Thursday, August 22, 2013

On Charles Goodrich's new book, A Scripture of Crows

A Scripture of Crows
by Charles Goodrich
ISBN 978-1-87885-163-5
Silverfish Review Press, 2013, $16.

Charles Goodrich’s A Scripture of Crows makes what its title suggests: a holy book of cloud, breath, creatures, thunderstorms and their mornings after, “the air scrubbed clean and all quiet // until some little clod of dirt / starts chirping for joy.” Thus is the grandeur of Genesis become birdsong at morning – in the right season neither distant nor rare.

As celebratory as the poems in the book often are, the real pleasure on offer here comes from tracing the motions of a nimble, inquisitive, bemused, sometimes laconic mind. Thus the distant relative in “A Distant Relative” is identified first as “A tiny pouch / with legs // and a wicked assortment of surgical tools in its mouth: / it’s a tick / clinging to my sock.” Later, “Its face / looks rather like a hole saw.” By the end of this poem (it’s only a page long), this tick has also been associated with “my great-aunt Aggie’s / great-great-uncle, / the family’s legendary / parasite …” It’s that word parasite that makes the link. So what starts out as a poem about finding a tick turns into a short disquisition on what it means to be a parasite. This meaning is not simple. Aggie’s great great uncle is a Civil War veteran, a man “who came home from Chancellorsville / toothless, emaciated, one-eyed, and crazy.” Unable to do any sort of work, he “just wandered the pastures all day / chanting poems to the sheep // and like this tick / he died young / and none of his poems survive.”

Goodrich’s central interest – one of them anyway – has to do with this paradox: nature is not thing so much as process, yet within a world of process and change, what stays, what survives? In a significantly degraded natural world, what survives is absence, as in the poem “Touched,” with its litany of absences: absence of geese, absence of bear and butterflies and the songbird “that no longer visits our town.” The poem’s title effectively works its own ambiguity: to be touched is one way of indicating some mental instability. It’s also a phrase registering emotional impact. In this second meaning, we usually refer to being touched by some act of kindness or generosity – we mean phrase as a part of giving thanks. As a writer, Goodrich knows and exploits all of this.

In a world defined by natural process, what also survives is just that: process. “Morning Song at Billy Meadows” traces the steps of a morning, always observing the outer world for traces or echoes or indications that somehow mirror or answer the human inner world. Or, in plain linguistic terms, this is a poem that keeps trying to place it’s “I” in relationship to all outside it – the flow of air, the “overnight rain,” grasses that “suffer the vanity of being plain,” house cricket and field cricket. The poem presents five short sections, each making some connection between “I” and the natural world, ending with section six: “And sometimes you realize / that the blood you gave to mosquito / is what makes the bluebird / so blue.” Though perhaps this claims a little bit too much literal credit for human blood, the point is clear enough and in its way comforting: we, too, have yet some part to play in this morning song.

Though this book never resorts to shrillness, and though it is much more frequently than not interested in correspondences and how metaphors communicate partial but significant truths, this book also carries a challenge in that it asks us to consider our own environmental impacts. But Goodrich construes “environmental” in the widest possible way. In these poems, the influences of family and friends also constitute environmental impacts. Thus a number of poems speak in celebration of various compatriots – gardeners, rock collectors, piano tuners, carpenters, fellow writers and readers who enrich a life. But given the characteristic close attention nature gets in a Charles Goodrich poem, it’s almost inevitable that this book must also include the sometimes sardonic, sometimes sarcastic, always troubled poems registering deep concern at the changes wrought by human technologies and our eagerness to alter natural processes for our own short-term benefit. Of these poems, “Ghost River” may be the most effective. It uses the trope of a dreamer who wakes only to discover a new dream: “I went to the sink and opened the tap. Clear water / spilled out, cool and fresh. It had all been a dream. The river was leaping with fish, muscled with joy. / I was so pleased. I was innocent. I was still asleep.”

In its entirety, A Scripture of Crows presumes, asserts, interrogates and articulates the human intellect’s bodily continuity with all the other sentient life on this planet – from Douglas squirrels to worms, scrub jays, centipedes, turkey vultures and to like-minded people. Most surely in intention and in fact this is a capacious form of love. His is a way of seeing the world as animate and rarely at rest. Within such a conception, even “those lumbering yellow road graders, / bulldozers, and belly scrapers” take on a wonderful quiet at night, “bedded down / in the moonshade of scorched oaks / like perfect beasts.” Within such a conception, this book asserts and often finds within daily life just that sense of wholeness and connection. The result, however, is perhaps as elusive as it is large and endlessly variable. As “Camped in the Olympics” puts it describing an evening’s “hilarious / silence” under stars, “It’s possible / I’ve never been so wholly / awake, but that laughing / isn’t me, it isn’t wolves, / and it isn’t loons.”

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