Poetry for naturalists (3)

Part 1; Part 2.

11. Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1992, by Hayden Carruth (Copper Canyon Press, 1992)

Then it came to me,
this insane song, wavering music
like the cry of the genie inside his lamp,
it came from inside the long wilderness
of my life, a loon’s song, and there he was
swimming on the pond, guarding
his mate’s nest by the shore,
diving and staying under
unbelievable minutes and coming up
where no one was looking. My friend
told how once in his boyhood
he had seen a loon swimming beneath his boat,
a shape dark and powerful
down in that silent mysterious world, and how
it had ejected a plume of white excrement
curving behind. “It was beautiful,”
he said.
–“The Loon on Forrester’s Pond”

Earthy, often plain-spoken, rooted in the landscapes of New England and upstate New York: this excerpt encapsulates the major features of Hayden Carruth’s work as well as any could. His prominence as an editor (Poetry magazine, Harper’s, the anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us) may have led some critics to overlook the fact that he’s a damn fine poet in his own right — a master of language and a virtuoso of poetic form. And imagery from the natural world is no occasional ornament, but an almost constant presence in his work.

12. Some Heaven, by Todd Davis (Michigan State University Press, 2007)

The second book of a poet with roots in Indiana and western Massachusetts, recently relocated to Central Pennsylvania. I’ve written about (and quoted from) this book before, after attending a reading by the author. Like Wendell Berry, Davis often mixes religious themes and subjects into his poems about nature and landscape. Here, for example, is the first half of the title poem:

The rabbit’s head is caught
between the slats of the fence,
and in its struggle it has turned
so the hind legs nearly touch
the nose — neck broken, lungs failing.
My boys ask me to do something
but see no mercy in my plan.
At five and eight, they are so far
away from their own deaths
that they cannot imagine the blessing
a shovel might hold, the lesson
suffering offers those who have
not suffered.

13. The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück (Ecco Press, 1992)

This book is, for my money, one of the greatest poetic achievements in English of the last thirty years: a modern book of hours from a fallen Eden in which the poet addresses a God in whom she does not believe — and God and the plants in her garden talk back. You don’t have to know anything about plants to appreciate the genius of the arrangement or the vatic intensity of the monologues, but it probably helps. Here’s the latter part of “The Red Poppy”:

I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never
open again? Because in truth
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered.

14. The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems, by John Haines (Graywolf Press, 1993)

Another one of my favorite books, which I’ve quoted from more than once before. A blurb on the back of my edition puts it well: “Splendidly odd, somberly beautiful. … John Haines’s spare, oracular lyrics feel as if they have come from a great distance” — from Alaska, to be precise. Haines writes about wilderness and the experience of living in it without a false note or trace of sentimentality. Picking one excerpt is challenging for me, but since I began this series by talking about the difficulty poets sometimes have in using the specific names of organisms, how about a poem which depends on such names for its effect? Here are the opening stanzas of “Mushroom Fable”; the capitalized phrases are names of fungi:

I knew them all in that age of saliva.

Soapy Tricholoma I knew,
and Blackening Russula.
I called Oak-loving Collybia
my friend, I gave her
Pig’s Ears and Witches Butter.

Born a Smoky Woodlover, I scored
with Chicken-in-the-Woods,
and cast my spawn in a Fairy Ring.
I wanted Dark-Centered Hebeloma
once, but never found her.

But I turned my back on those
tragic sisters, the False Morels;
I pitied the pale Amanitas
their bitter names
and bad complexions,
for they were beneath me.

15. The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, by Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon Press, 1998)

It is very hard to give birds advice.
They are already members of eternity.
In their genes they have both compass
and calendar. Their wing bones are hollow.
We are surprised by how light a dead bird is.


Offenses this summer against Nature:
poured iced tea on a garter snake’s head
as he or she dozed on the elm stump,
pissed on a bumblebee (inattentive),
kicked a thousand wasps to death in my slippers.
Favors done this summer for Nature:
let the mice keep their nest in the green station wagon …

That’s from the long poem “Returning to Earth,” one of many varied treasures in this volume, which also includes 65 ghazals, the 30-part Letters to Yesenin, and an eccentric collection of 57 American Zen poems named for the equally eccentric Japanese Zen master and poet — After Ikkyí» & Other Poems. A native of Michigan dubbed “the poet laureate of appetite” by Salon magazine, Harrison is gaining fame for his fiction and nonfiction, but poetry seems his truest calling. His poems are as warm and full of humor as Haines’ are stark and grave; a fondness for nature and natural imagery is really the only thing these two, radically different poets share.

Continue to Part 4.

9 Replies to “Poetry for naturalists (3)”

  1. I do love The Wild Iris.

    I studied poetry with Louise Glück, back in the fall of 1994. I found her intimidating. Brilliant and beautiful. On the reverse of the first poem I ever handed in, she wrote “you must release this poem from its terminal patness.” She was right, of course, though I was 18 and not ready to apprentice myself to revision. I wish I could study with her again now; I’d get a lot more out of it. As it is, I can learn from rereading her work.

  2. Thanks for the comments. It’s good to know ya’ll are finding the series worthwhile so far. I guess there will be 7 or 8 posts in all.

    Rachel, I would’ve been extremely surprised if you had said that LG was a warm and generous spirit, because by her own admission (in other books) she’s anything but. Brilliant but severe is how I’ve imagined her. And though I’ve read almost all of her books at least once, The Wild Iris is the only one that makes me want to re-read it multiple times. (Something the author would really, really hate to hear, I’ll bet!)

  3. Whew…a lovely and kick-ass assortment, much needed until I get a cup of coffee in hand. Thanks for sharing — the poppy poem did make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

  4. I’ve been saving this series up, coming back and dipping in and out, giving it a bit more time now… it’s a lovely selection box.
    I’ll be back to savour it again, thanks a lot!

  5. ah, I was waiting to see when ‘The Wild Iris’ would find its way into this series, and that’s another of the best-loved pieces in it.

    Such an excellent combination of old companions and never-heard-ofs. You have sent me off to the bookstore and there will be trouble when I get there. Are you familiar with Kathleen Jamie’s work?

  6. Hi, elizabeth. No, I’m not – tell me more.

    And I’m glad to hear from all of you who are finding this series useful. At this point it’s shaping up to be a nine-part series, and I’ll probably put permanent links to it in my sidebar, because being a missionary for poetry and for nature is so central to my work here.

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