Book Review

In Steven Rood’s brave and lyrical debut collection, Naming the Wind, the quixotic project of naming the wind is a metaphor for how we struggle to make sense of what is beyond our control. This is the work of a mature poet, one who makes the details of everyday life luminous and gives meaning to suffering while offering a glimpse of the sublime.

The body is a recurring subject. In “Map of My Body” the speaker employs a deft sleight of hand, externalizing his body and self into landscapes that are then internalized into parts of his body. He states: “My toes reside in Silver Lake, clenched like fists,” and continues:

My father’s deathbed is in Hollywood, which I keep forever
as my feeling function at the base of my brain.
I am the former boy, now man, soon to be old, then dead,
here and there . . . all times and places housed in my left hand, where I currently reside.

This process is reversed in “Studio City,” as he revisits his childhood home after his mother’s death:

Dust and heat. Birds. A private canyon of seeps,
trickles, shade, silence—where I hid . . . Almost all of it built over.
One towhee, a bush fluttering with skipper moths,
the hill behind the house, the smell of dark.”

These remnants are enough to push through memory to a landscape that is present and visceral: “. . . not nostalgia. It is something I possess. / A place not longed for but here . . . I have the bitter and the sweet of it now. / I say Scrape deep. The smell fresh in my fingernails.”

Rood’s close observations of the natural world are grounded in an immersion over time in specific landscapes of California. In “Black Diamond Mines,” the speaker is bushwhacking with his son in Manhattan Canyon:

This is where my son will scatter my ashes.
I remind him every time we come here.
Here, I deposited into him all that I’d been able to glean
from rocks, brush, flowers, north winds, dusk.
When we’re near the top, pressing though tough,
pokey chamise, parting branches, feeling them whip back,
I decide to press into a sharp branch to feel its sting.

The speaker’s decision to feel physical pain in contrition for or in defiance of the painful destiny he imagines for himself and his son is startling and complex. In “When I Stand in the River,” he completes the thought: “Nevertheless, against the river, I find my shape, stinging with isolation. / Born into myself that way through resistance.” Then, in “Getting Close,” resistance is transformed into acceptance:

I’m riding the earth,
letting its great center pull me down.

Something is going on deep in the earth.
It is making sapphires, citrines, rubies.
Maybe I’ll turn to dust and befriend the wind.

The integrity the speaker accrues allows him to make fraught subjects and emotions compellingly clear to the reader. In the love poem, “Elena 1975,” the lovers are “two fluids swirling in a clear bowl” and the speaker questions, “Were her eyes blue or green? // Did it really happen?” He replies “I’ve witnessed miracles before” and this releases an intensely personal moment into an image that universalizes the personal: “The thousands of orange ladybugs massing / on a tree trunk, warming each other. / They were clicking and whispering as Seraphim do.” Similarly, the thorny question of dualistic thinking is dissolved in “Raze or Rest”:

You know the trembling inside happiness.
The happiness inside catastrophe.
You know how wind translates force
into the soughing of maples.
You want the third thing always:
that which you whisper between a star
and the dirt.
How long it took you to find
your own simple form.
You walk in the silence of Coldwater Canyon.

In “Mount Diablo,” the speaker celebrates his own physicality, his many senses and the way his body connects him to the world and his own mortality:

Without this skin, how could I be laved
in an ocean of blue oaks and junipers?
How would I be washed in a swaying sea of pines?
Without these perishing senses, how could I feel time
in the long, muffled exhalations of lobed oaks?

The word “without” is used as a way to begin lines that feel like a broken litany, and echoes the movement in the poem from celebration of the body to a recognition of how the body is intertwined with death. The poem ends with an explicit recognition that: “Without this old body / how could I walk off the path into Hallelujah?”

In its praise of our bodies and its equation of death with “Hallelujah,” meaning gratitude and praise, this poem prepares us for a fifteen-page set of linked, sequential poems that detail poet Jack Gilbert’s cruel struggle toward death. The poems about Gilbert build upon all that precedes them, and it is the trust we have forged in the speaker that allows us to share the complex and visceral trauma these two poets endure.

