Scape, by Joshua Harmon (Black Ocean, 2009)
The Lesser Fields, by Rob Schlegel (Center for Literary Publishing, 2009)
As seemingly rooted as it is in established modes and subjects, the pastoral tradition in American poetry has proven highly adaptable. Yet it is not easy to say what has actually happened to the pastoral among contemporary poets since the 1970s, when Language poetry and subsequent movements began to complicate the relationships among self, language, and representation. For some poets, nothing has happened; for them, the woods and fields remain the same as ever: the home of the Romantic sublime or the site of Confessional self-examination. Other poets such as Susan Howe, John Taggart, Ed Roberson, Forrest Gander, Arthur Sze, and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, among many more, engage with the complications of Language poetry while drawing upon a range of diverse traditions and sources, finding the interconnections of landscape, language, and the self to be more surprising and mysterious than any single poetic approach could account for. In the last decade, some younger experimentalists such as Marcella Durand, Juliana Spahr, and Jonathan Skinner have cohered around Skinner’s journal ecopoetics, writing poems that more or less explicitly engage with ecology, itself a set of ideas (scientific, philosophical, political) that grow more various and complex by the minute. Other young poets, many of whom might be classified as “post-avant” or one of the other labels that denote their willing inheritance of both experimental and conventional practices, are less clearly identifiable as “ecopoets” but nevertheless write a kind of self-aware “nature poetry”: personal lyrics that present the charged relationship between the poetic speaker and the natural world as alive with the possibility for both renewal and negation. Joshua Harmon and Rob Schlegel, two poets whose first collections appeared in 2009, write such postmodern pastorals, poems whose “I” is inherited from the Romantics as much as from the Language poets.
The title of Joshua Harmon’s Scape directly identifies the book’s persistent concern: the ways in which artificial structures—written, drawn, thought, built—make meaning of the natural world. “Scape” is the part of “landscape” that denotes the human presence on the land, shaping and framing it. That the book begins mid-utterance,
-heelprint and halter, halfway
heard: before means back
then, to know before
it breaks it lurches
so in the snowfield’s
stalk- and stem-broken
edges a rosehip bends,
reddens at its tip:
reveals its prevalent logic: that language—as one of those framing structures—is an ongoing activity given to interruption and syntactical and semantic slippage. The book’s epigram invokes Zukofsky (“—scapes welcome small birds—”) while the assonance and alliteration of Harmon’s writing aspire to song. In the midst of this first poem, “Whither,” we are already “halfway,” given to wonder both where we are going and where we are coming from. The first two lines achieve remarkable compression of sound and meaning, with the “h” alliterated four times and the vowel sounds developing rapidly from the “al” of “halter” to that of “half, from the “er” of “halter” to that of “heard.” A “heelprint” is human movement’s mark on the terrain, a “halter” the human way of harnessing the movement of horses; boots and bits are both made things. Hear, too, in “halter” the difficulty of progress. The heelprint places us on the ground and initially gives “halfway” a spatial sense—we are walking somewhere—but “heard” delivers us into air, the drift of sound; we cannot quite make out what we hear, or we are not sure what we have missed. Enjambment works as a hinge: “before” might refer either to what we’ve traversed before our last heelprint or what lies before us. Until the line breaks, “back” would seem spatial (as in “to turn back”), but again enjambment doubles the meaning, completing the temporal phrase “back / then.” “Before” is quickly resituated in the infinitive phrase “to know before / it breaks it lurches,” with the mysterious “it,” a pronoun without an antecedent. One contender is “halter,” before the breaking of which might come a lurching, but before a clear referent is established, another image appears. The poem brings the eye back to literal terrain, its broad whiteness fringed and punctured by darkened stalks, the clarity of the reddening fruit of the rose bush.
