Book Review

Whale Fall by David Baker (2022) W. W. Norton

In poems as formally astute as they are emotionally resonant, David Baker’s twelfth collection of poetry, Whale Fall, casts an amber eye’s deep nostalgic light on a world we’re losing. This isn’t to say the poetry here mires us helplessly in a disaster none of us feel we can alter—hopelessness in these poems is also riddled by hope, and a rigorous honesty of our earthly plight is countered by an equally rigorous generosity. There is a kind of prayer sung only in squall, as “Storm Psalm” might teach us:

Dear Darkness. Dear where we bow our heads in disbelief.
Dear disbelief, hardly bow our heads and
hardly speak, so we sing, such words as darkness
shows us how on days on end. So I sing it is
not hopeless. Hurry hurry. Nor faithless—to stand
without faith, keeping open—.

A subtle renegotiation of what faith might look like in the Anthropocene undergirds the ethical vision. Not faith’s doctrine, nor belief’s dogma, each of which has its culpable share in our tragic crisis—the arrogance of human stewardship, the hollow promise of a hallowed world past the measure of the actual one—but a faithless faith. I take the paradox as genuine wisdom, that we must learn to pray as if there is no ear to hear us, and so what rescue there is—if there is any—resounds back upon us who sang out. Not a faith, but a “keeping open”—to continue to be wounded by the wounded world, this is what allows one to sing that most potent of songs, the song that sings “it is.”

That fundamental claim of genuine existence is the heart’s cry throughout the book, and minor forms of care mark out possible redemptions. In the astonishing “Hold Hands”:

We were in the trees. White curtains opened.
Your shoulders in my hands then your knees
drew upward. Rain like petals there. Rain
like breeze. Now the birds were in the trees
two stories up, our window, where blowing
leaves were level with our sheets. We were
in the street. We were holding hands as hands
were holding us. What hands there were
where we were. In trees. Our children there
as songbirds were.

Note the speed of the poem—occurring faster than thought, at the speed of perception. Note how that speed acts as a form of grace that blurs distinct lines—the domestic is the wild; the birds are the children; the hands are somehow these leaves, hands that hold us as we hold hands. It is the very portrait of love, albeit one we can see only at pace, only at the speed of sound, only at light speed. But the heart of the collection is its title poem, “Whale Fall.” This multipart poem traces the phenomenon it names: a whale dying and drifting to the ocean’s bottom. It is a reminder, strange to say, of the miracle death can be, as a whale is of such girth, and decay takes so long, that it both sustains and creates countless opportunities for other lives to thrive. Life and death are, as Thales suggested nearly three thousand years ago, one. Or once were one. For countering that ancient, cyclic good, is another vision, felt most poignantly in the poet’s account of his own illness:

Weeks I couldn’t sleep. Years I couldn’t waken.
I found a note I’d written one ill night.

pines shredded   ice snow
                                   such wind
      rips the night

I run my tongue above my tooth, aching.
And know it’s coming back once more. The warning

That warning, hovering there intransitive in the line break, warns of more than the mind can bear. Sperm whales beaching themselves, plastic filling their stomachs. An island of garbage larger than Mexico floating in the sea. But also hummingbirds; but also a child. “Whale Fall” is a harrowing poem, linking personal crisis to planetary illness, binding us back to the mystic thought that the microcosm and the macrocosm are interwoven, even as the poems lets us feel those cosmic bonds, much too our unspeakable sorrow, loosening.


The Birthday of the Dead by Rachel Abramowitz (2022) Conduit Books

If Whale Fall is haunted by the prospect that death is no longer a part of life, Rachel Abramowitz’s full-length debut, The Birthday of the Dead, seeks to restore that ancient connection. Keenly aware that human and humus are cognate, that life on earth and life beneath it share an umbilical thread, Abramowitz—in poems of wild, bright, lyric pleasures—explores that ancient connection between the living and the dead. As the first houses were built above the first graves so that the ancestors, and their advices, were never far away, we can find Abramowitz putting her ear to the dirt, as in “I Don’t Know Any Gods”:

                                          . . . My hair, grown large,
houses generations of spiders,
although they only speak to me when I bring
my head close to the ground: your child
will be ravenous as a quarry, unadorned as a cliff,
     holy as an impassable shoal.
I don’t know any gods. Ill-favored, they call in voices
like a thousand masts splitting at once—

Some voices speak their omens only when the ear is pressed against the ground. Abramowitz listens to such voices, gathering both warning and wisdom, as the poems gently weave together the countless generations past to those lives that will leap forth out of our own. A strange form of teaching requires a strange teacher, as “Love Letter” knows:

I have a new teacher.
She is a white shell on the beach
and sometimes
she is a rotting crab leg on the beach.
Often she is just a rock,
or a rock that is more bone than rock.

