Joseph Green reviews Of Earth: New and Selected Poems, by John Daniel
The last poem, “Solitude,” in John Daniel’s Of Earth, his most recent collection, evokes the shifting cloud curtains of Oregon’s Rogue River as they drift, part, or lift to clarify what had been obscured behind them. “But nothing, nothing / is revealed,” Daniel says, “because what / can be hidden?” The question implies that whatever was at home there is always at home, living “openly in its seclusion.” And that would be that, more or less, if it weren’t for the final lines of the poem, standing as a coda:
where the mist opens,
atop one tall tree
a raven lights
and tries its voices.
This is how I initially entered Of Earth, by the back door, the last poem first, the way I habitually engage a new book of poems; no matter which way I may turn during the subsequent, slow journey from the beginning, through many sittings, taking the poems in order, I can hold a destination in mind. For me, the destination in Daniel’s collection is not so much the veiled back country landscape; it is especially that raven in the treetop, speaking in tongues.
It’s hard to say much about this book that Daniel hasn’t already addressed in the introductory “Note to the Reader,” and often he’s said it so well that it’s tempting just to quote him repeatedly and let that stand. For example, along with a generous number of previously uncollected poems, Of Earth includes selections from Daniel’s two earlier collections, many of them revised through “fiddling,” about which he says, “Nothing in Nature is finished or ever will be. Why should human works be any different?”
I knew some of these poems fairly well before I saw them again in Of Earth. I even have a broadside of “Dependence Day” framed, hanging on a wall in my house. That said, although a line in “The Unseen” gives the collection All Things Touched By Wind its title, and I know absolutely that I read the poem in that earlier book, I felt as if I were reading it for the first time in Of Earth. I was immediately struck by the sheer knock-out beauty of the first sentence: “Mustard crowds the barbed-wire fence, / the entire hillside thick with light / and growing lighter as the pale sky / goes dim.” The scene unfolding around him prompts Daniel to say simply, “I need to rub this moment in mind / for the shimmer of meaning I almost see.” He recalls his boyhood resolve at a similar moment: “I’ll remember, he whispered, even / when I’m dead I’ll remember this.” The poem moves through twelve sections, meditating on the unequivocal nature of death, on what it means, how observing it heightens one’s awareness of being alive; and finally in “the dodge and mingle of mustard flowers / flattening as the wind comes on” Daniel sees that the “ease with which things bend / as they hold firm” might be the way to accept his own inevitable passing.
John Daniel says he wants his poems “to touch the beauty, integrity, and mystery of the given world, which [he calls] Nature. To celebrate that world…is as important as to decry its ruin. To celebrate it is to decry its ruin.” This statement gives a certain urgency and unity to the various themes that run like seasonal creeks through the collection: the relationship of human beings with our surroundings and with cohabiting species; the debts we owe to our mentors and ancestors; the responsibilities we bear for those who follow us into this world; and the unescapable punctuation of death for everything that lives. Identifying himself as a “spiritual and scientific generalist” in his understanding of Nature, Daniel describes his poems as “products of a kind of nearsighted groping toward forms of truth that can be realized, if at all, only in the process of seeking them.” He says, “My aim is to attend to the living world and make true reports.”
Therefore the raven tries out his voices, and there are many. In “One Place to Begin,” Daniel seems to address his younger self, giving advice, giving lessons in perspective: “The wind isn’t talking to you. Listen anyway.” In “Reading” he describes observing a lizard through a window, and the lizard observing right back, “each a vague trouble in the other’s eye.” He adopts the persona of Death in “The Longing,” always close at hand, patient, waiting, speaking of his relationship with the poet, or with each of us:
I wait to the right, he turns left.
I am on time, he is early or late.
I whisper when he lies awake at night,
he turns on a light, he pretends
he does not know me.
“Naming the New One” sounds like a legend from the First People, giving voice to all the animals as they observe and confer, trying to decide what to call the clumsy, noisy, naked human. And “The Kid Who Asked Too Many Questions” begins as an account of a walk with a boy who wanted to know “why some rocks were big and some / not so big, why this tree died / and that one lived,” and so on until the poem’s narrator, slipping into a different kind of legend, says “I grumbled up a thunderstorm / and lightning split him eye for eye,” leaving “two gray stones / stuck in the ground” where wildflowers bloom “and lizards wait for a question / to the answer beneath their feet.”
“A Prayer Among Friends” is indeed a prayer, as is “Christmas Psalm in Solitude,” with its repeated address to the “Spirit whose name I do not know,” both poems reaching beyond the empirical to give thanks for the poet’s place in the greater arrangement of things. As prayer is a way of giving thanks, so is homage. In “A Word with William Stafford,” Daniel thanks Stafford for not praising his poems, for advising him instead to “Stay alert . . . . Be ready. Practice / the little ways that invite good fortune.” Daniel also pays his respects to Wendell Berry in “First Things First,” meeting him in a dream. The Kentucky farmer wants to know where he lives, but the Daniel can’t answer. Berry allows him to take whatever seeds he wants anyway, saying “But don’t you think / you’ll need a place to plant ‘em?” It is a poem exactly in the posture of Wendell Berry, a perfect, quiet tribute, in that way.
I took personally the poem “To a Friend Who Doubts that Her Writing Matters” because I have such doubts myself and have allowed them to carry too much weight. Daniel recounts seeing a “mossy oak limb golden in sun” just because he had looked up when he heard a thrush sing. He hadn’t seen the thrush, didn’t know why it sang—”Because it is a thrush, I guess”—but the bird’s song connects the poet with a visual moment of surprising beauty and moves him to say, “Sing for no one, Emma, / and sing for us all, sing / for the one you may never know / who will waken, somewhere, to your voice.”
Or voices, like the raven calling into the solitude around him because he has to, whether anyone is listening or not. Whether that treetop is in the clear or wrapped in mist. I imagine John Daniel’s delivery of these poems that way. It makes me feel inordinately lucky to receive them.