Poetry Picks to Suit Your Better Nature

In December, a young man’s fancy doesn’t normally turn to thoughts of nature, or to the arousing (and consolatory) effects of it. Not in the usual, “greeny flower” ways, that’s for sure. That’s a spring thing. No, common thoughts of nature this time of year usually involve strategies to avoid it. Sure, snowstorms in a frozen oasis can seem beautiful in their ferocity and stark majesty. But mainly from behind the window of a warm and cozy living-room. Often the only cut flower in a vase you’ll find in our house in December is a Christmas tree.

So why am I thinking (and talking) about the beauty of nature in the dead of winter? Blame Bill McKibben. You see, several years (OK, decades!) ago, I read his book The End of Nature, which was published in 1989, during this country’s last great frog-leap forward in the attempt to prove how important (and easy) it is “being green” (remember the pandering 50 Simple Things You Can Do… book?). Although the thrust of McKibben’s argument was simple — that the survival of the planet “is dependent on a fundamental, philosophical shift in the way we relate to nature” — his doomsday catalog of manmade cataclysms, like global warming, acid rain, deforestation, etc., simply scared the crap out of me. And not in the way he intended, I’m sure. Statements like this one — “in 1988—for perhaps the first time since that starved Pilgrim winter at Plymouth—America ate more food than it grew” — turned me from activism to skepticism and inaction.

Perhaps I wasn’t the only one to react this way, because one scare hasn’t been enough for the unnerving Mr. M. He has been banging his gong of gloom pretty steadily for 20-odd years and more than a dozen books, and he was back in the spotlight again this fall with another shocker, the unsettlingly titled Eaarth. I didn’t have the stomach to read it. (You can find out more about McKibben, his books, and his prophecies at his Web site here. Enter at your own risk.)

But re-confronting his Morrisonian concept of “the end” did inspire me to wonder about the affect that the natural world has had on my life, in big and little ways. For instance, if I just take the time to notice its existence — some days literally forcing myself to stop and smell the roses (or dahlias or cherry blossoms, etc.) or to pause and photograph a maple tree in full autumnal luster — I realize how unpleasant life would be without the cosmos. Oh, and unlivable, of course.

Luckily, nature didn’t quite end, not in the ways McKibben predicted, not yet. In fact, it’s fairly thriving, at least in my little corner of Earth (just one “a,” thanks), and in the minds of many of the writers I read these days, especially (though not surprisingly) the poets. Several of my favorite books of the past year offered a unique perspective on “the way we relate to nature,” and vice-versa. If nothing else, they remind us that the natural world has an important role in our lives: as a renewable source of inspiration.

As part of Scribbleskiff’s “year-end wrap-up for holiday wrapping” series, here is an overview of five of our favorite books of poetry published in 2010. Enjoy!

In Search of Small Gods, Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon Press). Not only is this my favorite book of the year, but it is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, poetry or otherwise. High praise or hyperbole? Yes. Harrison, who is perhaps best known as a novelist — he wrote Legends of the Fall and Julip— also is an accomplished and highly readable poet. His writing style is unadorned and straightforward, as are his sensibilities: “What could it be, this astonishment / … to finally understand that the purpose / of earth is earth?” And so is his sense of humor:

If a peregrine sees fifty times better
than we, what do we look like to them?

To Harrison, nature and the natural objects that comprise it (the “small gods” in the book’s title) aren’t something to fear or protect. Nature is simply a part of everyday living, important and necessary, but intangible and fleeting, like “the fluttering unknown gods that I nearly see / from the left corner of my blind eye, struggling / to stay alive in a world that grinds them underfoot.” Sure, rivers, mountains, and animals — including lots of birds, dogs, deer, even the “lowly stinkbug” he accidentally crushed with the garden gate — play a significant, even spiritual role in his life. But he knows that these are not harbingers or a hypostasis. After all, he states, “nature only leads us to herself.”

What makes In Search of Small Gods such a natural fit for me is the craftsmanship of the language that fills every page. Harrison’s talent is translating the transcendent into earth-bound, yet elegant statements, infused with warmth and wit, from the seemingly pointless (“my heart must open to the cosmos with no language”) to the poignant:

in Montana you can throw yourself down just about anywhere on a green grassy bed, snooze on the riverbank and wake to a yellow-rumped warbler flittering close to your head then sipping a little standing water from a moose track. … [But] first look for hidden rocks. Nothing in nature is exactly suited to us.

Everything about Jim Harrison’s 12th book of poems suits me. And the same holds true with some other 2010 books that I encountered this year:

The Forest of Sure Things, Megan Snyder-Camp (Tupelo Press). With such a confident tone and heartfelt honesty, it’s hard to believe this compact volume is a debut. The Forest of Sure Things offers an eerie, mesmerizing sequence of poems, split between imagined (or “borrowed”) memories of a real-life family tragedy and the poet’s reactions to it, that left me feeling both at home in this seascape where “shipwrecks build houses” and crate-loads of oranges “bob along the coast like subtitles” — and uneasy: “In this land the children tear their hearts in half.”

Bird Lovers, Backyard, Thalia Field (New Directions). It’s difficult to call Field’s new book “poetry” because, traditionally speaking, there are few discernible lines of verse here. Nonetheless, her experimental, genre-blending “stories,” which offer a stylistically daring exploration of our natural (and un-natural) world, are ripe with lyricism: “Until their power over the cities becomes too great, we think the pigeons will be able to continue. Then we think thinking will no longer help them.” This book is an aphrodisiac for word (and nature) lovers.

Child of Nature, Lujeta Lleshanaku (New Directions). Lleshanaku’s stark poems, translated from the Albanian by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi, plumb the lives of people living in a changed landscape where “spring kills solitude with its solitude.” These are haunting portraits, with their intensity often sparking at the intersection of human nature and nature itself. Here, a widow’s breasts droop “like flowers,” while “soft rain falls like apostrophes / in a conversation between two worlds,” and “praying was considered a weakness/ like making love.”

On Speaking Terms, Connie Wanek (Copper Canyon). Commonplace moments form the outstanding features of the landscape Wanek explores in this third book of poems. The speaker of one poem, for instance, writes a word on “the delicate paper [torn] from a garlic clove,” the result of “a whimsy / that came out of my pores.” In “Scrabble,” the poet admits that a lack of gamesmanship is “the story of my life, / rearranging assets and coming up shor.” Such word-playfulness is refreshing and inspirational, especially during these super-serious times, and feels hopeful, the way each puff of breath on a cold day, she says, might form “a little cloud capable of a single snowflake.”

So there you have it, five new books from this past year that should appeal to the natural instincts of the book-lovers on your list.

As always, tell us what you think. Have you read any of these new releases? Are there others that you think everyone should try? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

Originally posted on December 19, 2010.

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