Jennifer Bullis reviews The Echoing Green: Poems of Fields, Meadows, and Grasses, edited by Cecily Parks
Everyman’s Library | 2016 | ISBN: 978-1101-907733 | 256 pages
The anthology The Echoing Green: Poems of Fields, Meadows, and Grasses is a recent addition to the popular Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. Superbly edited by Cecily Parks, this compact volume offers over 150 poems related to lawns, parks, pastures, meadows, cemeteries, and prairies, as well as crop fields, battlefields, playing fields, Elysian Fields, and fields of inquiry.
The poems, which span a lively range of forms from traditional rhymed verse to post-modern experiments, are grouped into six sections, five of them loosely thematic. Let’s start with battlefields. Many of the anthology’s poems depict conflicts of some sort, but the third section is devoted to sites of confrontation. Alongside war classics like John McRae’s “In Flanders Fields,” Herman Melville’s “Shiloh: A Requiem,” and Carl Sandburg’s “Grass,” the editor presents poems in translation from Bashō, Ibn Iyād, and Liu Xiaobo, as well as selections by such contemporary American poets as Joy Harjo, Lucia Perillo, Ed Roberson, and Elizabeth Bradfield.
Bradfield’s poem “Multi-Use Area” encompasses all manner of human uses for a field, showing what a contentious place it is. The speaker, walking through hay flats along a river, enjoys the aesthetic effects of sunlight and waterfowl sounds, but is distracted by piled trash, a butchered moose carcass, skeet shells and broken bottles scattered on the ground, the roar of “F-14s from the base”—and then, from hunters, shotgun fire:
It stops when I walk into view. I stop
and stare across the flats through my
binoculars, thinking asshole. And of course
someone’s staring back at me
over the truck bed, thinking asshole.
Bradfield’s poem crystallizes the conflicting human priorities that play out in natural spaces.
In Ed Skoog’s “Fladry,” threats encroach from every direction. To deter predators, the speaker has hung strips of cloth to flutter in the wind on a pasture fence: “Warnings to keep the flock from the wolf’s belly”—“for a term.” The greater danger, however, is from people, such as soldiers who “beat me up / and called me names in my own language.” Fladry—tongues of fabric—are a language, too, symbols of warning to cast a “spell” against attack. Both language and cloth ribbons are flimsy shields, and the instances of violence catalogued in the poem nearly overwhelm the protective effects of these fragile “enchantments.” Yet Skoog’s poem affirms language, and the symbols we construct with it, as our best tool “in the ongoing negotiations between / the world where I hold my son and the world / that destroys….”
Just as language mediates between humans’ impulses to create and destroy, the poems in this anthology collectively depict how grasslands mediate between humans and nature. Fields, meadows, and lawns are borderlands, contested spaces that buffer and translate between human activity and wilderness. This mediating function is especially visible in farm fields, where humans exploit selected natural processes to grow the crops and livestock that feed us. Numerous pieces explore this purpose, along with attendant frictions, especially in the sections titled “The Voice of the Fields,” “Sowing, Growing, Mowing, Reaping,” and “All Flesh Is Grass.”
Agricultural fields are not just about food production; their yield is also a harvest of metaphors. Here are poems of desire and heartbreak (Amy Nezhukumatathil’s “Come Home, Come Home,” Andrew Marvell’s “Damon the Mower”), erotic intimacy (Ted Hughes’s “Hay,” Kay Ryan’s “Green Hills,” Angelina Weld Grimké’s “Grass Fingers”), and mortality and loss (Jean Toomer’s “Reapers,” Jane Kenyon’s “Twilight: After Haying,” Philip Larkin’s “The Mower,” Stephanie Anderson’s “I. Reaping” and “II. Fallow”). Other salient themes include rebirth and regeneration (Theodore Roethke’s “The Far Field,” Tracy K. Smith’s “Us & Co.,” Wendell Berry’s “The Meadow”), and even social justice (Lucille Clifton’s “Mulberry Fields,” Gary Soto’s “The Elements of San Joaquin,” Ed Roberson’s “The Aerialist Narratives”).
As these abundant agricultural metaphors indicate, grasslands prompt metaphysical thinking. Some poems, including several in the “All Flesh Is Grass” section, take religious approaches to the subjects of death and rebirth (Derek Walcott’s “A Lesson for This Sunday,” Mary Oliver’s “Field Near Linden, Alabama,” Alice Oswalt’s “Field,” Lisa Olstein’s “Smaller Devices”). Others, ranging from T’ao Ch’ien’s fourth-century “Turning Seasons” (translated by David Hinton) to William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” and Amy Clampitt’s “Grasses,” contemplate time and eternity using the familiar trope of the seasons.
