Saturday, September 08, 2012

And We’d Understand Crows Laughing – Poems (1997-2010), W. Nick Hill

And We’d Understand Crows Laughing – Poems (1997-2010), W. Nick Hill (Loveland, Ohio, Dos Madres Press, 2012), 83 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-933675-69-5. 

Review by Joanne DeSimone Reynolds

The title of Nick Hill’s new collection, “And We’d Understand Crows Laughing,” is a little cryptic and invites a question: What does one have to do to gain the ability to understand crows laughing? The title of the first section of the book, “Belongings,” made me wonder: Do we need to own or carry some thing or things in order to understand? The title of the first poem, “Skip The World,” seemed counterintuitive and begged yet another question: Skip the world and what, skip life?  But then I read the poem and began to catch on:

Tell yourself to value the notion of stone over water,
and whisper, Pick it up, and then just let it go.

Heft with the right, warm the arm.
Take bearings, estimate the curvature.

Feel the hand come around behind the ear, coiling,
releasing torque at the elbow,

snapping forward until it is
gone, its skipping course for a moment seen.

Throw into the waves
what you have endured.

Try to be the same each time,
hold fast against the zephyrs.

Throw hard into the angry waves
shoving forward with their burly shoulders.

The brute stone turns belly up and sinks,
its own dumb marker.

The dream, of course,
to skip it right out of this world.

Hill suggests we engage with the natural world wholeheartedly but with a touch of calculation in order to be fully of the world, to belong to it in an elemental way. Value possibility, the triumph of stone over wave and wind. Value perseverance; learn from what you have endured. Rely on steadfastness; believe in dreams. But the assumption of the last couplet leaves  a feeling of unease, a foreboding. A few pages later is the poem “Ars Peonensis,” with sensual, vivid images of a personified peony: “In March she was a honeyed knob, / an ant laden pincushion of promises, / a veined lollipop on a springy stick. / And then with cumulus in the blue / one afternoon she opened like a greeting, / a near chaos of tissues / bounded by a breath held and then released / soft as a chime . . . //  To keep her I cut her down, too late / to take back my error, once again.” Funny and a little heartbreaking. The narrator ends up with the wilted bloom in a compost heap, then fashions a simulacrum from paper and muses on “sapient cleverness // (monuments, tall ships, splitting atoms) . . . [how] compost // will need to teach me and guide me // . . . [to] watch the dark knife // of hubris become a shard // in the loam with the worms.” Fair warning to all stone-skippers! Late in this section is the very moving poem “Shakkei Memorial” about planting a cypress to “reverberate evergreen beside that massive sno-cone,” Mt. Baker, which lies in the distant background. Hill notes that “Shakkei is a Japanese term for a borrowed landscape in which a planting is located such that it participates in the distant view of a great feature of the landscape.” One need not know this to feel the deep reverence in the poem: “I don’t often address a tree so personally, / … I have noticed our kinship many times before, arms out / stretched, reaching, feet near clay, / eyes harder to discern, soul everywhere from bark to cone.” I found the first stanza to be too informational: “This time the deadline happens to be the first real winter storm / blowing south from Puget Sound sideways across the bay, / not some academic thing” and it detracted from the poem’s distilled beauty. But the first line of the second stanza, “And you bare in your root ball, cypress” really draws in the reader.

The second section, entitled “The Tides” is one long poem: the musings of one lover as the other comes and goes with regularity. Time, present time, when the lover is near, casts a kind of spell on the speaker, rendering him unable to capture the whole of the lover as he might like to. In the flesh, the lover can only be taken in in pieces: “It’s now that you seem most absent, ethereal, a fluttering / at the seed bin . . . a hand that must / be yours and I think I see you flaring there at close / range—though maybe I’m mistaken—the moments / passing through tinged eyebrows, then droopy / doubts . . but / where are you?” And further on “Sometimes the closer I get to you // The more you come apart, the sharp // Touch of a foot with toes, cold / And discrete.” It is a compelling theme, and Hill delves deeply to explicate it, but at ten pages it gets bogged down and hits too many off-notes: “If I held your skeleton any closer / you’d be me.” Or this: “Promised time fashioned itself into a mechanical bird.” The poem runs to the sentimental and risks cliche: “When you lie in bed together after twenty years / And you can still think to say, “That was super, sweetie.” Also, the poem is not served by the title “I Miss You Already,” which is then repeated as the first line to little effect. The section title, “The Tides,” is more apt and less telling, although the tidal imagery dries up. The reader feels buffeted about as the narrator swings between imaginings, past scenarios, and the present state of affairs with and without the lover.