“Whither” is a poem without terminal punctuation; a series of colons propels the lines forward, and sound—alliteration, assonance, repetition of words—overrides completeness of syntax, argument, or image. Voice and ear lead mind and eye. The poem continues:
halfway across, near dusk,
to know snow before
this is nothing to
naming this unread surface
defect of drift lines:
The poem’s fifth couplet seems to begin one sentence, but the sixth couplet subverts its syntax; following the preceding logic, “this” begins as the object of the preposition “before,” but quickly becomes the subject of the verb “is,” which might then turn “before” into a subordinating conjunction. The following lines further confound syntax (how to parse “this is nothing to / naming this unread surface / defect of drift lines”?), but the strength and compression of the image overcomes the disintegration of the sentence. “Unread” makes a metaphor of the snowfield—terrain as text—which allows us to understand the “drift lines” drawn by wind across the snow as the syntactically drifting lines of the poem, “defects” and all. “Naming this unread surface” seems an apt formulation of what Harmon tries to do throughout the poems that follow, finding again and again how curious that task is.
Throughout Scape, Harmon’s language attempts to represent woods, fields, and weather—to give them shape and meaning—but the poems reveal how language itself drifts and grows wild. These poems draw attention to their own language, reminding us that they are not transparent panes through which we might simply observe the natural world. Most of the book is taken up by the forty-section poem “Landscape,” which begins:
Trepanned: in other words, my mind wanders
no farther than the map I drew from memory,
Trepanation is the practice of drilling a hole in the skull; popular in prehistoric medicine and persisting through the classical period into the Renaissance, the procedure, now referred to by surgeons as “craniotomy,” is only occasionally used in modern medicine to treat epidural and subdural hematomas. A small contemporary movement, often derided as pseudoscientific, advocates for elective trepanation as a way to improve the circulation of oxygen to the brain. Apparent throughout the book is Harmon’s fondness for such unusual diction. “Trepanned” surely draws attention to the poem’s language, verging perhaps on affectation, yet how this word helps frame what follows is not entirely clear. But “in other words” suggests that the mind’s wandering might be understood as a form of trepanation—and indeed wandering is a kind of circulation. The poem comes into sharper focus in its second line. It can be imagined that a map places a certain limit on how far one might wander in thought or by foot because it renders just how things are (as far as they can be accurately represented by a cartographer) and just how we might best find our way from place to place. But to wander “no farther than the map I drew from memory” might be to wander quite far: such a map is essentially imaginative. To draw a map from memory is to eschew the cartographer’s standard tools and methods, to abandon any claim to objective representation. The speaker’s mind—its memories and markings—seems almost to create the land, not to represent what already exists:
marking the stone-circled embers memory makes smoke
—wisps to occlude whatever arrow-line I’d draw next.
Language is how Harmon’s imagination draws its maps, and since he indulges—or actively crafts—the drifting of diction and syntax throughout Scape, the maps themselves seem to wander. The maps may resemble the land—their language may even assume certain characteristics of the land—but the maps are never the land itself. In this poem, the map assumes the qualities of folklore. The cartographer’s method:
Next is the legend: asterisk for tree, speck for settlement,
double dagger for ruins, circled star for fallen star,
wave of my hand for broken satellite, exhalation for
exhalation spent climbing the rise step by step
toward the form of the field, the retirement of assent.
Here lake, here site of ambush, here fallen king.
The thistle’s tendency—its bent posture—toward the oracular.
The wolf’s basking ruse.
In Scape, Harmon’s linguistic maps take a variety of forms: from the deftly handled short line and double-jointed syntax of “Whither” to the longer line and more stable syntax of this first section of “Landscape”; from the delicate projective spread of the twenty-third section of “Landscape” to the prose blocks that appear at intervals throughout the book. In all of these poems, Harmon sustains a characteristic diction and tone (a disarming blend of naturalist description, intellectual code, and slangy directness), and at its strongest (as in the passage from “Whither” quoted above or lines from “Landscape” like “slushy gray, tire-tracked: / bring back / this busted even- / ing, the hilly town / ditched,” the coincidence of the scoured, tightly coiled language with careful attention to physical detail indeed recalls Zukofsky or, at times, Basil Bunting.
