And another twitter link to follow poetry online. New Poetry Books at http://twitter.com/poetry_book. If I've neglected covering twitter as a poetry source (including but not limited to publishing original haikus), I hope to remedy that omission in due time.
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Skrief's nature poems sidestep the 'egotistical sublime' by allowing nature to speak
Some poems enrol us as respectful admirers: others walk straight in through an open door in our minds and make themselves at home, admired no less, but also intimate friends. I felt this about Douglas Skrief's new book-length sequence, Stone Poems, and I have chosen a handful of separate poems from different sections to give you a glimpse of its pleasures.
One way in which contemporary nature poets subvert the Wordsworthian "egotistical sublime" is by giving the natural world its own ego and voice. Ted Hughes and Alice Oswald employ this technique: the poet's thoughts "too deep for tears" are transferred to "the meanest flower" itself. Such dramatisation allows the writer unostentatiously to be present, while accessing unconventional or more powerful forms of utterance.
The ancient boulder which talks to the poet in Stone Poems inhabits the south shore of Rainy Lake, in the US/Canadian border region of the Upper Midwest. "Court records," Skrief writes, "say that for over half a century my family has owned the Northern Minnesota bedrock on which the stone sits. The records do not mention the stone." Skrief has rectified this: the stone has become its own vivid historian, and the poet owns it in the sense that he has fully imagined it.
Describing his educational background, Skrief lists Harvard and Oxford and "the sweat lodges of the Ojibway". So it seems he may owe his vision not only to the Romantic poets but to the animistic beliefs of this Native American people. His ease with a natural world infused with consciousness permeates all his observations.
Skrief's imagination is nonetheless soundly scientific: all the elements in his universe cohere as a vast family-unit, whether they are gases, glaciers, coyote or human beings. Time often seems compressed, as if, as some physicists believe, events are simultaneous. The inevitability of evolution and change also comes across strongly in the later poems. When the boulder describes how its lichens are learning to break down "the latest particulates" emitted by nearby industrial workings, we are reminded of nature's prodigious adaptability. Whatever its terrors, progress is seen as inevitable, already implicit when the lichens "first saw a two-leggèd skip a flat stone".
There are five sections in the sequence: Origins, Visitors, Awakenings, Words to the Word-Giver and Change. The boulder begins by recalling its originary "time amid stars" and "the crush/ before upheavals of deep horizons". It remembers how "A she-mastodon's single tusk dislodged iced lichens" and then evokes its human visitors: the priestess and the shaman, the fur-traders and "frost-bit men culling pine". In sections 3 and 4, the poet's personal relationship with the boulder is considered, and its own "character" emerges as it talks with the poet more intimately, and absorbs and reflects a more complex consciousness. The tone is authoritative, calm, amused, occasionally cranky or challenging, but un-judgmental. This stone values language, and sometimes addresses the human "Tongue of Creation" in a prayer-like chant. Whether rocks or pebbles, canticles, stories or haiku-like snapshots, the poems combine melody and harmony, clean outline and dense texture.
Together they form the portrait of a man and a boulder; they are also the celebration and song of a particular region, its wildlife, its history, its native and immigrant cultures. But these Stone Poems are good travellers: they talk to any reader willingly, as if they shared our own profoundest memories, too.
For a moon, round an ash-wood fire,
seven warriors counselled, content
this point was theirs. One dragged his leg.
Another, with oak-bark skin, picked at scars
on his left shin. A boy, with the voice
of a brook, assented to every plan.
They laughed. They called him
On their last day, they re-lashed spears,
ochred faces and launched their craft.
That evening a white-tailed coyote sniffed,
then lifted his leg – his scent a mix
of juniper berries and dead mice.
Words can't reattach a weasel paw left in a trap
or replant spruce seedlings uprooted when stags rut.
Moose shed their racks, and mice feast.
If I cracked in half, part of you would die –
your words careening like fireflies in a jar.
Be a grizzly. Swat open the anthill.
Release your needles to the squalls.
Let storm-washed gravel fret your banks
before frost sets the clay.
(from Words to the Word-Giver)
A shot. An elk avalanched, antlers
balanced even as it collapsed.
I'll be here in the morning.
It may not look like courage.
They flamed unwavering, long into the night.
Not stars washed up on the far beach.
Not lightning bolts persisting on singed retinas.
Not campfires diminishing to coals
as old storytellers lost momentum. No.
Streetlights. Houselights. Car lights. Approaching
till we could see up close how brashly they vied
with the splendid humility of the auroras.
Ants build mounds with my castoffs.
Bears splinter wild plum bows.
Frost heaves fox holes as easily
as fire sears dry yarrow. Their dreams –
all memory. You pile stones, yank up
the reed bed, mow the poplar volunteers.
Promise if you ever choose to move me,
Word-Giver, you'll start with a prayer.
Thanks are due to the author and to Starhaven for permission to reprint these poems.