Dennis Held Reviews Holy Heathen Rhapsody by Pattiann Rogers
The poetry of Pattiann Rogers lives in a Universe unto itself, a whirling, near-bursting physical location only partially contained by the ecstatic language that defines and clarifies this, Holy Heathen Rhapsody, her 15th book. The poems are filled with a feisty spirit and are anything but grave, yet they arrive in the ear with a certainty, a sense of purpose, an eloquence born of soulful deliberation.
The poems are rich with physical detail, and are populated by a wide range of complicated denizens of the natural world: animal, vegetable and mineral, human and otherwise. All are given the full benefit of Rogers’s deep thought and thorough understanding of the unseen but rewarding ways our human selves are connected to the wider web of beings. Plants, animals, even stones and landscapes and stars are connected, despite our all-too-human tendency to look past such everyday miracles.
These poems are insistent reminders to slow down and listen to the music that’s already playing in the world. To the harmony of form and function that produces each individual animal’s rhythm and pitch, as in the poem “Scarlatti Sonata Testament”: “Listen…all white foxes, all white owls, all snowy/ silver geese. Attend…all casual fish holding on/ in the icy beads of silver current. Snow leopards,/ white bears, silver baboons, mottled white mice nosing/ at autumn seeds…pause in unison, lift your heads.” The imperative voice calls out directly to the animals themselves, almost begs them to “Listen,” “Attend,” “take note and remember,” and it is only after the poem is finished that we recognize that we have attended: harkened to a kind of desperate prayer in the night to record these magnificent beings.
The slippery richness of the vowels and consonants themselves convey a sense of the unlimited variety to be found in the natural world—and suggest what could be lost if we continue to let these marvels slip away. Near the end of the “Testament,” the intense, sonata-like voice, now italicized, becomes fierce in its insistence that all must be accurately named and recorded, even in their parts: “Each barb/ of every feather, every black-tipped ivory hair, every/ luminous scale and fan-like fin, each knuckle and spine/ and nail, each red drop at the pith of the marrow,/ at the root of all glare and mettle, every breath quiver,/ every one, every single one, is beheld and declared.”
That longing to hold fast to what must, in the physical world, be lost—the already-fading red of the rose—lies at the heart of a Romantic tradition in poetry that some feel has been exhausted by its many, more careless practitioners over the last few hundred years. But the originality of Rogers’s song, and the power of her convictions, prove that there is still new life to be discovered in familiar fields, and the many rambunctious flights of imaginative fancy in Holy Heathen Rhapsody carry this work beyond anything previously written, by Rogers or anyone else.
These poems trace and expand the long lineage of Rogers’s vision, which has stayed remarkably true and unwavering through the course of two books of essays and thirteen of poetry: that the ability to connect, with each other and with the natural world, is the surest means of transcendence for those of us who must live our spiritual lives within the physical world. And Rogers fervently believes that poetry is the best language to help ease us into that Otherness and out of ourselves.
At times, the guide to the other side is right there with us on the page: the book’s first poem, “Yearning Ways,” takes a fast-moving romp through the sheer unstoppable power of the plant world’s Will to Be: “Their aim is true toward any sun-slit/ opening in the multi-storied canopy,/ any crack of clay or mortar, through/ any ice-broken web across a boulder./ There’s one now, a green squeeze through/ the splinter seam in that fence post./ …And I’ve felt the keenness of their tactics,/ haven’t you? Spurs of bristlegrass,/ milk thistle or sow thistle, needles, nettles/ of sand burr, hooked spines, barbed/ awns, bristly tufts. Blood can be proof.” Some readers might bristle at the rhetorical apostrophe, the direct address; in Rogers’s sure hands, though, the turns feels natural and suffused with goodwill.
Human warmth runs a deep course throughout this poetry. No matter the surface subject, each of these 33 poems becomes a testament to the power of the human imagination to rise above the limits of ordinary language and experience, and the very human rewards that accrue to those who make such departures: empathy and compassion, especially for those least like us.
In a 1993 essay, “Woman and Bird,” the poet Adrianne Rich reminds us that our appreciation for great works of art is rooted in our shared appreciation for the power of form, especially repeated forms, in the natural world: “Human eyes gazed at these forms of life and saw the resemblance in difference—the core of metaphor, which lies close to the core of poetry itself, the only hope we have for a sane and humane life.” By recognizing those similarities, we are able to see ourselves as participants in a wider web of being, the first step in acting responsibly toward the shared Universe. To the particulars of the observable world, Rogers adds the heightened language of the ecstatic, and the rhapsodic vision of the seer. The poems are carefully structured, and the architecture of sound is carefully built, syllable by syllable, line by line, and stanza by stanza. Every pause is considered, from the ellipses in “Scarlatti Sonata Testament” to the breaks between lines and stanzas; Rogers exploits the tension between line and sentence in surprising ways that seem inevitable, and add lyrical richness and texture to the work.
And the book has range, as well as depth. In one poem, we’re reminded that sometimes, we have to lean in to hear the words we most need to hear, and the voice reaches us as if heard from afar, in the hushed “Less than a Whisper Poem”: “slightly less audible than the dip/ and rock of a kite string lost and snagged/ on a limb of oak/ . . . no sound, not even/ a sigh the width of one scale of a white/ moth’s wing, not even a hush the length/ of a candle’s blink/ nothing,/ even less than an imagined finger held/ to imagined lips.”
In that final image is the return: from the impossible abstraction of language, to the tender touch, most deeply human. The space between poet and reader, the imaginary and the actual, is bridged, and in that connection, a life can be lived, aware and alive, through the everyday miracle of language. Holy Heathen Rhapsody offers both a continuation and a furtherance of the majestic imaginative power of Pattiann Rogers’s poetry, carried by the humanity and compassion of her language’s lyrical charge. From The Expectations of Light in 1981, through the symphony of this most recent rhapsody, Rogers has conducted her work with joyful abandon, and with the firm hand of a maestro on the baton.