I’m normally not a fan of nature poetry. I actually (dare I say it) poo-poo’ed Merwin’s last book because it was so….sunset and evergreens. Just take a moment and think about how many descriptions of the sea you’ve actually read. Here’s a brief history of sea literature compiled by yours truly off the top of my curly head: Moby Dick, The Odyssey, Old Man and the Sea, Lord Jim, Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Mermaid, Jaws, etc. If I missed one of your particular favorites, feel free to leave suggestions in the comment box. We can win a Guinness for sea literature.
(I’m still really regretting that Merwin comment. If it’s here when I post this blog, don’t bring out the stakes please. I know that Billy Collins and Merwin are the “poets of America” these days, popping up in chain bookstores, and being read out in church, but please, don’t burn down the castle. I’m one opinion).
I requested Stephanie Pippin’s book on NetGalley because it had birds on the cover. I’m such a stereotype.
I didn’t see that it was a predatory relationship until I had the cover beautifully displayed in front of me. There is feather debris along the side, spread hawk wing above, two lovely feather spears in the death grip of the hawk and a turned over beauty with alfalfa hair. PERSONIFICATION. It’s actually a gorgeous cover for a poetry book.
And there are gorgeous words inside. I’m so happy I requested this book. In fact, I would feel awful if I somehow found it and didn’t get the honor to request it. It’s the kind of book you should request, a royal book, a gift of a book, a book you open and then feel yourself instinctually tied to. It was here where I was gripped:
“At night I am cut free. I confuse myself with birds.”
The rest is history, as they say. I have two full pages of quotes from this book. She describes animals in the way they’re supposed to be seen. Not as objects, but as living, “heavy, alive, warm globes breathing in their shells.” It’s beautiful. I was never so taken with a deer until I read the passages about their grazing in an open forest. It was a cinematic approach to poetry. The way you see the flies buzz just above the rib cage of road kill. Animals stranded as outliers in a world they began.
In this interview, Pippin talks about how she came to know animals from the inside out. Working at a bird sanctuary she was forced to gut animals for feeding. Birds, we forget, are predators. Crows stalk fields of corn, and are farmer’s worst enemies and yet they have sharp eyes as if they’re brothers to the raven, worth writing a poem about, worth the beat of the heart under the floorboards in Poe’s cottage.
I’ve never forgotten what birds are. Somehow, what dinosaurs are for normal people, birds have become for me. I feel this intrinsic tie to them. Their freedom alludes me, I teach it to my 9th graders, the symbolism of birds to every culture (recently, the “slave culture.”) The reason we sing of birds in gospel choir, the reason Noah uses birds to check that the world has not drowned. Birds were the ones that sought out the rainbow, the promise. This book isn’t just about birds though, it’s about the nature of our world and how we forget the intersection between us and it. It’s so commonly referred to “man v. nature” lately. So many natural disasters hitting too close to home. Salvage the Bones is a great piece of literature on Katrina if you haven’t read it. Then, we hurricanes pushing boats into garages in New York and Rhode Island. The homes of people filled to the brim with water, washed out photographs and soaking couch cushions. Light bulbs floating in the second floor. I don’t know if we’ve become fearful of nature, but we’ve definitely become enemies. Even poor Mother Nature in those tampon commercials.
“This is the lesson of grief, to listen to the chorus at the water’s edge, to read the black weight of abandoned nests.”
My mother walks for this. She goes out into the winter air, crisp through the peep holes of her gloves and waits for the sounds of nature. Unlike the rest of the hyperactive world, my mother doesn’t use headphones. She’ll walk at almost any time of day. She walks because “cleanliness is next to godliness” because she knows in the whole of nature is the whole of herself. My mother is the person who finds the one red flower in the thatch of pointed green bushes. She’ll cup an empty bird’s nest in her hands and save it for me on our dining room table. She picks up cracked robin’s eggs with two dainty fingers and whispers at the broken treasure. It’s incredible to watch my mother in nature. Her cheeks blush red and she’s alive.
“Deer/graze the forest. Now the trees. They would speak. They have a stench like standing water. In the forest nothing moves but oak/branches.”
This line made me want to say, “of course trees smell like standing water.” That’s the perfect description. And honeysuckles smell like my childhood when we would go cup creek water and wait for a tadpole to swim in. To do this, you have to make sure there’s no ground in the clear spaces between your fingers, water will flesh out. The crawfish that skittered back through the muddy sand after peppering our hands with water droplets smelled of pebbles and empty coke cans that sat out far too long in the sun. Peeling the flower of a honeysuckle petal to get at the freckle of sweetness. The way boys would rub buttercups under our chin so we’d lift our faces to their voice. (They start young). The turned over trees that became balance beams and my hair, so long and wild that the robins could hear it move. I imagine it must have sounded like rubbing your thumb against your first two fingers and holding that softness up to your ear.