“After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her most celebrated poems. Many of the poems in After Rain seem to be situated just a little past that “hour of lead,” apparently in the wake of a painful separation or divorce. I say “seem to be” because they are poems of great delicacy and, like the lake pictured on the cover and frequently evoked in the course of the book, often suggest a hidden drama or turmoil beneath their calm surfaces. I was reminded strongly of ancient Japanese court poetry (which I read quite a lot of at university) in the way Nan Becker writes about the natural world, simultaneously celebrating it as a source of beauty and solace and using it as a mirror or metaphor for human emotions. I was so impressed that three hours after my first reading, I picked it up and read it cover-to-cover a second time.
One advantage we moderns have over those ancient Japanese poets is a greatly expanded body of knowledge about the natural world. So in “Dragonfly,” for example, Becker can observe that the eponymous insect “swishes / and skims a still river,” then add that it is
Being, and going on,
under doubled wings
come late in life.
“Migration,” too, is a subject about which we know so much more than even writers a generation ago, enlarging the scope of an age-old wonder:
A pipit flies across the water
into a cover of leaves losing green.
Jays scatter about and shout.
High up, geese score lines south,
speaking of elsewhere—pulled
as water to the moon.
Of course, this attention to the natural order has its pitfalls, too. If you’re writing surrealist poetry, no one will complain if you get some detail “wrong” — poetic license covers it. But the one off-note in this otherwise terrific collection, for me, was the implication in “Pileated Woodpecker” that Dryocopus pileatus is migratory (“Year after year / spring after spring / the Pileated returns”). In fact, the mated pairs stick to their home territories year-round.
That’s a minor quibble, though — just one poem out of 50. Of all the books I’ve read so far this month, I think After Rain has the smallest percentage of poems that just didn’t work for me. Becker is especially good at evoking psychological landscapes, often suggested by little more than the title — “How Farewell Feels,” “Over,” or “Of What Must Have Been”:
What it was,
was some large carp
bouyed upon the water,
—it was a sodden log,
a shade of errant current.
Each true in the weight
of its moment,
real as any thing
on this page.
Elsewhere, the treatment of inner states is more direct and philosophical. Becker compares “The Way Grief Breaks,” for example, to the way “a bird breaks before flight,” which she calls a “sudden loosening.” Another favorite, “Nostalgia,” is worth quoting in full:
While I was not watching at all, I saw
a bear, black as a hole in shadow,
rocking in place, shifting within without,
as if in conversation with the ground,
with words I haven’t yet learned,
a way to ask and answer.
There’s an implicit narrative arc to this book; the poems speak to each other, and the beginning and the end of the collection are carefully constructed to set the scene and offer resolution, respectively. Working my way through the second time, I was moved perhaps more than I should admit, remembering half-submerged things I hadn’t thought about in years. “And what does it mean now,” the narrator of “Redemption” asks, “how / seldom I think of you?” In “Absence,” she wonders, “Is there a plain truth? A clean knowing?” and concludes in the following poem, “Diminuendo”:
This unastonished, unremarkable landscape weighs
almost nothing, which is what is meant by enough.
Quoting blurbs is probably frowned upon by serious book reviewers, but I think Gillian Cummings got it right: Becker’s poems “encompass the world: the world as it exists outside, simply, of itself, and the world as experienced so deeply within the self.” The way After Rain manages to explore both simultaneously is a rare accomplishment for a modern Western poet.
Visit the book’s page on the publisher’s website to read the rest of Cummings’ review, as well as to read three complete poems from the book.