The third section, entitled “Red Truck,” is an exploration of a landscape, a ruin of a truck, and someone referred to as “Somebody” who used and then abandoned the truck among the bramble. “Somebody” is Hill’s “Everyman,” whom the speaker in the poems sometimes refers to as simply “S” to imply a real but hidden person and to underscore that he/she is any one of us: you or me or a “ veteran of many wars, [a]street poet,” even the narrator himself. In the poem “Humanism Unveiled,” the speaker concludes the poem with the line, “But who is S. if not all of us between deeds and dreaming?” In the first poem “Red Truck,” the truck is referred to without an article to create a sense of persona, its first stanza – right justified – is quoted here in its entirety for its affinity to a certain wheel barrow:

                                                                                                    rise on
                                                                                                    red truck,
                                                                                                    on a

Red truck is “…A one-ton ruin / That built the world as we know it / Remains of illusion // Not a pyramid or Xanadu / Not a poster for Communists or Capitalists / Not a glossy pin-up calendar // No landmark though it signifies / Rusting stolid, pistons seized … Satellite pictures a hunk of metal / Cousin to space debris / that falls in flaming chunks / bringing down / petite gods dreaming / from deep in heaven.” Red truck stands for America and for Americans, in fact for all of humanity, for dreams, for pursuit, for what we leave behind, for unintended consequences. In the poem “The Other,” the speaker pushes the concept of “Somebody” to a farcical conclusion, becoming “Nobody” as in “Nobody is somebody you could get into, like a part in a play. / Nobody lives here would be something like beachfront / property on a remote island. / Some of my best friends are nobodies. / We attend the yearly convention where everyone stands / around at the cocktail party looking at each other’s blank / name tags.” Somebody, everybody, nobody: who takes responsibility? In the poem “Blackberries In The Cold,” the epigraph “Come back to me is my request” brings to mind the primal fear of a parent sending a child off to war. In it, red truck seems a companion to the speaker: “Walking the trail beside red truck the blackberries taunt / from thorned labyrinths… In another season they will have covered your shape / completely in a barbed bower. / Their sweet tart taste but a harbinger of the grip of spines / about the heart, when we heard the names not coming / home.” Fitting, wrenching, and beautiful language.

Each section of Nick Hill’s collection is distinct in voice and tone. Intimate and awe-struck when engaging with the natural world in the first section, searching and self-reflective in the second, and social-political and authoritative in the third. Each replete with natural touchstones: soapberry, sedum and creeks; humus, tidelands, and volcanoes; salmon, salmonberry, and chickweed to name a few; and with off-beat places like Red Dog Farm, Cry Baby Hill, and Kah Tai lagoon. Hill uses Portuguese, Spanish, and a little French in some of these long-lined poems.  He is emeritus professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature at Fairfield University, and from the tender poem “Dona Alice’s Baked Apple,” about a mother and her recipe, one can surmise that he lived in Brazil as a child. I took my time reading this collection; it is dense and could have benefited from some pruning. But Nick Hill’s collection is intelligent, heart-felt, and varied in the best sense of the word. Poems such as “Thistles On Goleta Highlands,” “Water Tapestry,” and “Whale Creek, Near Queets” are engaging, lush lyrics. And as for crows laughing, it’s all in the poem “Seed,” which you will have to read, maybe while carrying one in your pocket “for guidance.”

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