Michael Davidson’s blurb identifies in Scape “an almost Hopkins-like faith in the natural sacrament,” and Harmon’s aspirations to Hopkins’s alliterative, “sprung” song are evident throughout, especially in the two sections of “Inscape,” the title of which directly invokes Hopkins. Inscape was Hopkins’s name for the unique being of a particular thing as expressed by its physical characteristics to the five senses, a kind of transcendent nature apprehended in the experience of the physical thing. As he wrote in his journal:
There is one notable dead tree . . . the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come.
Instress, then, is the name for that apprehension of inscape, which for Hopkins takes place in the form of the poem. In his theology, the poem is an experience of the Creator as He is expressed uniquely in the inscape of each earthly thing. And as Hopkins’s “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” reveals, inscape is a kind of activity:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
The extent to which Harmon’s “Inscape” draws upon Hopkins’s theological and phenomenological theories is not immediately clear, but the poem clearly channels Hopkins’s music:
Held a flat thornback. Even, a rather,
the untended gizmo: imply less
tree than tried, surfeit of surmised
selves: torn. Withers atop a weather
within, a name says a saw was.
There is thin and thin to think of it,
divisions part hidden, subduals
There is an initial delight in the sounds that Harmon has strung together here—a pleasure, too, in the feel of the words on the tongue. The lavish, surprising diction of “untended gizmo” and “subduals / of sway” (or, elsewhere in the two sections, “mazer than me,” “in a rash of burnt furze,” and “to feaze percussive / memory”) inspires curiosity. The logic of these lines is principally phonemic, not semantic; alliteration, consonance, and assonance are what link these words and phrases. If the reference to Hopkins extends beyond the poem’s verbal energy, there might be some semblance of his notion of inscape present in the lines, “Withers atop a weather / within, a name says a saw was.” Absent here, however, is the precarious but grammatical syntax of Hopkins’s poems, and without the tension of grammar, this collection of eccentric sounds and vocabulary at length loses its expressive force. The poem skitters across the surfaces of words and things, vaguely conjuring ideas and images but never achieving the precision of Hopkins’s instress. For Hopkins, words—the very activity of the poem, neither static nor absolute—must apprehend precisely the thing under observation, since the thing itself reveals the presence of divinity in the world, and each manifestation of immanence offers a unique vision. But in Harmon’s “Inscape,” that vision is not achieved. At many other moments in the book, the poems do achieve an experience of something like inscape; if they did not, I would be tempted to conclude that Harmon rejects Hopkins’s notion of inscape altogether, that he is simply parodying Hopkins. But the careful syntax—by turns precise and ambiguous—of Harmon’s finest poems balances skepticism of language as an expression of transcendent identity with the hope that there might after all be a mind expressed in words and grammar—the hope that language might be more than a series of phonemes. His best “drift lines” graph the interaction of a driven, shifting current of sound with a disciplined grammar; the two together are the activity of language. In “Whither,” too, sound leads the mind, but it is the tension between sound and grammar that generates the poem’s unique energy and meaning. If “scape” is the presence of human mind on the land, it is also, as Hopkins’s inscape and instress help us understand, the presence of mind in language. Understood this way, “scape” is a version of the self as expressed through the activity of language, even as this expressive capacity, often in its most fully realized lyric form, allows language to break and lurch.
Appearing throughout the book are prose poems that, in their almost expository directness, can be read as statements of poetics, which are, in the logic Harmon has established, also statements of troubled identity:
I built a frame around the landscape, to shape it in a way more sympathetic to its own inclinations. Built up hills to crown what one gazing on them might stutter. Built hollows below the hills to catch the wind’s harvest.
