In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thích Nhất Hạnh writes, “I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.“ Reading Daniel Lassell’s Spit, winner of the 2021 Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize, I kept returning to this idea, the miracle of earth and our struggle to recognize it and ourselves in it—a struggle made more poignant at a time when our own actions as a species have turned every poem about the earth into an elegy. And this largely elegiac book—about, of all things, a llama farm in Eminence, Kentucky—seems to me one of the most necessary books about the sacred and miraculous that I have read in a very long time.
The bulk of Spit focuses on the gradual loss of a family farm and the poet’s attempt to come to terms with that loss, first through the reclamation of place and lives lived close to nature, then through narrating the slow unraveling of those lives and the collapse of the fragile sanctuary his family created. Finally, in the last two sections the poet confronts his life away from the farm, attempting to understand who he is without it and how it continues to live within him.
The miracle of Lassell’s life on the farm is hard-bought but brimming with wonder—the magic of worlds connecting and colliding. “Blood Lungs,” “Mom Woke to a Coyote Staring in her window,” and “Taking in a Stray” all examine the wonder and peril of this world—a sense that, like the llamas themselves, this family is both part of and intruder into the world they inhabit. “Blood Lungs” in particular finds the miraculous in the violence of close contact when the author suffers a kick in the chest during a shearing and finds himself coming back to consciousness and a new awareness: “Like a gunshot, / spit sprang into another mouth. / So much green on everything. / And it’s everything that teeters between / rage and forgiveness.”
The precariousness of existence that these poems evoke adds a bright, sharp edge to things and points both to the effort to create sanctuary and the constant necessity of protecting that sanctuary from threats from predators large and small, from coyotes and foxes to Lyme disease. Impressively, Lassell’s often sturdy, earthbound language mimics the solid structure required for the building of a refuge in the wild, so that even when he speaks conceptually about such spaces, sparks fly up as from steel striking stone:
in the farm of my heart, a warmth
peeled back, ventricles open,
a craving untenable, the strings
of arteries wound into bows
the barbed wire of this clearing
loop-the-loops with wind.
The result is a sense of a sacred place constantly under threat from without and within—its untenability linked to its very conception: “Even in this farmland, the calling of it, farmland notes an imposed purpose.” Such human purposes and ideals are ultimately at odds with the forces of nature and time. Lassell continually returns to the absurd, beautiful, and delicate idealism of the llama farm itself, how his family has tried to make of isolation, holiness—asserting that “Peaceful is enough.” Only to realize that “peaceful” is not a substitute for peace.
The collapse of the family through divorce results in a gradual decline of the farm as the mother, exhausted both physically and emotionally, loses the farm animal by animal, most of this happening while the poet is grown and is learning to live in the city, and seen intermittently through occasional visits home, until the farm is left a husk and then no longer a farm at all. Given the meditation on loss, the long goodbye of the last two sections of the volume is surprisingly uplifting, lit by the release of letting go and the acceptance of what remains. This ecstatic joy in grief can be found throughout the final poems of the volume (and indeed, upon rereading, in its entirety), but is most profoundly felt in the “The End of the Llamas”—a poem which on its own may have felt absurdly silly, but in the context of this earthy collection spins and soars like Rumi:
O sweet llama my llama
in a field of llamas
now not in a field or are you
I remember that lovely wonder
have wondered if I could
match that joy sing.
For the poet the realization that his home has been embodied, “a housing where now I / carry them” is or must be enough.
It is and it is not, of course. We leave the poet at the end of Spit having accepted his loss and reconciled with its consequences. Ultimately the reader is left with the kind of indirect address that is the essence of so much great art—where we can see the larger implications in the small. The universe in a spear of summer grass. In this case a llama farm that somehow helps us confront our many losses, our isolation, our failure to protect that which we love and that which we are responsible to nurture and sustain. It is a book that confronts the loss of a world we are charged with taking care of and the possibility it might go on without us and within us.
Joel Peckham has published nine collections of poetry and nonfiction, most recently Bone Music (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2021), MUCH (Uncollected Press, 2021), and Body Memory (New Rivers Press, 2017). Individual poems and essays have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, The Sugar House Review, Cave Wall, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Sun, and many others. His poem, “Astrocartography” won The Southern Review’s Oran Robert Perry Burke Award 2020. He is also co-editor of the anthology, Wild Gods: The Ecstatic in American Poetry and Prose (New Rivers Press, 2021).