Anne Haven McDonnell reviews Quickening Fields, poems by Pattiann Rogers
Penguin Poets (Penguin Random House) | 2017 | ISBN: 9780143131328 | 128 pages
I love field guides. I love how studying a good field guide helps me to see more, to recognize patterns and relationships, to return to awe at the diverse and strange ways life takes form. The poetry of Pattiann Rogers is like entering a field guide come alive as creation story, sung in incantatory rhythm, delighting in names and sound, embodying a careful and accurate attention, and saturated with spirit, wonder, and imagination.
In her most recent collection of poems, Quickening Fields, Pattiann Rogers dedicates the book to seven virtues passed on by our early human ancestors. The book’s first six sections contain seven poems each, and the last two sections have five and four poems. Rogers creates such patterns to invite the reader to contemplate these virtues as we zoom and hover, burrow and fly, wonder and imagine inside worlds of a checkered beetle, fiddler crab, woodland snail, the slow power of moss, and the congregating of stars.
By layering imagery from the natural world, each precisely and imaginatively invoked, we are invited to travel, to let our consciousness roam, as in the poem “Next to Sleep,” into the dark of a pecan shell, a sealed clay jug, and a snow den with two furless cubs and a she-bear. There is no hierarchy here. Through music and lush litanies, Rogers creates poems of prayer that sing the sacred equally in each wonder of creation the poem touches. When human intimacy is explored in these poems, seduction comes through not only human closeness, but also from a merging with the more-than-human world. In one sexy encounter in the poem, “Winter Camping,” the speaker is seduced by a man who brings in the animals and the icy world:
He’s the guttural growl of a white
arctic fox, a froth of white ptarmigan
smothering against my face, pervasive
as the inside out of a black polar night,
a white raven circling, making black
beakings on my belly. . .
Such music is hypnotic and cumulative in these poems. I find myself whispering as I read, feeling the shape of words in the mouth, circling, repeating, invoking. There is a firm assertion of the power of naming here. As the poet Anne Carson has explained, the Homeric verb mnaomai means both to hold in attention and to woo. In the poetry of Pattiann Rogers, language itself holds this reciprocal force of seduction, bringing us closer to what has been named and evoked.
Throughout the collection, metaphors and images cascade and accumulate in rich rhythms, hung on the scaffolding of extended syntax that asks us to consider or wonder or imagine. Rogers takes a gesture, or a question like the opening line “How far down does the yellow of the sunflower descend” in the poem “Noonday and Deep Idea of Yellow.” Then the poet guides us deeper:
through stem and viney roots, into the night
of the loamy soil, into the buried crystal of yesterday’s
rain, then rising back up and out again into pollen
and petal and up deep into the fiery blue/orange sky
of the sun’s yellow summer eye?
Color is a portal to consider the miraculous connections and expressions of life through sky, a meadowlark’s feathers and “thunderous cells / of that tiny bird heart,” to “the yellow in the eyes / of that coyote,” to the “yellow wing dragonfly, yellow-headed blackbird.”
There’s a story behind the publication of this book. Terrain.org’s editor-in-chief, Simmons Buntin, was teaching the delightful poem “Finding the Cat in a Spring Field at Midnight,” and was surprised that he could not find the poem in any of Rogers’s books. After Simmons contacted Pattiann Rogers to track the poem down, Rogers realized she had a book of uncollected poems that became Quickening Fields.
In the final section of Quickening Fields, the poem “Is knowledge of the universe holy?” asks a question that hums at the center of what this poet whirls around. The poem opens: “The phylum Porifera (organ-pipe sponge, nipple sponge, red beard sponges, slim sponge) might be said to compose a sacred litany.” This poem, like every poem that Rogers writes, sings an incantatory Yes to this question.
In a time of such loss and precariousness, the poems of Pattiann Rogers invite us to remember the awe and wonder of the living world we are woven in. Through music, delight, and imagination, these poems sing their radical response to the human-centered arrogance that feeds the unraveling of the more than human world.
Recently, Pattiann Rogers was awarded the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Nature Poetry. She is the first poet to ever receive this award, which recognizes “the power and permanence of Rogers’ entire body of work.” With the recent death of the beloved nature poet Mary Oliver, it seems like a good time to celebrate the unique legacy of this poet, a living treasure whose poems enchant us as prayers to re-member ourselves inside the fabric of this strange and wondrous world.
Read poetry by Anne Haven McDonnell previously appearing in Terrain.org: Letter to America, four poems, two poems (winner, Terrain.org 5th Annual Contest in Poetry), and two poems.
Header photo by jplenio, courtesy Pixabay.