MAY 31, 2014
“I BELIEVE a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,” wrote Walt Whitman, observing that grass blades were star-like not only in their twinkling but also in their longevity. They assured him of something close to immortality. He praised “the good green grass, that delicate miracle the ever-recurring grass.” For the poet who wrote of multitudes, grass was an irresistible emblem.
In the 19th century, Whitman was not alone in extolling the virtues of grass. In his 1872 speech “In Praise of Bluegrass,” Kansas Senator John James Ingalls wrote,
Grass is the forgiveness of nature — her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with rust of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lands, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal.
Ingalls shared Whitman’s faith in the everlastingness of grass and used it to serve a rhetoric of American democracy and exceptionalism in the wake of the Civil War. Both men believed in the strength of the American natural world as evidenced by the vitality of its grass. The vitality of the grass, in turn, guaranteed the vitality of the American experience as it was unfolding.
Over the past 150 years, we have devastated those American prairies that Ingalls and others praised, pumped chemicals into the ground surrounding our homes to create weed-free lawns that require constant watering and fertilizing, and drained millions of acres of wetlands that harbored the rushes that once inspired Whitman. At the end of the 20th century, environmental crises yielded the term “ecopoetry”to describe the growing presence of poems that pushed the appreciation of nature past simple praise (think Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”) to express an active and ethical relationship with a natural world that is not always easy to aestheticize (think A.R. Ammons’s Garbage). Recent ecopoetic collections by Brian Teare, Sally Keith, and Leila Wilson encode critical stances vis-à-vis human interaction with the natural world and offer three very different creative explorations of how the natural world shapes and is shaped by human presence. All three of these collections find in grass a powerful object for meditation, suggesting that the Whitmanian question “What is the grass?” bears re-asking in the 21st century.
In Brian Teare’s fourth book of poetry The Companion Grasses, the natural world provides setting and subject for the poet’s ruminations on loss. For gardeners and others, companion planting is a way of cultivating plants in relation to one another. Grasses offer themselves to Teare as palliative interlocutors as the poet elegizes his father, the poet Reginald Shepherd, and a woman who overdoses on his stoop. The poet’s mostly solitary wanderings depend on the natural world as a being to be imagined with. Aware of this dependence, these lyrics mourn what all environmental writing implicitly or explicitly mourns: the way that writing about nature distances us from it.
In “Susurrus Stanzas,” Teare tries to sort nature from culture in the hope that poetry might float between the two. He writes:
what is nature where
to stand I want to get
closer to where material
Teare’s airy, scarcely punctuated lines have been perforated to let landscape into them, to let world brush up against word. The word “grammar” appears in this poem and elsewhere in the book, most strikingly in the volume’s central 15-section poem “Transcendental Grammar Crown,” communicating the poet’s longing for what Thoreau called a “tawny grammar” equal to the knowledge with which wild places are replete.
To counter estrangement from nature, Teare practices a poetics of naming. Most of his titles have parenthetical subtitles indicating location, occasion, or a second name for the thing named in the title. The stunning poem “Quakinggrass,” for instance, uses the plant’s scientific name — Briza Maxima — as its subtitle. In the poem’s post-Eden, the speaker and his beloved look to nature to substantiate the intangible: “what is ‘lyric’— / hawk, we thought—.” The landscape even gives form to the erotic: “Lift river & slip in— / eddies edging the upriver bend— / the privacy of being entered is // What I felt privy to—.” The poem concludes with a vision of intimacy between nature and language, seeing and speaking, and, finally, the two men passing the evocatively named grass back and forth between them:
Little grammar of attraction—
(What is “lyric”)—
The book fell open on its broken spine
(florere, “to flower”)—
“It’s quakinggrass,” I said.
In a utopia where grass becomes grammar and the naturalist guide appears to blossom, the speaker’s declaration joins an ecosystem of language.
Most of Teare’s poems unfold over multiple pages and synthesize multiple strands of thought and feeling. While the placement of the philosophical “Transcendental Grammar Crown” in the book’s center suggests that it’s the collection’s linchpin, the most moving of Teare’s long poems are those that emphasize the natural world in equal proportion to the thinking that it sustains: “Quakinggrass,” “Tall Flatsedge Notebook,” “Atlas Peak,” “To begin with the desire,” and “Star Thistle.” “Tall Flatsedge Notebook,” the most unpredictable and exciting poem in the book, alternates been prose blocks and finely stranded short lines, steering through Point Reyes National Seashore, San Francisco, and into the mind of the poet whose writing quotes from his extensive reading. The poem’s expansiveness is grassy in that it is rhizomatic: “I was making language / a stem to aspire to,” the speaker writes. Similarly (and successfully) sprawling, the poem “To begin with the desire” weaves hiking, thinking, and quotation to create a “linguistic event coextensive / with the hike itself” that meanders through Heidegger and wildflowers with equal grace as it elegizes the poet’s father.
