forthrightness: “I could say love—we’d all, of course, / expect that. I should, but won’t, say fear.”

There is a pleasure in following the rhythms that Nine Acres offers. The poems fulfill expectations with their form, like certain daily chores, yet there are surprises, what one can never predict—corn that failed to grow any larger than “the size of those giant / pencils you get as a kid,” or a husband’s confession: “Staring at you squatting down / among the lettuces, I can’t / help but imagine you naked there, / the sun and summer having lent // your skin their shimmer.” These poems truly are a “farm library,” which is the volume’s final gift, a kind reminder that “in seed and land we find an anchor, / and in language we weigh out our courage.”

II

While Geri Doran’s second book Sanderlings may not be as accessible as Perry’s Nine Acres, in its dense imagery and fragmentation the reader senses the immensity of the world, its overpowering ripeness, and the possibility of revelation in such violent fecundity.

Writing in what is often an oblique and elliptical manner—in Doran’s work one seldom understands the context of a poem in its entirety, nor does one know the identity of the speaker—the poet creates a variety of music similar to that of composer and producer Brian Eno. The ambient atmosphere of this book becomes as important, if not more important, than the grounding facts of any particular poem, and there is much pleasure to be gleaned in its rhythms, its provoking anachronisms, and its slightly off-center use of language.

Doran’s poems can be severe, lean objects, made of sharp edges that slice to the quick; as she says of Albrecht Durer’s Saint Jerome in “Harrow,” “He came back clean / as picked bone.” And Doran picks at the bones of our existence, scouring them clean, then turning them over and over, seeking to find the spiritual dimensions in their materiality, allowing the fleshly world to intrude again and again into a range of spiritual mythologies.

A fine example of this is in the book’s title poem, in which the sand on the beach speaks to the poet, saying “hush” as her mother once said this word. (I should note that the act of personification in this instance is not merely a poetic tool; rather, the vision of the speakers in this collection would appear to have a mystical relationship to the world, and the world, or portions of it, literally speaks to them.) Yet despite the sand’s admonition the poet will not be quieted; she must speak, must articulate her own numinous vision of the world:

Fish-smell up on the pier. Fish in the water
calling to fish dying in buckets, saying hush
redtail surfpearch, hush starry flounder.

The very earth cries out to the poet, and unlike the masses that walk by, hearing nothing, numb to the world that carries them, Doran attends to these voices.

Although a Christian mythos undergirds much of the book, especially the last quarter, Doran chafes against the strictures such a mythology might impose, and she clearly desires to graft her own religious inclinations to include prayer directed to the earth and its multitudes.  “We gave you this name, / Mama said, for the saint who saved you.” The poet balks at such a claim, retorting, “Starting out already in debt for life.” Her mother once again seeks to quiet her child, to urge her back toward conformity: “Hush, she only meant you should pray to him.” But such prayer does not sit easy with one who would rather pray to “the rocks and the sanderlings.” To the poet’s disappointment, however, sanderlings do not always listen, and in a later poem, “The Snowlit Sky,” such devotion may bring with it an unexpected violence: “prayer assails the unbeliever.”

So much of this book carries with it this feeling of divergence, of a conflicted mind trying to come to terms with the very things that cannot be represented in language, that cannot be settled with an easy equanimity. The ineffable reigns, yet the job of the poet is to make gestures toward the ineffable despite the impossibility. Thus, Doran’s poems represent distress, discomfort, an inquietude that compels the poet to speak:

The hackberry blackens in the March rain.
The bur oak in the backyard waits—
We are all out of season, unkind
in our distrait.
                                                      (“Impedimenta”)

And it is not just Christianity’s mythos Doran attempts to ground in earthly obsession, in earthly compassion, but other myths as well, including that of Atlantis. The book’s entire third section uses the stories of Atlantis, reworking them, as in “Aubade,” in which the mythical city is transformed:

                By starlight I mean
an Atlantis of meadow-flowers surrounded by water

sinking back into the blue.

Perhaps this is the crux of Doran’s personal mythology: all spiritual things ultimately are overcome, subsumed, even transformed by the earthly. And such an idea culminates in the book’s final section, in which the poet grapples with the very earthliness of Christ.