Elsewhere, the metaphysical subjects are more abstract, as in Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole,” where “In a field / I am the absence / of field” and “Wherever I am / I am what is missing.” Poems of this epistemological bent, like the excerpt from Donald Johnson’s “Letters to Walt Whitman,” invite readers to “tunnel” “toward the ultimate // cornfield,” to “burrow in / to a susurration… // of the real—” whereas Tomas Tranströmer’s “Summer Plain,” in acknowledging that “Reality has used us up so much,” surprises via a small jolt of the surreal. The poem takes place in
a large airfield—the flight controller is bringing down
load after load of frozen
people from space.
In a world where “We have seen so much,” our vicarious arrival in Tranströmer’s poem brings us new understanding, even consolation, by announcing, “The grass and the flowers—here we land.” Even more playfully recursive is Samuel Amadon’s “Often, Common, Some, and Free,” in which “field” is both a grassy expanse of public park and a space in a form that is open, incomplete, waiting to be filled by human activity.
The variable of human presence is crucial in other poems, too. William Cullen Bryant’s 1832 poem “The Prairies,” an early expression of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, is useful for its historical value, evidencing as it does a faulty understanding of Native American history and ethics of European-Americans’ westward expansion. (Wisely, the editor follows Bryant’s poem with the excellent tonic of Louise Erdrich’s “Buffalo Prayer,” an elegy memorializing those who were decimated and displaced.) Possibly more benign is Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Settlement” (translated by Peter Filkins), in which the speaker wants “to fill this land / completely with music.” More explicitly concerned with art and language is Francis Ponge’s “The Pré” (translated by Lee Fahnestock), where the speaker, in whom a meadow inspires a feeling of being “in paradise,” exhorts writers to write a “verity that is verdant.”
Writing one’s way to truths about nature is more difficult than it might sound. As these poems about the interrelatedness of human consciousness and objective reality indicate, poets’ engagement with “the pastoral” has always been fraught. Starting with Virgil’s 1st century BCE Georgics, a short passage of which is the most ancient entry in the anthology, it’s clear that deriving true understanding from natural processes is very hard work, and often, we get it wrong. A passage from John O’Hara’s prose poem “Meditations in an Emergency” is charmingly self-aware in exemplifying some pitfalls:
I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.
Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.
However, I have never clogged myself with pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures.
One of the few poems in the anthology to buy wholeheartedly into the Romantic pastoral image of the poet as enraptured “lover,” roaming the fields in a reverie of inspiration, is Victor Hugo’s “The Poet Goes Away into the Fields” (translated by Steven Monte). With un-ironic enthusiasm alien to our postmodern ears—the flowers in these meadows “make the brightest rubies dim” and “outshine even a peacock’s tail”—Hugo’s figurative language relies on hyperboles that un-ground the poem from the grittier realities of agriculture and nature. Instead, Hugo forcibly bends images, as when he personifies the flowers and trees as welcoming, even worshiping, “the dreamy one” wandering in their midst.
Thankfully, this is one of only a handful of poems that may elicit eye rolls instead of enjoyment. The other few are traditionals in the brief section titled “Grass in Rhyme and Song” (“And the Green Grass Grows All Around,” “Over in the Meadow”), which come across on the page as repetitive and nursery-rhymish, along with William Blake’s uncharacteristically clunky “The Ecchoing Green,” from which the collection’s title is borrowed. A valid argument can be made, however, that the inclusion of old-time, familiar selections provides readers with points of access into the anthology’s other, more challenging pieces.
Some of the most resonant poems are found in the section titled “Mind’s Meadow,” in which grasslands are playgrounds for human cognition. Here, fields are sites of artistic invention (Talvikki Anselm’s “Glacial Erratic”), fantasy and imagination (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Pirate Story,” Sandra Lim’s “Fall,” Emily Dickinson’s “To Make a Prairie”), and introspection and memory (Carl Phillips’s “A Kind of Meadow” and Robert Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow”).
Here, too, is a famous passage from “Song of Myself,” in which Walt Whitman entertains a child’s question, “What is the grass?” and spins out numerous possible answers. Whitman imagines the grass variously as “the handkerchief of the Lord,” or “the produced babe of the vegetation,” or “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” or “a uniform hieroglyphic” signifying to people everywhere the ongoing cycles of mortality and life. Since “[t]he smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” Whitman considers grass the ideal “flag” of his “disposition,” which is “woven” from this “hopeful green stuff.”
In its entirety, The Echoing Green: Poems of Fields, Meadows, and Grasses offers readers a similarly hopeful literary landscape. Expansive and varied, this collection is, to borrow Elizabeth Bradfield’s apt phrase, a “Multi-Use Area” for readers to wander and enjoy.
Read Jennifer Bullis’s Letter to America in Terrain.org.
Header photo of grass by AliceKeyStudio, courtesy Pixabay.