Andrew C. Gottlieb reviews A Scripture of Crows, Poems by Charles Goodrich
Charles Goodrich is a man with one foot under his desk and the other headed out the back door, toward the yard, the garden, determined to take himself to any place where he might find the surprise of the buzz of a hummingbird, the tug of a worm in a fresh turn of dirt, the curve of a shattered piece of siltstone. “I own a sharp spade,” he tells us in this third collection of poems, A Scripture of Crows, and with it, he digs into love, loss, and landscape with the eye of a writer who likes patience, solitude, and the nearness of the smallest particulates of the natural world.
There is concern for the world here, and elegiac moments that emerge from the slightest arrangement of words, but the overarching emotion is that of joy, a joy that’s tied to the closest of relations with the natural world. In the poem “Burdock” he tells us:
I’m not afraid to eat
woody things or bitter things,
or creatures that wiggle or squeal.
When I pull the burrs out of her fur,
the dog eats them.
These poems bring us close to the earth, the earth of a man who was a professional gardener for many years. He’ll not stand much of your squeamishness about insects or dirt: these are his favorite things. The natural world is a place to be heard, seen, inhaled, ingested. Experienced. In “Morning Song at Billy Meadows,” Goodrich writes, “My life has pockets I’ve never emptied.” The sequence of poems that tell of his time in Wallowa County, Oregon–poems that occur in the first of four sections in this book–show a man with an eye on the horizon, an ear for the coyote’s near or distant visit, and a hand smoothing some piece of the world that he’s just picked up. A stick, a rock, a leaf of prairie grass, a clump of fur previously stuck on a jut of tree bark.
In “Wallowa County Weather,” we tread in the space before the weather arrives, clear or stormy. Goodrich pours a cup of old coffee and sits on the porch to see what the clouds over Hell’s Canyon will bring. It’s this space, this patience in these poems, that give us room to look with the author. The fireworks and the drama may not arrive. In a way, that’s the point.
Could be a gully washer coming,
or it could get clear as a window by sundown
nothing but stars.
This is not a story about a thunderstorm or a big-sky night clear as ever. It’s a story of sitting, of waiting, of contentment watching the world to see the gorgeous unfolding of whatever’s right in front of our noses.
The third section of the book ends with a lively and vivid sequence of poems for Kapa, Goodrich’s wife–five poems that touch on love and death, a gentle and joyful balance of recognition and gratitude. Kapa tells her husband that for Christmas she wants rocks to frame the garden, eschewing his offer of a nightie or a beach weekend:
. . . she’d like
a pallet of quartzite sandstone or Camas basalt—
two or three tons of big flat slabs.
. . .
how middle age has made her
how her passion
has become so discrete.
The short poem “The Meadow” is three brief couplets illustrating the purest snapshot of a moment of the two together, the wild grasses the object of the prairie meadow that makes this poem function so well:
Wild grasses up to our waists,
we plunge through the meadow,
running our fingers over the seed heads,
tossing handfuls of grain in each other’s hair.
I bet we could eat these, you say,
chewing a stem, pulling me down.
It is joy here, a joy of togetherness, a joy that morphs into a feeling that includes gratitude. In the poem “Walking Pneumonia,” the pair are out for a walk, suffering the effects of the respiratory disease, and a pragmatic voice tells us, “We’d be fools to believe / the worst is behind us. . . .” He’s acknowledging age, the reality of the human condition, of worsening health, and this factual knowing runs through these poems as a balancing point, a fulcrum that in a way deepens the celebration. It’s the way gratitude makes its grandest appearance on stage, usually: under the gray sky of knowing that nothing is forever.
Amid the reality, Goodrich goes for optimism, turns the language upward, outward. “We are // fools. We do believe.” The poem ends with the couple leaning together, watching a pair of vultures circling higher and higher “until they wheel / clean out of sight.” It’s a simple, smart ending to an intelligent poem, image-driven and redemptive, optimistic while realistic. It’s a contagious feeling, this sort of joy these poems offer, a good lesson, to banish our vultures for another day, whether literally or figuratively. They call to mind the couplets of Li Po, or the surprise of Mary Oliver glimpsing the slim shape of the liquid fox.
Goodrich is an activist poet as well, but while he presents real moments of loss and regret in poems like “The Terravores,” his satirical name for the rusting hulks of useless earth-moving equipment post-fossil fuel, or in “Ghost River” where his dreams reveal his innocence in hoping the Willamette River has been restored to its ancient, salmon-laden status, the political, as we might say, doesn’t overshadow the optimism, but partners with it, pairing a wonder with a sadness, a poignancy that boosts this work.
These are free verse poems, most not longer than a page, one or two centered, but most left-aligned. These are campfire poems, poems for the backpack, a cheerful book that deserves its dogears and underlines, while it howls and pants and waits for the best morsels from the dutch oven cooling in the dirt. Finally, one of the more perfect poems in here is an elegy:
Flowers and Whistling
A cloud passes in front of the sun
and the sunflowers hang their heads.
A little wind pushes through the corn.
The green stalks clack together, then stand very still.
The last notes of my song
seep into the ground
and my old friend who has just gone
is the fragrance of the rose.
These four sentences do a little magic, the clack of the stalks, the slight, unobtrusive but present rhyming of front and sun, of song and gone that with ease stitches these lines together, the anapestic rhythm that sparingly and gently carries these couplets, and the image of the last line, the fragrance of that rose, of roses, that scent that leaps out at us as we listen for the song’s last notes.
This is how Charles Goodrich turns a murder of crows into a scripture for the natural world. That’s my kind of religion.
Header image, “Bird Experiencing Light,” by Morris Graves (1969) courtesy Morris Graves Foundation.