“Her World Was Narrowed Down to What She Leaves Behind”

The Sea, Menacing Thing.

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).

The Messenger by Stephanie Pippin

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.

Bird Anatomy @ Psyche Pirate

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.”

Deer & Honeysuckle @ K G Swaim

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.

12 thoughts on ““Her World Was Narrowed Down to What She Leaves Behind”

  1. Elisa says:

    :) I like real opinions. It is much more interesting to know how a person feels, than to wonder if they think they only ought to be ‘nice’. I really love to read Merwin. I know that people say his name, but I only know of him from bumping into him from time to time and coming across The First Four Books of Poems in the attic bit of a used bookstore. My hand was just wavering along the books touching and stopped and pulled et voila! I think and I express a lot like he does. I have had to understand what it must be like for people who do not feel enchantment at nature! I still catch me wondering if someone forced them to read some other poet’s garbage–of course not Merwin’s! I wonder if such reading keeps one from noticing afresh each thing?! I want to come back and to investigate the bird book tomorrow, after I take the kiddos for my son’s birthday movie at a special showing at a very old theater. Have a good night.

    • Cassie says:

      I haven’t read enough Merwin to truly have an opinion, but I’ve read enough if his newer collections to know what older, lived, Merwin is like. I wasn’t enthralled with his latest collections and I obviously found things I did like but I wasn’t sure the hype I was supposed to feel was ever there. I like honesty too in reviews. I like horrible lies in my fiction. :)

      I also really like the way you described finding Merwin, I could really picture it. I hope you like the bird book!

  2. Bea says:

    What a beautiful blog about a wonderful book of poetry. The writer sounds as if she has become one with nature, and how wonderful and scary that must be.
    Thank you for the mention in the blog. I do love my walks, and the wonder of finding the leftovers of a cracked robin’s egg. Now that’s beauty!

  3. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Keep on reading your bird books, you just never know when you’re going to uncover a gem.

    Actually, I really love writing about the sea, when they get the metaphor right, but some of the titles you mention almost put me off reading as a pastime, Od Man and the Sea in particular, and of course back then I didn’t understand why they made me feel so low, stripped of gorgeous metaphor and lacking any meaning that related to my youthful soul, I am still searching for the book that get’s it right, you seem to have more luck with birds.

    • Cassie says:

      I just always seem to find maybe three great bird books a year.

      I love writing about the sea as well, I just feel like there’s almost no new metaphors, imagery or simile. It’s so over done. I HATE Old Man and the Sea, it’s so sparse. For some reason that was like the first story I thought of when I was thinking of sea stories. How frustrating. Let me know if you have a good sea recommendation.

  4. Cristina says:

    What a great blog! Your post made me remember a short story involving birds (or a bird). Have you ever read “Rara Avis” by T.Coraghessan Boyle? It strangely made me think at it as soon as I looked at the poetry book cover ( and yes, what a great cover!). Now I really need to check that book!

    • Cassie says:

      Now I’ll have to read that! Thank you for the recommendation! I love when people comment with books. Let me know how you like this collection. It’s free on netgalley at the moment.

  5. Audra (Unabridged Chick) says:

    wow — amazing review. It makes me, frankly, jealous — jealous of your writing and that volume of poetry — which I need to get — although I’m already a bit skin-crawl-y in horrified anticipation as I like my birds safe and at a distance…

    • Cassie says:

      Oh, believe me, I got really jealous today and happy. One of my great writing friends got into graduate school and I was like WHY DIDN’T I APPLY THIS YEAR, WHY DOESN’T ANYONE WANT ME?! It was awful…and wonderful all at the same time. I hate and love reading a good book because I’m like, “damnit, why didn’t I write this?” and equally like, “OH MY GOSH BEST WRITING EVER!!!” You will love it, even the gut-stuff.

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