In “The Passion of Mary, Called Magdalene,” Mary confesses that waiting for men, taking their silver pieces, was only a ruse. She describes her way of deflecting intimacy in the sexual act by claiming she “was a skyful / Of snow, its soft arousal. Alone humming / Snowfall is the self’s first bewilderment.” However, when she encounters Christ, she explains in astonishment that “Breathing I took in more than air, I took in / Him, and the luminous cells in me parted.” In this provocative, sensual scene Mary takes Christ into her body, “not as blown sail” like the other men who paid her for sexual favors, “but as himself, a man causing the earthward / Freefall of snow, a descent white-blinded, / In-taken, bodied.”

Yes, bodied. That’s it exactly: a recognition by Doran that we are creatures of incarnation, and in that incarnation we are joined not only to other humans and to the gods we make in our own images, but to the other animals that inhabit the earth. Thus, in certain poems Doran even moves into other-than-human bodies, seeking to inhabit them, to speak through them in a prophetic voice. In “Earth Moving,” the speaker is collective: “We are four/ birds on the bank above.” In “Common Prayer,” the supplicant’s words come to rest “Between the whoofs / of startled deer, echoing, and echoing clear /creed of some unvanquished mystery.”

Doran’s prayer of an almost fevered poetry is truly one that seeks what is common in all things, leading her to proclaim, “O my most fragrant Lord, you are honeysuckle / my childish hand will not relinquish.” It is fitting that the poet ends her book on a note of grace, literally naming it that:

For God is only God in the Marsden Rock.
Love permits his echo be dispersed
among the trees, and merely echo, and mere—
what concentrates is silt beneath the creek,
the residue of love after time has closed
its doors and hung the sign—
for we are scorners all and yet may know
that love which tidepools us,
like sea anemone in coastal caves.
                                                                            ("Grace")

While reading Doran’s book can be bewildering at times, like being lost in a deep wood with a map whose signs and directions are unfamiliar, the experience rewards the reader with its music, with its understanding that grace is always bewildering, unspeakable, but finally necessary for survival.

III

Paula Bohince follows her award-winning and critically acclaimed debut Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods with the beautifully wrought and technically dazzling The Children. Compared to the first book, with its gothic dimensions and murder-mystery-driven narrative, the new book is more traditionally structured, with greater meditative space between individual poems. As the title of the book would suggest, Bohince’s new work wrestles with the idea of childhood: its myriad perspectives, its movement from innocence to experience, the difficulty of assessing one’s childhood past, and the manner in which childhood experience continues to affect our adult lives. The book is filled with poems of remembrance: of an adult child watching the decline of her parents, of a wife remembering her longing for an imaginary husband when she was a girl, of a woman coming to terms with fertility, with loss, with a desire to create children of her own.

Such terrain provides ample slope for a tumble into sentimentality, but Bohince does not gild her memories with the false security of nostalgia, and this book provides no easy emotional maneuvers to skirt such difficulties. When we fall in her poems we are bloodied, bruised by the honesty of her vignettes, the poet’s camera obscura capturing the images of a father who drinks to excess and a mother who must battle the failures of her body and her mind. Words provide no easy salve, but they do provide a means for plotting out the past and suggesting a path to follow into the future.

Like Perry and Doran, Bohince locates and grounds her speakers and their voices in the natural world—in the milkweed’s seed, in a hornet’s gray nest, in wild mushrooms and pussy willow blossoms—objects capable of carrying the emotional weight of her searching, which serve as metaphors that suggest the intricacy, the difficulty in finding our place in our families and the world beyond familial borders.

As Bohince writes in “The Peacock,” children’s “play is serious business,” and like a detective, in the volume’s title poem she is troubled by what is not known about the children, explaining that “if the wind had been less gutsy / in its unbindings, we’d know them better, / the children // or the afterimage of them.” Chasing after these ghostly afterimages, she discovers that their world is comprised of the beauty of the natural world and the detritus of the adult human world, and that the collision of these worlds inevitably haunts us:

If we’d been given more distinct evidence

beyond the condom listing against milk-
weed, the fox prints, the warmth
of glow sticks in our hands—

neutral again, broken of their magic.
Those dirty pacifiers we suck. Their whistles
we put to mouth and sound.

