"No thought is free of the world": Two Recent Books of Nature Poetry (So-called)
Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley (The Goose - spring 2009, issue 5, pages 59-62)
John Donlan, Spirit Engine (London: Brick Books, 2008. 80 pp. $18.00)
Monty Reid, The Luskville Reductions (London: Brick Books, 2008. 96 pp. $18.00)
These two engaging books have much in common. Both are collections from established poets who write movingly about concerns of mid-life; the volumes share a palpable world-weariness. They are also informed by similar landscapes, and they trace the passage of defined periods of time. But the differences between the environmentally-inflected collections suggest a broader distinction between a contemplative form of nature poetry that takes as subjects individual entities (birds, flowers, “Sweet especial rural scenes”) and an anecdotal form that creates a sense of dwelling in a place—that is, a form that approaches “nature” less directly. This contrast allows me to suggest that John Donlan’s Spirit Engine, which accords to the first model, presents a vision of the natural world that emphasizes discrete units, or particles—columbines, terns, songbirds, ponds—each of which promises a flash of insight. Monty Reid’s The Luskville Reductions, on the other hand, offers a broader view, a way of seeing the world that emphasizes the situation in place of all people and things. But of course this is not the whole story, for Spirit Engine has a philosophical bent that takes all being as its subject, while The Luskville Reductions revels in personal details and the apparent isolation of its setting.
Donlan’s “Written in the Dark” serves as a sort of ars poetica, or at least as a statement of Spirit Engine’s governing impulse:
The perception of the external world
by the senses, aesthesis, our anchor,
catapults us into sanity
despite our every effort to escape. (39)
I make this claim tentatively because Donlan’s poetry is elusive. The poems proffer gnomic statements that rely on the force of their phrasing to convince the reader of their truth. Donlan often writes of “we” and “you,” at times implying the presence of a particular figure but frequently inviting the reader into his generalizations. What does it mean, then, when he proposes to us that “Night terrors / force us into our most compact container / against annihilation” (21)? Each poem is dated; the sequence runs from October 6, 1998, to October 5, 2006, but the significance of these dates remains secret. Donlan’s preferred form is a set of four four-line stanzas; the regularity of the form and date stands in contrast to the surprises that the natural world contains. The poems repeatedly suggest that the nonhuman world might teach the human observer, in part by demonstrating the virtues to which we aspire. “You learn patience from white pine” (16), notes the speaker in “Across the Line”; “You learn protection from granite, a patron / of the art of ancient, delicate lichen” (16). The knowledge of the natural world affords a certain compensation for being human. In “Influence,” an apostrophe to the “Inner Voice,” Donlan asks his muse to
help us speak
in the language of animals and plants, so we speak for more
than a species whose original sin or genetic stain
is to be too successful and make earth’s heaven a hell: (27)
But Spirit Engine’s resigned sadness at the state of the world suggests, against this appeal, that the fate of our species is not to escape the sin or stain, but rather to contend with it—to find a way of being in the world that allows human desire to coexist with wilderness (in the most general sense). After all, his poems suggest, there is only so much that poetry can accomplish: “You can sing about the rain / but it won’t do a damn bit of good” (“Solstice Song,” 29).
The Canadiana in the poems—CBC Radio, Tom Thomson, a cottage on Georgian Bay—and the careful attention to birds and birdsong will invite comparisons to Don McKay’s writing; the book’s depictions of Ontario settings will also be familiar to McKay’s readers. Reid’s book less recognizably belongs to the category of “nature poetry,” but it is strongly tied to a particular location—and more precisely to a single house. The Luskville Reductions begins with a laconic explanatory note that grounds the book in place and introduces the candor that typifies the poems: “Luskville is a phantom settlement on the Ottawa River in western Quebec. I lived there for five years, until my partner, nursing a suite of dissatisfactions, returned to Alberta in 1994.” The Luskville Reductions is itself “a suite of dissatisfactions” and satisfactions alike. In a sequence of reminiscences, the speaker links his reflections on loss to descriptions of ordinary activities (chopping wood, watching TV) and unspectacular landscapes. The river, frozen and thawed, is a central image of both change and constancy. Reid’s sense of humour is well developed, his ironies and self-deprecations relieving what otherwise might have been a lugubrious commemoration of a failed relationship. “When I finally / gathered up the garden hose,” the speaker recounts, “an image of its soul / remained in loops on the sidewalk” (44). (The punchline is that “Like all souls / it was made out of a speckle / of dust and dead bugs.”) One of the last poems proposes that the soul might instead be “just the little black off-the-shoulder dress / you wore to the office party” that ends up on the floor (86). The Luskville Reductions is in some ways anti-visionary, unlike Spirit Engine, yet Reid and Donlan both display a willingness to find in the nonhuman world powerful reminders of of human limitations.
As probably every reader of The Goose knows, London’s Brick Books has published some of the most noteworthy ecologically oriented poetry by Canadian writers. The authors in Brick’s catalogue include McKay, of course, one of the founders of the press, but also poets from Avison to Zwicky. Brick, quite apart from its redoubtable importance as a publisher of poetry tout court, has been instrumental in the development of a distinctive Canadian environmental poetics. Reading Spirit Engine and The Luskville Reductions together will remind readers of both the important role that individual publishers play and the differences, sometimes subtle, among works from the same publisher. Despite the family resemblances of the two collections discussed here, their differences suggest the multiplicity of Canadian environmental poetry, which, I think, we should prize. Even single publishers admit of different strains and varieties of nature poetry (in that inadequate phrase), as careful reading will discern; an important critical task, then, is to attend to connections and idiosyncrasies at once, to see forest and trees at the same time.