A teacher offers us a way to know what otherwise we’d remain ignorant of. The white shell held a life now gone, and the exoskeleton of the crab leg hints at the same lesson. “A rock that is more bone than rock” whispers something to us about our own nature that we might rather not know—the stone-fact of our mortality. But death here is also an epistemology dearly needed by the living, as in “In a Past Life”:

What do you want to hear? I carry this cheap pennywhistle
in case of a request on the wind. About grief: let me tell you:
it’s an oil slick in winter in a parking lot next to a frozen lake
where men drill holes in the ice to get at the flesh beneath.
Over time you get used to that cheap song. Cleopatra splintered
into many souls. There is an explanation for everything.

It is such a simple assurance, but such necessary one, that “there is an explanation for everything.” It just happens to be that the answers aren’t within us, not within our lives, not among the living. “How easy it is to talk to the dead. I have a standing appointment,” Abramowitz writes in “Your Life in Art.” Hers is a poetry that seeks to keep that appointment, reminding us to do the same. It’s an old ethic deep in the blood’s iron that, reading The Birthday of the Dead, we might feel the inward tug of, just as the poet does when “I walk back up the drive, and feel the magnets in my blood like ancient hands pull me toward the dirt.”


The Hidden Eyes of Things by Peter O’Leary (2022) The Cultural Society

That earthward pull finds cosmic reverse in Peter O’Leary’s The Hidden Eyes of Things, which weaves human life back into the mythic logics of planets and stars. This book “completes a trilogy on modes of consciousness, begun in Phosphorescence of Thought, a book length poem about the evolution of consciousness, and continued in Earth is Best, a serial poem that uses foraging for wild mushrooms to explore altered states of consciousness.” The Hidden Eyes of Things looks underneath the conscious mind, attuned to the dark vast of the unconscious where cosmic forces work their will within us, below all knowing. Or, almost below. The dream is one figure in which the astrological can reveal itself in conscious mind, and a dream lurks at the heart of O’Leary’s book. In the section devoted to Jupiter, Jove sends an initiating dream:

You awaken from the dream which was teeming with scolds whose
story smokes dayward in the random undazzling
of sleep’s end to hear the jovial command urging:
You will found
an institute
for the advancement
of the sacro-magical sciences. Not
in my name but surely
for my pleasure.

That the page behind the title page declares the book in hand comes from the “Studies for the Advancement of the Sacro-Magical Sciences No. 2” playfully (jovially) suggests this very “institute of esoteric pursuits” has been founded, dream come true. And The Hidden Eyes of Things reads as occult primer to the astral mysterium. Comprised of ten sections, from moon to Pluto, and in language that seems to embody the forces they describe—from our bright star’s explosive fission-syllables to Saturn’s “resigned circumlocutions”—The Hidden Eyes of Things lets long poems act as a kind of cosmic agar, each capturing the astrological nature of its subject. Dizzying in delights as well as method, the poems deftly interweave astronomical fact with astrological omen, mythological archetype with personal life. Let the poem on Venus, “Hymn to Dawn, Hymn to Dusk” stand as representative. Note how quickly we shuttle from scientific fact to primary symbol and back again:

Scorched air, evaporating atmosphere,
pneumatic gash of sounds sparrows
flash forward through
harnessed to the goddess’s chariot
by a sash of woven flax threaded
with fine-spun copper
glinting with the light of the morning star . . .

                  Untold tons
of volcanic ash the violence of birth uphurls.
Evaporation. Hellish destiny. No water. No rain.
Only a high-pressure blanket of
thick clouds and sulfuric acid driven
by high winds
hot enough to melt lead.

Hidden within the planetary fact, the sheer impossibility of life on Venus, lurks the allegory that is even more true, an irony the poem is riddled by, that love herself should be so unlovely, and we feel desires insane heat only to the degree we can see Aphrodite pulled through the clouds in her sparrow-led chariot. It is a stunning, vatic vision few poets I know would dare write toward, not to mention write in. O’Leary risks writing under the influences he writes of, at times reaching a musical abstraction to echo the turning of the celestial spheres:

Voluptuous Venus hero’s mother nurturing goddess life’s darling the Earth
bears forth every living thing for
and the brim of the sea
whisks all scum from and the light
of the Sun expands over in blushed dawn—

The fricative repetition of those Vs unleashes love’s potent becoming, rising in the foam of the sea, engendering life where there had been none before. The syllables themselves bear the generative, auguring energy. And as the poem reaches its close, the poet turns to his own life, Aphrodite as unconscious imprint within his wife:

About your neck you wore a circlet of silk, like a crown
in appearance, and you wore a ring of turquoise
diagonalized by strokes of silver lightning
around its band, Zuni
jewelry, not once removed since the moment
you met her, and you wore
the white gold and you burned
the sage. To Venus

I love ending the quote there—the endless, eternal apostrophe of its address. It feels an eternal strain; always in the ear should you be able to hear it. The Hidden Eyes of Things tunes your ear in just such a way. It lets you hear the harmonies, even as you endure the harms.

About the Reviewer

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator. His most recent books include Arrows, and a collection of ancient Greek lyric poems, Stone-Garland. His work has been supported by the Monfort, Lannan, and Guggenheim Foundations, and he teaches at Colorado State University, where he is an University Distinguished Teaching Scholar