Once I could see the clouds, the instructions seemed clearer than the sky. When I breathed, clouds would shift. When I held breath clouds would shift.
Built a frame around the landscape, to shape my own inclination. Cut grasses that never would have hidden much. Held a forked stick and wished for water. At the edge of the frame, I leaned over to see what was beyond. A boy walked through the landscape, counting quietly the numbers of stars that had sparked while I shut my eyes.
This poem, the eighth section of “Landscape,” acknowledges both the speaker’s determination to shape the land and how the “frame” he builds in turn shapes him. The speaker would seem trapped in his language, but the third paragraph holds open the possibility that he might at least briefly escape the frame: the speaker comes to “the edge of the frame” and is able to see something “beyond.” However, the final poem of the book, “Summer’s Tenants,” is more ambivalent about such a possibility:
. . . The hedge outside grows nearly as fast as I can prune it, though I prefer to rely on the pity of passersby rather than the fickleness of my own sunlit instincts. And my ladder won’t reach the tallest branches. Objects disappear within the foliage for days at a time, then reappear on the lawn when I least expect. Superstitious, I’m just as happy to hide behind my hedge, gathering whatever folklore I can find, as to peer through the alliance of branches and leaves at the road.
The hedge, like the map, is an apt figure for Harmon’s language itself: cultivated to define a piece of land, it grows constantly in its own directions. The overgrowth by turns obscures and reveals what one might hope to see. But here the speaker is just as inclined to remain behind the hedge—to dwell in the “folklore” of language—as to “peer” beyond it. Here are the names, and the “unread surface” remains beyond them. The “I” of these poems is acutely aware of where the branches of its language break, but it continues to speak anyway. As the thirty-sixth section of “Landscape” has it:
And fuck this conversation with the natural: I can’t outlast the outdoors. I’m raising a pennant for a brittle self.
If Joshua Harmon imagines “a brittle self” in conversation with the natural world, Rob Schlegel imagines an almost ghostly one:
Here and not here, I breathe away
the parts of myself I no longer require.
Would that they return as fish
orbiting globes of algae and every
now and then one might dimple
what I imagine will be my skin—
surface film or epithelium; body I fold
my body into; gravelcloud
and rainstem—a water unending
as the field where I pitch a dozen apples
toward the trunk of a tree until each one
having shattered into many pieces
is a length of horizon by which I measure
where I have not yet happened.
“Ontogeny,” the title of this second poem of Schlegel’s first collection, The Lesser Fields, denotes the origin and the structural development of an individual organism, a concept that Schlegel applies to his own poetic purposes. The speaker of the poem appropriates scientific language and concepts to imagine himself as a particularly permeable organism, both “Here and not here,” a self literally and figuratively diffusing into his surroundings. Exhalations carry away carbon dioxide and other expendable elements of biological life, and the words themselves that might travel on breath leave their speaker and disappear into the ether. What other parts of a self might one “no longer require”? The poem does not enumerate them, but as soon as he releases them, Schlegel’s speaker wishes that these parts of himself might return to him in another form, as fish kissing his skin, and he imagines himself in another form as well, dispersed among “globes of algae,” organisms that typically sustain themselves by absorbing their surroundings through photosynthesis and osmosis. The poem itself diffuses the speaker’s identity like a fluid through a series of images in a long sentence, culminating in the apples broken against a tree trunk and scattered across a field. Yet the diffusion of the self is distinctly paradoxical: the poem refers to “each one” even after the apples have been “shattered into many pieces”—as though their bodies retain individual coherence even in dispersal—and the spread of each single apple’s pieces “is a length of horizon by which I measure / where I have not yet happened.” The presence of each apple is in the space between its pieces, and the speaker imagines that space as a measure of his own identity. He measures not by what he already is or has become, but by an absence imagined as potential—an opening in the future, a space in which he might “happen.”
