Book review: Toward the Distant Island: New & Selected Poems by Hayden Carruth
Those who write nature poetry today face a double challenge: Not only is the mode of expression out of date -- but the subject is, too. How does one make a reader sigh over a wheat field when so many Americans have never seen one? Is there a way to make a reader treasure a slice of farm life revealed if they've never smelled the stench of actual manure?
These questions spring to mind while reading Toward the Distant Island, a handy new selection of poetry by a one-time Vermonter. In spite of his Pulitzer, and the fact that he has mentored and edited so many Green Mountain poets, Hayden Carruth might by fact of his age -- he turns 85 this August -- need introduction.
Toward the Distant Island is perfectly shaped to do this. The author's friend, Copper Canyon Press founder Sam Hamill, has edited and organized the poems chronologically, going light on the haiku and longer poetry to focus on the powerful, early work. This selection reveals that it is nature -- not jazz, smoking, mental illness or any other of Carruth's poetic obsessions -- that forms the mulchy backdrop for his work.
These are the proper names:
Limestone, tufa, coral rag,
Clint, beer stone, braystone,
Porphyry, gneiss, rhyolite,
Ironstone, cairngorm, circle stone,
And so it goes, all the way down the page and onto another one, a perfect rundown of the remnants of Vermont's volcanic past. Carruth is fond of lists and accretions, and as this one extends it acquires its own exotic rhythm -- something almost Biblical. It becomes transcendental, proving that so long as a poem about nature is delivered with authority, some deep, Paleolithic part of us will recognize it.
Carruth acquired this authority in childhood. He was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1921, and raised in the country. "I know something about farming and woodcutting and all the other things that country people know about," he once told an interviewer. "That kind of work has been important to me in my personal life and in my writing, too. I believe in the values of manual labor and labor that is connected with the earth in some way."
Not surprisingly, many of the best poems in Toward the Distant Island are about baling hay, checking on cows in the nighttime, chainsaws, his tough and hardworking one-time Vermont neighbors, and barns. Carruth seems to understand that many of us don't see a barn unless we're picking up a Christmas tree, so he's more than happy to elaborate. "Let me tell how it is inside those barns," he writes about New England's quaint landmarks.
Warm. Even in dead of winter, even in the
dark of night solid with thirty below, thanks
to huge bodies breathing heat and grain sacks
stuffed under doors and in broken windows, warm,
and heaped with reeking, steaming manure, running
with urine that reeks even more, the wooden channels
and flagged aisles saturated with a century's
Carruth has always juxtaposed this wild authenticity with the world made by man -- the wars and relationship melt-downs, the chaos of existence. As with many writers of his generation, his education was interrupted by World War II, in which he participated as a cryptographer, spending two years in Italy. He is of the generation that knew war was not an aberration.
The experience certainly marked his verse. Unlike so many poets today, Carruth knows his poems won't stop the guns of August. In his classic antiwar poem, "On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam" he writes, I wrote one against / Algeria that nightmare / and another against / Korea and another / against the one / I was in. Then he adds: And not one / breath was restored / to one / shattered throat / mans womans or childs / not one not / one.
Although the poem was written three decades ago, it remains painfully relevant --Carruth read it when he last came to Vermont, in 2002, to participate in a series of readings organized in his honor. In recent years, Carruth has taken to addressing the President directly, and Hamill has included several of these poems, probably to show that Carruth may have moved even deeper into the woods, but by no means has he dropped out altogether.
Still, it is natural wildness -- not political folly -- which brings out the best in Carruth. The earth turns his poetry very still and silent, and brings Carruth back to the vast sadness of temporality. In "The Oldest Killed Lake in North America," he writes, One night the water lay so deathly still / that the factories' constellated lights on the other shore, / the mills and refineries, / made gleaming wires / across the surface, a great fallen and silent / harp.
As he has aged, Carruth has directed more of his lyric attention to his relationships, even if he describes them with the language of a park ranger. "This is the season of mud and trash," he writes in "Birthday Cake," throwing a pall over the poem. Broken limbs and crushed biers / from the winter storms, wetness and rust. It calls to mind Vermont's roadside detritus after the snow has melted.
Carruth's own softening in the last decade has been a thing to behold. After years working in poverty and relative obscurity -- agoraphobia kept him out of the public eye until he was nearly 60 -- Carruth had earned a reputation as a classic crank. And yet, his recent poems are spangled with gratitude for late love, and air kisses to fellow poets. "Jean, Jean of the blonde ringlets," he writes wolfishly of Jean Valentine. "I am the pride and joy of grass," he writes in another poem. Aside from the current administration, few things get him down. It appears that late in life, the big mystery has given Carruth something he never expected from it -- grace, and a reprieve. If these poems teach us anything, it's that the unexpected gifts matter most.
Our upstate April
is cold and gray.
yesterday I found
up in our old
woods on the littered
ground dogtooth violets
wisely. And by the edge
of the Bo's road at the far
side of the meadow
where the limestone ledge
crops out our wild
were making a great fountain
of white gossamer.
and snipped a few small boughs
and made a beautiful
in the kitchen window
where I sit now