A Symbiosis of Poem and Painting
Derek Sheffield reviews God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World, by Rebecca Foust and Lorna Stevens
Writing about the natural world is a real challenge in an age of climate collapse and nature-deficit disorder. In the face of the first calamity, the poet needs to figure out how to make art instead of propaganda, and, in light of the second, articulated by Richard Louv in his seminal text, Last Child in the Woods, the poet needs to educate her reader without being pedantic.
To meet these challenges, it helps to have a visual artist in your corner. Poet Rebecca Foust and artist Lorna Stevens achieve a symbiosis in God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World that makes a journey rich in sound and shape, hue and sense.
The book is organized in three clearly defined sections. The first section abounds with odes and pleasures. There’s fruit and sex and insects—what more could a body ask for? The language is accessible and muscular and relies much on words of Anglo-Saxon origin, as in these lines from “Lakemont Park”:
Then the carnival light
Or these from “Mount Ellinor Hike”:
Deer sausage thick as my thigh
The imagery, sounds, and rhythms all have a little soil clinging to them. They are sensual and convincing.
Just when you think the book is all juice and joy, it darkens in the second section where a more Latinate, science-inflected language ushers in extinction and environmental degradation, both evoked through personal and general tragedy. These poems are more complex. They take more risks and aim toward a more sophisticated reader, such as the ironic poem, “Nuclear.” The queen bee of making science sing is, in my book, Pattiann Rogers, but Foust has some real zingers in the second section. In “Bee Fugue,” we hear
Each saturate drop
and “Teleology” offers
This is darn lovely writing.
The third section returns us to all the rewards there are to receive from this world. Sin and toxins may abide in their respective systems, but there’s always spring. Among all the failures arise a handful of green stems. One poem catalogues Lazarus species, animals thought extinct that have been found alive, and the final poem and painting are both titled, “Perennial.”
The weaker poems in the book allow statement to overwhelm lyricism. These include “Day” and “Frog.” In “Last Bison Gone,” the language becomes journalistic:
New Zealand’s huia bird,
was hunted extinct except for this
in the Smithsonian.
Here, where information gets in the way of art, sound and rhythm become less compelling. Fortunately, there are only a few such passages in the whole book. The earlier quoted lines typify the sonic richness God, Seed offers.
As with the poems, the images are most engaging when they slant. Only one image in the book feels like an illustration of the corresponding poem. The rest offer intriguing resonance, such as in Cricket at Play, which follows “Lakemont Park.” Just as the poem blends the human and non-human (thus eroding the dichotomy), so does the image. The cricket depicted is composed of “watercolor and lipstick fingerprints.” One can see the whorls of Stevens’s prints in lively reds and green. The effect tickles the eyes and the brain. Both poem and image place the human within the natural world, right where it, of course, is. Here, as elsewhere, there’s a keen sense of the interconnectedness of organisms—one of the keystone concepts of ecology. The visual art consistently enhances the effects of the poems. Poem and image are bigger for the presence of the other. The images converse with the poems instead of illustrating them and thus enhance instead of limit.
There’s a section of notes at the end of the book which are helpful and interesting. They might offer a little too much or, at times, unnecessary information, but then again, they might help bring non-traditional readers of poetry to the book. That’s one aspect of God, Seed that bears noting—it has wide appeal. The poems are engaging enough for readers of poetry and accessible enough to create more such readers.
Because of the environmental theme of the book, it seems appropriate to pay attention to its production. It is printed on FSC Certified paper. FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council, an NGO (non-governmental organization) that ensures sustainable forest management. Paper bearing this certification comes from suppliers who practice sustainable and responsible methods of production and harvest. The only thing better is FSC Certified Recycled paper (100% post-consumer). For examples of environmental publications using this kind of paper, see Orion and Flyway. Foust, Stevens, and Tebot Bach earn bonus points, however, because royalties from the sale of God, Seed go to the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California, which is home to organizations working for environmental and social justice.
God, Seed offers many rewards. It is a rich mix of pleasure and insight, poem and painting, and it is likely to net the poetry world some new readers.
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