Throughout the first section of Schlegel’s book (also called “The Lesser Fields”), the poems enact such ghostly renditions of selfhood, as if the speaker were haunted by whatever else he might be. In “With Shut Eyes What My Mind Sees Does Not Belong to Me,” he wanders “In the city whose streets I knew / by the size of candles kept lit / for the neighbor’s missing children”:
The voices of my depressed and handsome neighbors
were roughly the same as mine.
Me and not me and the two halves
by the same name.
I lost some people and made a few mistakes.
Each day, I tried to give myself
a different name. Today, you are Jim
I would say, and vertigo might fill your veins
and you will surely lack direction.
In these lines the speaker doubles himself multiple times, first in hearing the similarity of his and his neighbors’ voices. The relation between the first and second stanzas is ambiguous. If “Me” is the speaker and “not me” is his neighbors, and the two are halves of a single entity bound together by their similarity, what is their common name? On another reading, perhaps more persuasive in light of “Ontogeny,” the second stanza is more obliquely related to the first: the observation of his likeness to something other than himself is followed by a second observation that he himself, identified by a single name, is equal parts “Me and not me,” both himself and his ghostly double. Again, Schlegel imagines a permeable self, an inside that contains something of the world outside it. “Ontogeny” transforms the speaker’s identity through a series of metaphors, but here Schlegel attempts transformation through a series of literal name changes, as though he might cast a spell to dismantle his fixed identity. As though the act of changing names—and its attendant disorientation—is more accurate than the retention of a single name as a way to identify and experience both “Me and not me.”
The speaker reports his attempts at renaming himself but says little, however, of their success or failure. In “Allies,” another poem in the book’s first section, such attempts to find or foster “not me” seem unsuccessful:
Until someone steals my coat
I am the younger brother
of each passenger on the train.
I polish their black shoes
and offer to clean the mirrors in every restroom.
At night I sleep and my siblings
try to see the passing fields
by looking out their windows
but their dark glass only reveals
their own reflections
so they think
if they could lighten their hair, they would.
If they could change their names
they would try that too.
The train’s passengers, whom the speaker imagines as his older siblings, attempt to see something outside, but their own images obscure the view. A change in their image or a change in name might allow them to recognize “not me,” but they cannot make those changes. The apparently static selfhood of the passengers in “Allies” is complicated, however, by the poem’s first stanza, which frames the rest of the poem as only a temporary situation: after the theft of the speaker’s coat, of which he seems clairvoyantly assured, his relationship to the passengers will change entirely. Even as the speaker describes the inability to transform oneself, he anticipates that with a quick change of exterior, his own identity and the curious world the poem establishes will become otherwise.
Many of Schlegel’s poems seem perched on almost supernatural thresholds. Like enchantments, the poems establish new logics by the performative effort of their own language: words alone transform one thing into another and just as quickly transform it again into something else. Sometimes the transformations are metaphorical, though often we are led to understand that the use of “is” is meant to be literal not figurative. In one poem, “her name is a leaf covering / my left eye”; in another, “Unborn / My daughter is a wave / On the dark ocean.” Schlegel wagers that his imagination is vital enough and his language precise enough to earn the reader’s faith, and the poems in The Lesser Fields prove the success of this wager again and again. Poems such as “Ontogeny” are forceful indeed: the exact but light-handed turns of image establish a convincing, subtle logic of their own. Our vision of the world is sharpened and renewed. Occasionally, however, Schlegel’s wager comes up short. Earlier stanzas of “With Eyes Shut What My Mind Sees Does Not Belong to Me”:
I ate melons in a dusty kitchen
and pierced lures into the lips of fish in my aquarium
until each hook became a leaf
that floated out from the fishes’ mouths
and up to the water’s surface.
