Poetry for naturalists (4)

Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

16. Selected Poems 1966-1987, by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990)

Though Heaney may not be the sort of poet likely to make it onto standard lists of nature-poets, few of his poems are without an almost palpable presence of the land and its inhabitants, both human and wild. This particular volume includes a number of things of likely interest to nature lovers: selections from Death of a Naturalist and Wintering Out; the bog-people poems from North; a generous selection from Field Work; and best of all, five translations from the Medieval Irish cycle Sweeney Astray, about the Ulster king who went mad and was turned into a bird, as well as Heaney’s own “Sweeney Redivivus” cycle from Station Island. Here’s an excerpt from one of the translations (or versions, as Heaney terms them), “Sweeney’s Last Poem”:

There was a time when I preferred
the turtle-dove’s soft jubilation
as it flitted round a pool
to the murmur of conversation.

There was a time when I preferred
the blackbird singing on the hill
and the stag loud against the storm
to the clinking tongue of this bell.

There was a time when I preferred
the mountain grouse crying at dawn
to the voice and closeness
of a beautiful woman.

There was a time when I preferred
wolf-packs yelping and howling
to the sheepish voice of a cleric
bleating out plainsong.

You are welcome to pledge healths
and carouse in your drinking dens;
I will dip and steal water
from a well with my open palm.

Silent reading often gives short shrift to poets like Heaney. I found an online recording of the poet reading a piece from a later collection, The Spirit Level — listen to St. Kevin and the Blackbird.

17. The Book of Medicines, by Linda Hogan (Coffee House Press, 1993)

The bear is a dark continent
that walks upright
like a man,

says Linda Hogan, and of a mountain lion, she observes,

Her power lived
in a dream of my leaving.
It was the same way
I have looked so many times at others
in clear light
before lowering my eyes
and turning away
from what lives inside those
who have found
two worlds cannot live
inside a single vision.

But it’s way too easy to find such quotes in this book of eminently quotable poems, where concern for the health of the land and the health of people — both whites and Hogan’s own Chickasaw — are closely interwoven.

There is still a little life
left inside this body,
a little wildness here
and mercy
and it is the emptiness
we love, touch, enter in one another
and try to fill.

Hogan’s is a wise voice that deserves a much wider audience.

18. Wolfwatching, by Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989)

Nobody mythologizes animals quite as effectively as Hughes, I think. I could’ve chosen almost any of his books for this list, but this slim volume edged out the others for its inclusion of the three-part poem, “The Black Rhino.”

This is the Black Rhino, the elastic boulder, coming at a gallop.
The boulder with a molten core, the animal missile,
Enlarging towards you. This is him in his fame —

Whose past is Behemoth, sixty million years printing the strata
Whose present is the brain-blink behind a recoiling gunsight
Whose future is a cheap watch shaken in your ear

Listen — bedrock accompanies him, a drumbeat
But his shadow over the crisp tangle of grass-tips hesitates, passes, hesitates, passes lightly
As a moth at noon

For this is the Black Rhino, who vanishes as he approaches
Every second there is less and less of him
By the time he reaches you nothing will remain, maybe, but the horn — an ornament for a lady’s lap

Extinction, like genocide, makes the imagination seize up, but for that very reason I think it is imperative for any poet of the late 20th or early 21st century to keep trying to put it into words. Hughes succeeded as well as anyone can.

19. The Way Winter Works, by Harry Humes (University of Arkansas Press, 1990)

If Pennsylvania had a poet laureate, Harry Humes would be my choice for the post. His understated-yet-powerful poems are firmly rooted in the hills and valleys of the hard coal country where he grew up and lives still. (So strong is his commitment to understatement that he has never written a poem about Centralia, the famous Pennsylvania town that had to be abandoned because of the slow fire burning underneath it in an abandoned coal mine. “Too obvious,” Humes said when I asked him about it after a poetry reading once. At least five other poets, including W.S. Merwin, haven’t suffered from any such scruples.)

More to the point here, Humes is a competent naturalist and fly fisherman who knows the names and ways of the wild, or what passes for it in the well-used landscapes of central and eastern Pennsylvania. I guess I own all of his books, and I love each one of them; The Way Winter Works simply happens to have the greatest number of personal favorites. “Deer Hunting,” for example, might well be the definitive poem on that subject, though definitiveness was probably the farthest thing from the author’s mind when he wrote it. And the book contains touches of surrealism absent from his other books, as in “The Woman Who Called Whales across the Fields.”

A lot of Humes’ poems are about memory; I hope he won’t mind if I quote one of the shorter ones in its entirety.

Sorrow near the Old House

I walk to the place in the woods
where an old foundation fills
with one season after another
and sit on the stones
to watch for copperheads and deer,
then walk along the stream to the inlet.

All of it the same.
Bats beginning their dance,
oars creaking on the lake,
the overgrown path through the meadow
with its yarrow and pearly everlasting,
the way I imagine the house,
yellow with light, watertight with children.

20. Imperfect Thirst, by Galway Kinnell (Houghton Mifflin, 1994)

This may not be the most obvious choice of a book by Kinnell to demonstrate his closeness to nature, but it is dear to me for the inclusion of a poem called “Holy Shit,” which begins with a ridiculous shit-load of epigraphs, continues with a three-page consideration of various kinds of human and animal excrement, and ends with this injunction:

Let us remember this is our home
and that we have become, we mad ones, its keepers.
Let us sit bent forward slightly, and be opened a moment,
as earth’s holy matter passes through us.

Rereading another poem, “Trees,” just now, and hearkening back to the discussion in Part 1 of this series about when and whether poets should use the proper names for things, I was struck by Kinnell’s decision to describe rather than name a woodpecker and a nuthatch:

Tok-tok-tok-tok, as from somebody
nailing upholstery, started up nearby:
the bird with a bloodmark on the back
of his head clung, cutting with
steady strokes his cave of wormwood.
On another tree, a smaller bird,
in gray rags, put her rump
to the sky and walked headfirst
down the trunk toward the earth
and the earth under the earth.

Since the poem is describing an incident from childhood, I think we are meant to understand that the narrator didn’t know the names of these birds. But think how much less wonder would’ve been communicated in these descriptions if the names had been included! By contrast, a poem called “Collusion of Elements” takes the opposite tack, in its first two lines referring to familiar garden flowers by their less familiar, full Latin names. In either case, the poet aims to strangefy, I guess:

On the riverbank Narcissus poeticus holds an ear trumpet toward the canoe apparitioning past.
Cosmos sulphureous flings back all its eyelashes and stares.

In my favorite poem in the book, “Telephoning in Mexican Sunlight,” the narrator is at a pay phone in Mexico, talking with his “beloved in New York,” when a dozen small hummingbirds start orbiting his head, attracted by the lurid color of his shirt. Rereading it, I’m thinking I like it better even than Diane Ackerman’s hummingbird poem now (see Part 2), though that of course says more about my preference for economy and punchy endings than anything else. An excerpt really wouldn’t do it justice, but fortunately the whole poem is archived at the Boston Review. Notice how here, too, an unnamed word focuses attention, and how we are permitted to guess it through the circumspect ruse of three flower names offered in its stead.

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