Teare’s investment in philosophy and the American literary tradition does not obscure his skill at making gorgeous, sensual, and citation-free language. In “Atlas Peak,” the speaker’s love of grasses and love of the beloved are held in the space of a lyric stanza before the speaker must return to a home indoors, leaving grass companions for the human one who calls his name:
We paused again outside the gate. More than home I desired the sleep-colored grasses—burnishing, turning silvers. I wanted to keep inside the shut eye the
look of them, inflorescence spent & toppled bent stalk, wind handling their
panicles: a dream arranged down to its smallest logic: this way dark & that way
shine until there’s only one way back. You called my name, & the moment stayed, the only scent my face in your neck.
Sally Keith’s third book, The Fact of the Matter, traverses a variety of subjects — the Iliad, Italian Renaissance painting, American land art, the body, and the American transcontinental railroad, among others. To constellate the disparate topics that compel her thinking, the speaker circles back to emblematic figures (including Achilles, Eadweard Muybridge, and Robert Smithson) who model anger, vulnerability, curiosity, persistence, and solitude. Their lives grant her insight into more personal concerns of how the artist might square her responsibility toward her work with the love, grief, and violence that she witnesses in the world. Keith’s ecopoetics reveal themselves in her finely wrought observations of the environment that gives location and form to inward speculation and emotion. Keith’s environments are not pristine wildernesses. Rather, they are places inseparable from human existence and influence.
The book’s first poem, “Providence,” documents an exchange between a mother and her daughter over lunch at a seaside restaurant. The reader knows the exchange is loaded because of what the speaker forebodingly observes: “On the corner a crushed Diet Coke can. / What she then told me, I remember. / Salt was exploding all over the sea.” Even though the poem doesn’t reveal what the speaker’s mother has said, the crushed can and the detonated ocean imply that it was terrible, perhaps an announcement of a terminal illness. Subsequent poems elegize a mother, including the long poem “What is Nothing but a Picture,” which is written, in part, from the point of view of an artist trying to paint a mural of The Iliad. As an artist, the speaker writes of being unable to abandon her work. “[T]here was something / I was that wouldn’t give up,” she remembers. Dedication to art prevents the speaker from dedicating herself to the work of mourning until a coastal hike exposes her grief:
Patches of wind toss the hard grass
so my shins get scratched.
The dogs’ hot breath hits in gusts.
Clouds thicken. Clouds splice
down far-off mountainsides no one sees.
The surface of the ocean is heavy.
The surface is a ruin that breathes.
Still, the circumference of my arms
isn’t yet wide enough. Mother,
don’t haunt me: I’m still so far from home.
The sharpness of grass against the speaker’s legs reminds the reader that grass is composed of blades. The harsh beauty of the natural world doesn’t reach out to embrace the speaker, nor can the speaker embrace it. Keith writes with an understanding that the Whitmanian urge to contain multitudes cannot be fulfilled.
Elsewhere in the collection there is a similar coolness to the poet’s encounters with the natural world; Keith does not risk rapture. In “Study in Increment,” the speaker almost clinically observes:
Outside, the slovenly light falling on and through the shape of the sycamore leaf,
siphoned, somewhat deflected where the vascular connectives knot, but soft, is so.
It is dusk.
Pinks and red.
In “On Fault,” a deceptively easeful etymological exploration of the word “fault,” the speaker considers faults in the earth’s crust, breakage, geothermal power plants, dams, earthquakes, volcanoes, King Lear, and human failure. The speaker dispassionately recounts: “I saw an orange-red wildflower on the path. I saw a yellow bush.” Absent are the evocative scientific or common names for plants that hold poets like Teare in thrall. In “The Fact of the Matter,” the natural world mingles with some of the least romantic indications of human industry: “Orange flowers surrounded the metallic poles” and “Cosmos clustered in the median strip.” Keith’s ecopoetics reflect the ambiguity of what we consider “natural” and our remove from a natural world that is paradoxically ever-present.The grasses that offer Whitman and Teare solace remain spiky in The Fact of the Matter. The final poem, “Lullaby on the Marsh,” returns to Achilles, imagining the warrior walking through wetlands:
The grass in the marsh looking particularly sharp—
be gentle, now—
Achilles by now too angry to eat, as you already know
Achilles pacing by the ships while the men feast—a weight, nothing slack—
The tips of the grass turned by an invisible wind…
Achilles — raging, grieving a friend’s death, close to death himself — embodies the emotional and physical volatility and vulnerability that can only be witnessed, not prevented, by the natural world’s presence. The grasses even seem to turn away from him.