The fantastical quality of these lines is less convincing. The “melons in a dusty kitchen” are an atmospheric flourish, but not clearly more crucial than that. Though the image of a hook becoming a leaf is an interesting puzzle, the picture does not come into sharp focus. If there is a kind dream-logic at work here, it remains only a dream. The speaker’s strange activity is a curiosity, but it lacks the imaginative intensity of the book’s strongest poems, which, like rituals, transfigure the actual world. At the end of “Icicles Tine Barnward from the Barn’s Shallow Eave,” for instance, Schlegel’s recurring concerns—the relationship between inside and outside, the performative potential of language, and the interaction of human and animal life—converge in the dressing of a bird, a ritual that promises to ignite the scene. The poem’s sinuous syntax is alert to both physical facts and their metaphysical significance:
The fence through which wind blows snow enough
to bury it. Would that I envisage things real
only after I say them so—
against the knife’s tip, I slip its pale skin
weight of ash
essential to welcome—
as I dress the bird its feathers scatter.
Ecdysis or wind
in which sound begets particulates of sound
I have not yet lit to watch flare and flare.
Birds are essential to many of the rituals in The Lesser Fields, and they sometimes become another double for the speaker of the poems. In “Illuminated Face,” Schlegel’s speaker collects “the feathers of birds / murdered by artists / who infuse their paints with the real,” and concludes, “As a man, I am free and listening. / As a bird, I am wounded and asleep.” A poem (quoted here with its title) from the book’s short second section, “November Deaths,” describes a kind of funeral:
From a Sheet of Yellow Paper I Cut Bolts of Lightning
To scatter over the birds
And some dying
All of them prepared
To return to this world as eyes
Read in conjunction with “Illuminated Face,” this makeshift ritual seems to anticipate the return not only of the dead birds but also of the speaker himself, newly awakened to the world. “November Deaths” ends with a second bird poem, “The Lark’s Call is Smaller than the Field”:
To see the bird
Open your eyes
A bare branch
A fled bird is
The poem faster
Than its prayer
The lark’s is a call to pay attention, and these lines are attentive indeed, precisely rendering an image and lightly figuring a metaphor in a single gesture. The metaphor asks us to understand that, like a bird just “fled” from our attention, a poem itself is just quicker “Than its prayer”—the words the poet offers as an act of devotion. The words on the page are a kind of ritual, and the poem itself is the elusive fulfillment of that ritual’s hopes.
Schlegel’s recurring conviction that death affords rebirth and transfiguration would seem to find an appropriate parallel in the structure of The Lesser Fields, with “November Deaths” followed by “Lives,” the book’s third and final section. Formally, the section reads as a collection of prayers. Each title is a variation on a phrase—“Lives of Daughter, “Lives of Greta” (a poem for the late poet Greta Wrolstad), “Lives of Name,” “Lives of Morandi, “Lives of Lake,” etc. The repetitive form creates a sense of ritual devotion, but the variation in the objects of the preposition is playful; these are prayers that can attend to anything the imagination beholds. Many of the poems in The Lesser Fields engage with the natural world, but Schlegel’s prayers in this third section are especially attuned to ecology. This ecosystem, however, is one that ghosts, gods, and artists share with oil-slicked ponds, trees on fire, and rituals for slaughtered animals. The landscape seems haunted: everything is itself and something else. “Lives” develops a kind of pantheism; gods seem present everywhere, and their presence offers the potential for endless surprise and transfiguration:
Lives of Forest
On the public ground
I step soft to follow
The one mind of the forest
Whose moss haunts
The limbs of trees that wish
To rid themselves of tariff.
Before my mind
Can shape it, presence
Finishes a thought in my fingers
Such is passage—
A tremble and the fish I touch—
In the dusty shed
Stones of the shelf
Are evidence of mind
In the creek bed
Where salamanders invent
A privacy for sadness.
As the fled bird is just ahead of our sight, so presence is just ahead of the speaker’s consciousness. His body—his sense of touch—becomes the mode of his attention to that presence. The achievement of Rob Schlegel’s The Lesser Fields is again and again to find “evidence of mind” in the bodies of the world.