As member of Gilbert’s poetry workshop, Rood was his student and friend for over fifteen years. Rood’s transition from friend to caregiver and a move from San Francisco to “Sunrise Skilled Nursing” in Florida is the subject of “Paradise Without Illusion.” Here, nature has less to do with connection than as a marker of time: “Clouds pass, / light and shade fall on our eyes, / and the sun stings our cheeks.” We now meet Gilbert, who is referred to as Jack, already in decline. With remarkable precision and agility, the speaker’s compassion and grief are palpable, but never morose:

Sometimes I catch a slit of blue eye.
Sometimes he nods “Yes” or “No.”
Sometimes he reaches to me
with his long fingers.

“Making a Run for It” begins with Jack fantasizing about how “he’d like to go to Paros to die,” yet quickly realizing that “it is too late to climb the steps.” Then Jack suddenly turns on the speaker: “he tells me that I should go somewhere. / I can’t have my life here, around the comfortable people.” Jack’s pivot from sadness about his own situation to judging the life of his friend and caregiver is strange, unexplained, and is repeated several times in these poems. In this first case, the speaker immediately questions himself: “Am I too scared, I ask myself, to go all the way?” Then, the poem ends enigmatically, concretely enacting the terrible question of whether or not Jack knows what he is saying: “Jack fell last week, pushing himself out / of his wheelchair, trying to get to the fish tank.”

Jack has moments of clarity, as in “The old Man Is Beyond Contentment,” when he questions the speaker: “What is the tone of your life? // Desperate, deep, fearful, courageous? // What is the shape of your life? // Drifting, incidental, purposeful, flowing?” The speaker struggles to answer, finally replying, “’I have power, depth, fear / as my tones, and uncertainty as my shape.’” Again, Jack questions the speaker’s will, “’I was frightened,’ he says, ‘that you would just float.’” The speaker is bewildered and saddened, “His tone is will. His shape is helpless. / The rest of his life is grief.”

The speaker’s need to preserve his own identity erupts in “Selfish” as he confesses:

At my age it’s essential not to read the paper.
Letting the world go on without me.

I like sitting on the stone wall of the Catskills
with a hat on my head, not moving.
The sun does the moving.

And visiting Jack
is getting harder as it all grows uglier.
His dementia, me having to feed him by hand.

But the speaker adds, “I know that Jack does not want me to visit by guilt, / but would relish my being alone on a rock wall.”

In “Show Don’t Tell,” the difficulty increases as Jack forgets the names but remembers the function of things: “When the doctor asks him to name a fork, / he brings it to his trembling lips.” Then Jack again questions the speaker about his will in “Still Making a Disturbance:”

. . . You must be fierce, he says.
Because soon you are going to be old.
I want something more deep for you.
Strong. Lovely. With power.
With yearning for something that matters.
. . . Ask yourself
what is beyond contentment.

The speaker is silent, letting Jack have the last word. Our last glimpse of Jack is in “Gratitude,” as “He opens his mouth like a bird’s / when I hold up a spoonful of chocolate cake.” The deep, indeed devoted, compassion of the speaker is evident in “Meetings with Jack,” where he recalls earlier times with Jack, before and during his illness, and ends by poignantly letting Jack again have the last word. He relays how near the end, Jack writes “messages to himself in faint pencil / on . . . pages of books, scrapes of paper. // After Jack died, I helped clean out his room:  Muscle. Death. Luck. Take your place. Stand on the ground.”

The book closes with the poem “Mercy.” It is an apt way to end this book of struggles with the elemental wind as the poem closes with an identification of a five-million-year-old fossil encrusted rock as a merciful companion in the wind:

When my time is done, I think that my molecules will crackle
and go flat like a broken TV.
A shower of freed particles seeking new organizing principles.
Mercy that there is a rock five million years old
made up of silts and shells that I can stand next to in the wind.

Rood’s poems are plainspoken in the tradition of James Schuyler, Gerald Stern and Jane Mead who understood poetry as a way of seeing themselves in the world; who eschewed theory in favor of sincerity. These are poems one turns to in moments of desperation—in order to find a way to go on living.

About the Reviewer

Randall Potts is the author of two poetry collections, Trickster (Kohl House Poets Series, University of Iowa Press, 2014) and Collision Center (O Books, 1994), as well as a chapbook, Recant (A Revision) (Leave Books, 1994). Their work has appeared widely in periodicals such as American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Colorado Review, Interim: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Poetry Northwest and the Bennington Review. New work is forthcoming in The Rumpus and Interim:A Journal of Poetry & Poetics. They have taught creative writing at the graduate and undergraduate level at the University of San Francisco and California College of the Arts. They are nonbinary and live in Bellingham Washington.