Review: 'Reading Novalis in Montana' shows the turmoil of ecopoet Melissa Kwasny

The title poem in this collection quotes the German Romantic poet Novalis: "The true philosophical act is the slaying of one's self" — an apt motto for ecopoetry.

To infuse nature with feelings, to question the separation of man and nature, defines romanticism. Twentieth-century ecopoetry by Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry has gone further in breaking such artificial barriers. Melissa Kwasny is a worthy successor to these spirits.

In the book's first section, elements of nature — redpolls, mule deer, pond ice, brook trout, black geese, butterflies, bee balm — invite meditation, yet civilization's turmoil intervenes.

The poet worries in Redpolls, a poem about birds: "I was there when the hundred redpolls decided / to leave my life, scarlet tag / on their foreheads, pink wash on their breasts." The consolation of nature is fleeting: "I read of Artaud who was tortured by his own mind, / how he felt his own mind wasn't his." T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land haunts contemplation of Montana's natural beauties. It is a beautiful corruption, but corruption nonetheless.

Even at her most ecstatic, as in Mountains, the tranquility is provisional: "I split wood to last the month, stack the larder / with wet aspen, which smells dirty when it burns — / blackened herbs, the dust of mountains. / I am too busy to be happy, studded with the snow." Do we stop being happy when we think about it?

In Pond Ice, after disturbing "its sleep with rocks," the poet reads "about the surrealists, / their goal to infuse reality with the divine." Yet contemporary surrealism might be considered pure narcissism. The poet edges up against the limits of language. To stop thinking of the environment as inert, exploitable, endless and feelingless requires syntactical breakthroughs beyond surrealism.

The anxiety increases as intellectuality sharpens. In My Heart Like an Upside-Down Flame, the poet grieves: "The heart has been looted of its small valuables." Is It Oblivion or Absorption When Things Pass From Our Minds? is the title of another poem, borrowed from Emily Dickinson. The undecidability of the question brings the ecopoet to the brink of a new language.

The book later takes a darker turn toward ruin. Whereas William Wordsworth wrote at the start of the Industrial Revolution, today's ecopoet writes at the end of two centuries of rape and pillage. In Waterfall, about the massacre of Cree Indians near Helena, Mont., Kwasny writes, "When the women saw the soldiers coming, / their spirits fled into these rocks." Not only are rocks alive, but they are alive with the sins of men: "Who believes enough to have a vision now?"

A Thoreauvian instinct informs When I am alone, I am godly, but the hope is forlorn: "If we can close / our eyes, the shade of trees will find a home in us, / brown butterflies of the fallen cones." Whither Thoreau, when "How huge this country is and / how we've filled it"?

The final two sections of the book sharpen the anxiety toward insufficient language. In the long poem The Directions, "Creator" ponders: "We call god deaf and dumb / We call vegetation it because we don't know its gender / We serve raspberries and the room fills with their perfume / It is difficult to imagine beyond anything." The misplacement of the overthinking cosmopolite is complete in The Ceremonial: "Moonbeam coreopsis next to green beans in the garden, / cosmos, Icelandic poppies, bachelor buttons of all hues — / constant growth that makes me feel that I am shrinking."

How to please the gods when we don't have the language for it? The Romantics' faith in beauty is long gone. In Herbs, the poet wonders, "Can beauty be compensation for grief?"

Profound humility is the distinguishing mark of contemporary ecopoetry. The Under World, a sequence of prose poems, concludes: "If I am sea, I am anaphora. Casting a calm above the undertow. Speak to me, work, or I will be forever lonely. Help me to remember who I am." The business of nature's education is forever half-undone.

Anis Shivani's collection "Anatolia and Other Stories" will be published by Black Lawrence Press in September.

Reading Novalis in Montana

By Melissa Kwasny

Milkweed, 77 pages, $16

Review: 'Reading Novalis in Montana' shows the turmoil of ecopoet Melissa Kwasny 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 4:30am]

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