Bohince is masterful in teasing out the ways children encounter the world adults often try to shelter them from. After all, those forces, those energies, the contexts that lead to divorce or addiction or worse, do indeed affect children, but usually that impact is acknowledged and studied at some later point from an adult’s perspective. A fine example of this is in “The Peacock” in which a father has “tired of his wife” and children. In the midst of this disruptive apathy, “dreams feather the pillow and make bearable / the day.” Using stark lines and spare description, Bohince uncovers what she calls the “Brueghel moment” in this small family tragedy by providing the singular image that will stay with the children many years from now.

He therefore lies down

in a room made his by grease and pain
and speechlessness. He lies down on his carpet
at midday, the television bright

and silent.

Yet out of this despondency, which the children observe, comes an impression that helps them to navigate and survive with a portion of their father: “His black hair / with sunlight on it. // A miracle. Something to recall / as beautiful, in the future. As the sewer was / in summer. Little childhood river.” This is how adulthood negotiates the knowledge of revulsion, of separation. Of course, a sewer is a contaminated space, a thing to be avoided. But to a child, a sewer can hold wonder, can become a river of sorts, something to be loved, to be valued, like a father who has lost his way and no longer wants us.

Throughout this collection beauty collides with pain, happiness with the threat of sorrow or with sorrow itself. As the speaker explains in “The Hive,” “Wax degrades. / Honey / bitters, the bodies / of bees go missing,” and what we are left with is “a bolus of sugar / and virus.” To devastating effect, the third and final section of the book explores this kind of dis-ease in the body and the world beyond the body, the threat of viruses that unmake us, that can ultimately destroy us.

In “April Blizzard,” Bohince explores the possibility of such destruction through the discovery of an adulterous affair in her grandparent’s marriage. Here there are “humiliated fields,” daffodils with “frills frozen, chagrin over everything,” as a late snow storm reveals:

the onyx ring, the mink, the letters
my grandmother kept, from her husband
during his service, though she never forgave
his affair, or let him forget


Yet another kind of betrayal surfaces in “Flood,” only one poem removed from that late spring blizzard:

Embraced by the sea-licked walls
Let me admire your mouth, husband
Spark gone out of the house
House infatuated with ruin

And in the very next poem, “Imaginary Husband,” yet again betrayal, like a virus, threatens, but as in “Flood,” there is a recognition that, at least in part, some of this is of the speaker’s making—an infatuation with ruin, an insight into how we participate in such un-making:

I handed him years. I did this
to be known, to be degraded, and to have him
announce the beauty
of my degradations. But he was
me, was he not? The part
that would deliver us to the bewildering
adult kingdom.

This kind of psychological depth permeates much of Bohince’s writing, allowing for the creation of fully realized characters, and, although many of the narratives are fragmentary, her ability to create tension and believable resolution through stunning turns of language and imagery marks her as one of the most important poets of her generation.

IV

Tom Crawford is part of a collective of poets in the United States whose work is infused by the ancient Chinese poets, by certain ideas found within Buddhism, and by the mystical as propounded by and within the natural world. Similar to the work of such contemporary American poets as David Budbill, Gary Snyder, and Jim Harrison, Crawford’s poetry is plainspoken and unpretentious, offering well-earned insights from a life of careful observation, and, like Harrison in particular, Crawford’s passion for birds is on full display in his sixth book of verse, The Names of Birds.

While a self-confessed birder, Crawford does not create poems as an ornithologist might. As he explains in “Family: Troglodytidae,” “I know I’m a bad ornithologist. / I bring no data: maps or distribution / of species or description of habitat.” Instead he writes simply from years and years of scrutiny, demonstrating a deep devotion, even a love for the manner in which birds live their lives: “only me, following my feelings in / the side of what can’t be / replaced. It’s my job, though, / in a loud world.  To be quiet. / Friend to the smallest song.”

And this job he has chosen—befriending the smallest song, putting peanut butter in the feeder, waiting in the early morning dark for the flutter of wings at his window—owns him because of his admiration for the differences between birds and humans. As he explains in “All the Birds Are Here”:

I so like birds:
they don’t hold a grudge.
What a fine thing
to let go almost immediately
all the bad things
we’ve done to them.