Keith favors declarative, direct sentences broken into fairly regular lines and stanzas. She jolts these traditional forms from within with seeming non sequitur and abrupt diction shifts. The poem “The Wedding of the Rails” demonstrates how electrical her lyrics can be:
That the sentence hold the thinking self intact may require a strong defense.
Ignominious decision when the other side just quit, my father wrote me
yesterday, describing a case he had been working on. Each sentence predicts
a rhyming moment a countable distance away in time: hawthorn, jetty,
railroad, dome. Pattern of pelicans when three new birds join the migratory train.
Old letters, a sack of stone, sound of the answering machine saying no one is home.
Reading Keith is intellectually exciting. In the span of six lines, this passage moves from thoughts on cognition to a father’s dispatch from work to a list of talismanic objects. From one sentence to the next, and from one line to the next, the poem suspends the reader between units of meaning and different ways of communicating. Along the way, declarative sentences break down into lyric fragments. Thinking gives way to song.
Leila Wilson’s The Hundred Grasses is a smart, sensual, and sure debut. The opening poem — “What Is the Field?” — reframes Whitman’s question “What is the grass?” to ground Wilson’s project in a particular elemental environment. The poems in The Hundred Grasses revolve around this field and other elemental places — a tree, a river, a pond — to explore a natural world by turns both physical and conceptual. Most readers have seen a field. No one has seen it the way Wilson sees it:
The field reveals
glint and holds
twist from taut
knots of buds.
Wilson attends to the muscle and music of language. Her taut, short lines are rich with alliteration, assonance, consonance, and rhyme. The rigor of her craft is matched by the rigor of her imagination. The resulting poems are scrupulous investigations of a natural world at once familiar and intoxicatingly strange.
Take, for instance, the opening of “Branches”:
from every cramp.
They hook heat.
They save rain.
The confidence and wisdom of Wilson’s voice can make readers believe that they are seeing branches for the first time. The meticulously stacked lines suggest that ethical examination — faithful both to place and to the mind of the observer — is step-by-step labor. Reflecting on the labor of observation in “Hedge // Yellow Field,” Wilson writes:
This one patch
of land I can’t frame
with fingers, but
I work my gaze
to keep it mine.
The environmental sensitivity of Wilson’s looking means that poetic possession is necessarily temporary. Later in the poem, “The hedge hems in / the nearest knowing // I’ll never see.”
Whereas Keith writes of a natural world already disrupted by human existence, Wilson describes how a single human body disrupts different environments. For Wilson, human presence includes breath. In “Driftless Region,” Wilson writes: “I’m the biggest / animal here, / and so little hair […] my breathing / flocked with flaw.” Indoors, in the poem “Back Spot Turn,” the speaker observes:
Even in the angle
of the way I wake,
I quarry the air
with breaths I rend
To imagine breathing as quarrying and rending turns one of our most basic, reflex actions into an act of aggression. What is the responsibility of the human body in a world that even our breathing manipulates? The exquisite long poem “Span” at the end of this book proposes that the answer to this question lies in exploring how the natural world might be allowed to shape and educate us. Even so, the speaker recognizes the gap between loving the natural world and belonging to it:
so seed won’t scatter
I don’t know
what to do
The epigraph informs readers that the book’s title comes from the Han Dynasty: “In the four directions, broad plain on plain; / east wind shakes the hundred grasses.” Wilson’s shaking grass, Teare’s “quakinggrass,” Keith’s “tips of the grass turned by an invisible wind” — if these three poets are any indication, the poetry of grass in the 21st century highlights instability and volatility. These poets write with the awareness that, as environmentalist Bill McKibben puts it, “There is no future in loving nature.” There may be no future in loving grass. In the meantime, poets reveal the presence, pleasure, and friction of what is so often under our feet.