Friday, April 25, 2014
Earth between Worlds in Irene Koronas’ new book of poems turtle grass
article by Michael Todd Steffen
To see, absorb and relate the gift and charm of things so ordinary they often go neglected is one of the most fruitful deeds of poetry, from Homer’s descriptions of the mindful labor of domestic servants to William Carlos Williams’ magnification of a red wheelbarrow or a bowl of plums.
Grass is basic stuff enough. Yet to early Americans, the vast grassy spaces of the continent symbolized endless promise and abundance, and the title Walt Whitman chose for his life’s work, Leaves of Grass, certainly endeared him to the nation’s imagination and hopes.
To take up the theme of this herbaceous grace of earth is so less evident today, and thanks are due to Irene Koronas for the many reminders about that grace she has taken pains to bring us in her new book turtle grass (ISBN 978-1-304-90182-8, Muddy River Books, Brookline, MA).
In some cases, when used intuitively, fact can be as powerful as devised symbol to convey the scope of things. Koronas uses this register of dates, numbers, scientific terms and descriptions to open our eyes to grass as a world plant, which we today mostly think of for its use and pleasure in lawns and golf courses.
only the sunflower and orchid families
are larger than the grass family, with 10,000
species and 650 to 900 genera. the grass
family has more individual plants
and wider environmental range than
any other family. grass reaches the limits,
in polar regions and on mountaintops, grass
endures extreme cold, heat, and drought. grass
dominates various landscapes worldwide.
they are the most successful seed bearing plants
with single seed leaves, it is the most beneficial plant
for humankind, providing nutritional grains
and livestock forage, and prevents soil erosion… (p. 7)
It’s important to know Koronas is a visual and multi-media artist, in the habit of appropriating materials and making them original in their composition (i.e., the use of anaphora to make the word “grass” become almost incantatory in the passage above). The early 20th-century artists relished in exaggerating their crafty theft of raw materials and in exposing the structural nature of their work. The transparent walls and ducts of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Picasso’s figures seemingly unfinished, left in rudimentary, geometrical shapes, the poems of Pound and Eliot strewn with fragments of world literature: these were intellectual challenges to the romantic notion of vacuum-tight, self-produced originality. Koronas, with the classicists and collagists, is also arguing that artistic talent has as much to do with the inheritance, gathering and selecting (editing) of ideas and images through our interest and concern in the work of others as it bears on our world. Her subject tends toward history and ecology. The pieces in turtle grass where it seems likely the poet is borrowing materials are upheld by the pertinence and transparency of this use, maintaining Koronas’ integrity, and in the unique way she arranges the materials. The compressed social history in the opening poem, american lawns, subtly and playfully parodies a magazine or e-zine topical article, quietly ignoring Whitman’s intention for the blur of our regard toward natural spaces, especially as “lawns,” in the sweep of time:
first americans to use lawns in 1755
mimicking english landscape styles
thomas jefferson being
first to attempt lawning his estate
new england creates common areas
grass space lined to transcendental
economic boom after the revolution, 1865,
patriots place monuments on common ground
grassy tributes to english lawns
is all they want. Forget the tea tax…
…and children run on grassy space
for vegetable gardens and floral arrangements
imbue parlors, wall paper blue and white motif
lawns are developed plans, magazine articles
instructions, manicure lawns, lawn museums… (p. 3)
The promise of abundant settlement and harvest has turned into decorative social-class leisure.
In the title poem our attention is directed toward another type of grass
submerged under water
—the forage of sea turtles. “anchored in thick roots/the plant stabilizes ocean floor/a fruit bearer” we are informed of the essential role played by this grass. Within the presentation of materials in this poem, insets of more personal lines about Koronas’ visits to see family in Florida create a very different effect. When factual – geological, demographical – material gets disrupted by personal reflections, what is conveyed is how minutely an individual’s life and reflections weigh within the compass of the wide world to which scientific knowledge applies. A sense almost of hopelessness weighs on this poem. Significantly the line “when I can I fly” occurs twice, perhaps intimating awareness of personal bearing on the increasingly fragile oceanic ecosystem.
Mindfully delayed to the middle pages of the book are some very touching, very personal poems, elegies for a young family member, Joy Eleni Meyer, recently deceased, and endearments to Koronas’ aging mother. As in former collections, turtle grass demonstrates the poet’s ease of articulation, so essential to poetry, of the poignant, rebuffed yet joyful union between our world and the world beyond ours. The range of her expression marvels, from the human declarations of grief this side—
Joy left her breath on her mother’s
cheek. on her lips sweet night kisses
all the good days and her bright eyes… (p. 28)
—to some hauntingly taciturn, objective gestures like the haiku body petrified:
the white stone
in her pocket
rubbed smooth (p.33)
The lines are exemplary of restraint with language denoting craft. Poetry, to render its subject in words, must show more than it tells, reveal rather than explain. Some contemporary poets practice this elusive approach to the zero degree, in a triumph of failure to say anything at all. Koronas has the sensibility to allow the silence of words to leave us with very specific feelings. Elsewhere, her expressions struggle out of the inspirational gridlock into some comments that really need to be spoken and heard. Traditionally, the turtle is a symbol of patience and longevity (or the eternal). Giving us the geological history of grass, as a guardian sheath of the earth, the book’s title, turtle grass, in two words bespeaks the mind-spinning potential of life without end on this planet, an unhurried life and the sustainable resource of its environment. Sad to say that Adam, the earth’s guardian, has a radically different nature from the turtle’s:
saint petersburg, florida
built for their use, turtles
dry on small floating sun dock
rustling reeds trace fractures on rock
soft bread pieces left to feed
if we imagine how people
torture turtles, eat animals
boiling hot water for lobsters
how can we expect compassion (p. 46)
Vintage is vintage. “It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce,” as William Butler Yeats’s poem “Lapis Lazuli” tells us. While readers familiar with Koronas will delight in the expected standards and interesting technical innovations of this new book, turtle grass is sure to win the curiosity of new readers and lead them to the pleasures and insights of her earlier collections.