In more activist-oriented poems like “Where the Country Goes Wrong” and “Christopher Columbus Discovers the Tar Sands of Alberta,” Crawford recounts many of “the bad things / we’ve done to (birds),” asking “How to save what’s left?” He has suggested in a recent interview that his motivation in writing this new collection is at least in part his grandchildren: As he looked out on the degradation and alarming decline of nature in his own lifetime, he realized that his generation’s legacy offers little to the next and the next after. This collection does not lack for hope, nor does it flinch from the realities of how we destroy the world that sustains us, or from the ultimate truth of our own deaths.

In “The President’s Last Speech,” one of the collection’s darker poems, Crawford uses biting irony to address our own folly and the earth’s endurance:

We could do
bombs,
but we couldn’t do
birds,
couldn’t learn
to sing
even one
little titmouse
out of hiding.

And he concludes,

Let’s be happy
though,
with our absence:
the earth will
still pull on its pants
every morning

and birds
(can you imagine
their chatter?)
will do nicely
without us.

In “Bosque Del Apache,” while describing birders (the kind who keep life-lists of the birds they have had the privilege of seeing, who often travel great distances to see a particular species), Crawford suggests that hope is like a habit:

Birders are like old monks
from another life,
still in formation,
still shy. They
can’t seem to break the habit
of silence, to rise early,
to hope.

In a related poem, entitled “Birders,” he explains further that this group of people “might / just be / our last / best hope” because of their “uncommon / excitement / at just seeing / a bird, rare / or ordinary.”

Such gratitude for the simplest and smallest of gifts, according to Crawford, is something we can learn from birds. In “It’s Such a Relief to Want Less,” the poet observes the patterns of a sharp-shinned hawk “who is not greedy / so eats only one small sparrow a day” and asks that this “be my model.”

At one point, in a not-so-distant past—after all, two or three generations is a blink of the eye when we consider human history in relation to the earth’s age—to know the names of trees, the calls and songs of birds, the tracks and habits of animals, the time of year to plant a garden or harvest native berries, nuts, or mushrooms on one’s homeground, was a given. Because of such knowledge, a certain kind of intimacy between a human and his or her terrestrial place existed. Crawford is a poet who belongs to such a way of living and thinking, and as the disconnection from the natural world grows more and more pronounced in contemporary culture, the more vital and essential such a voice of wisdom and knowledge becomes.

Perhaps the most telling sign of a culture’s character is the way it regards death, either embracing or denying it. As Crawford begins his seventy-fourth year, he is cognizant of the growing imminence of his own end, and, fittingly, more and more of his poems confront this fact. “In Order to Let the Soul Out Sooner” recounts the funerary practices of Tibetan monks who “chop us up / into manageable / chunks /for the vultures.” Crawford proclaims with good humor and cheer:

I like the idea
that one of my old hands
might fly off
into the Himalayas
in the beak of a bird
with an eight foot
wingspan.

And although he admits that “how the soul figures / finally, in all this / is anybody’s guess,” the notion that he will be food for these bird-gods makes sense to him. Such visions as these are dispersed throughout the book, proffering a satisfying rhythm that is at once surreal and deeply grounded, realistic and mystical at the same time.

Ultimately, death is not negative in Crawford’s cosmology, and The Names for Birds ends on a celebratory note of self-annihilation. In “The Good Red Road,” the poet utters brief prayers to a lower-case god:

And furthermore
do not let me,
god, wither,
or the woodpecker
not stop me
cold in my tracks
with its laddered
back.

The “red road” is a shared idea across many indigenous tribal peoples of North America that suggests a right path in life, an appropriate manner of living in this world and the next. Crawford contends that on the red road “there’s a resident poet / in every stone, / and an Indian pony / eats out of your hand.” This is a revelation of the world worth keeping, one that Crawford himself helps to create with his poems about birds and the earth those birds come to perch upon. As the poem concludes, he conjures a final image in homage to the birds he loves and learns from, and then flings himself outward in the joy of relinquishment:

Now I lay me down
to sleep. Beside the still waters
cranes put the seal of their long toes
in the mud
and dying is just swinging out
over the big river,
then letting go.

Let’s do it.

 

 


Todd Davis is the author of five books of poems, most recently In the Kingdom of the Ditch (Michigan State University Press, 2013). He edited Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball (Michigan State University Press, 2012).

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