Thursday, May 04, 2017

Before We Were Birds by Susan Richmond

Before We Were Birds

Susan Richmond (Adastra Press, 2017)


By Lawrence Kessenich


A sentence from the blurb by Fred Marchant on the back of Before We Were Birds is a good jumping off point for this review: “Richmond’s poems…continually ask us to imagine the natural world as rife with spirits, ones that for a moment in the ongoing metamorphoses have taken on the form of dolphin or snowy owl…or a fox that stops and stares right back.” Nature, spirits, and metamorphoses are the common threads that run through this collection—and there’s a quality of nature staring right back at us that lends it power as well.


If you’re the sort of person who takes nature for granted, or only sees it in scientific terms, Richmond is not a poet for you. For her, as for the ancients, nature is teaming with stories and spiritual energy that we can tap into for our entertainment and edification. For her, human beings are not detached from nature, but inextricably bound up with it. Take, for example, these lines from “Fox Run:”


…But once

he acknowledges me with deep

fox eyes, quivering black

mustache of mouth. I was out


on the porch and froze, not

breathing. For a moment, I was

fox, too, worthy

to run with him…


Or these lines, from “River Crossings:”


When I tried to push you

from the boat, a fish leapt

from the river, lodged in my arms…

let me draw the night heron

down from its alder perch, to settle

beside me on the bank.


Some of the story poems in this book are of people whose identification with nature goes much deeper than this, who become involved with mythological creatures of the natural world. The first section of the collection, “Boto,” is about a storied Brazilian creature who rises out of the water in the shape of a dolphin:


The smooth lines of his body

were words first and she swallowed them
whole; his, a story of many years waiting

to surface, she, a part of it, never knowing.


In “Arrival,” the boto…


            …comes from underwater


            a man, dressed in white. The moon hovers

            and tilts, a bowl half empty, half full.

            He is searching for other music and finds

            her, open, eager for his

…he takes her

            down by the river, changes
            the chemistry of her body,
            leaves her
            a kiss.


It is fascinating the way the boto and his lover move back and forth between the world of human life and the world of river creatures. As Richmond presents it, the border between the two worlds is easily crossed.


There is also plenty of straightforward observation of the wonders of nature—plants, animals, trees, mountains—in Before We Were Birds. This poet who can imagine becoming one with the natural world has, as one would expect, a keen eye for the natural beauty and bounty she observes every day. In “Wild Fruit” it’s berries:


I can’t tell if I’m too early

or too late, gathering a scant

sweet handful, eyeing the ratio

of hard green globes to blue.


In the high ground, rising

above Pratt’s Brook, the town

burned this circle in the fall

to force a bigger crop,


ripening when
flies are most intense,
and heat condenses
on the upper lip like dew.


In “Three for the Western Island” it’s mountains:


How can we see so far from such a modest height?

It’s all position, the way the peak peers

over the promontory, giddy distance,

water at our feet, the way
the high, soft clouds receive the light.


In Richmond’s hands, it’s hard to tell which is more marvelous, stories of humans dramatically entwined with nature or simple, astute observations of the natural world we  encounter every day. In any case, both spoke deeply to me, both left me in wonder about the depth of connection—too often overlooked in our predominantly urban culture—between human life and the rest of life on the planet we inhabit. Before We Were Birds will open your eyes to that connection.

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