When I was a child, my terrarium was a world to enter, different from the one in which I lived. Entering the poems of Hannah Fries in Little Terrarium is a bit like that, with that sweet sense of discovery that children possess and that poets strive to reclaim and retain.
But a terrarium is a closed place, even a trapped space. In many of Fries’s poems we are given images of a plant (or a life) held down, held in, starved for light, yet still trying to grow, expand, be found before too broken, “and the world eats itself, flesh over / ribs, the starved and the soul inside / its little terrarium.” These poems express the idea that we are in a box, perhaps of our own making, but need to spread our vines over the sides and beyond, that our terrarium might be a safe place but we still long to break out, to not be contained.
We are a species that grows and names things. We find a comfort in organization, the taxonomic order: trees, flowers, weeds, mammals, birds, insects, spiders, fish. Sometimes we even try to name what we can’t see, what cannot be named. When we name, we see, giving what we name significance. We care, and when we care, we dread loss.
Fries opens with “Naming the Trees,” in which she says, “We are naming the trees . . . because we are unlearning forgetfulness” Isn’t to forget to lose that which we hope to hold on to? Aren’t we all walking into a future of loss— the loss of our environment (and the trees in it) or even our own memories, our own youth, and our loved ones to time? “And right now, time loves us.” she writes, leading us to ask, “Sure, but for how long?” In the poem “Mandala,” “One Chinese brother” (so goes the myth) “could drink the ocean and hold it in.” But only just so long. We hold on to what we don’t want to lose, despite the “undoing that persists.”
“Everyone wants a piece of the sacred,” we are reminded in “Love at Formel’s Junkyard,” where “unattainable beauty you rip apart by wanting too badly.” Perhaps we want to save even what we don’t know we have. Just as we “want to be found before (we are) broken.” Like the subject in “Mary,” we are “made of yearning.”
We poets name what we see and describe it, whether it is the world around us, or the images in a painting. The middle of this book shares a series of paintings of the sea, by Winslow Homer, and corresponding poems by Fries that, to quote Homer, “stutter in a language of their own.” These poems are ekphrastic but not in the strict sense of the term, that is, describing the paintings in detail, but rather, as in most of Fries’s poems, revealing a deeper understanding.
Fries has also accomplished lovely music in these poems. From “Epithalamion”:
The elm’s body a vase of poured sky.
The tree will die. Some day the tree will die
For now this axis— what we choose to compass by
The poems of Hannah Fries entwine the sacred beauty of all things in the world: tachinid fly, bower bird, winter wren, sex, atoms, galaxies, God. We are reminded of the interconnectedness of the poems in this book, and these poems to the world, and all things to each other in recurring themes of flood and famine, growth and regrowth, and seeds—of pomegranate, mustard, fig—in “a world that eats itself.”
There are things that can be saved, and things, though we try, that cannot. In Fries’s poems, it’s Noah’s wife, not Noah, who saves life on earth, seeds secretly sewn into her sleeve. It’s Adam, not Eve, who causes our banishment from Eden. And Eve? Like us, after reading these poems, she is “sadder now but not less happy.”
Cynthia Neely is the author of three prize-winning chapbooks and her full-length book, Flight Path, was a finalist in the Aldrich Press book contest. Her poetry appears in many journals. Her essay work appears in The Writers’ Chronicle and Cutthroat Journal (runner up for the Barry Lopez prize in Creative Nonfiction.)