The leaves in Fort Collins, following the season’s first snow, are far past peak color and mostly fallen, dry-brown, on the ground. It puts one in a pensive mood, walking the dog each morning, and three books—some finished a few days ago, another a few months ago—have stayed on my mind, company to this season and comfort against those hints of the winter to come. Jordan Dunn’s Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (published with astonishing grace and care by Partly Press, whose editors—Polly Morris and Chuck Stebelton—have created a book whose object-life borders on art itself) is unlike any book I’ve read before. Odd comparisons come to mind: that it’s the kind of book Hesiod might write if the ancient agricultural poet turned archivist, and that’s it the kind of book a pre-Socratic philosopher might write after conversations with Ralph Waldo Emerson. But neither of those quite capture the odd, contemplative magic of Dunn’s book. Description is needed. The pages, which, in a landscape orientation extend to generous length, hold multiple gatherings of language at the same time. It can feel like collage of a kind—lyric intensities; footnoted source texts broken into verse; interstitial words connecting prose broken in half on opposite sides of the same page; illustrations of flora and fauna; transliterations of birdsong; and each section, if that’s even the right word, begun with a lyric-esque table of contents, attuning us to what is to come, often appearing in poetic bursts as fleeting as the birds that flit through these pages. The title comes from George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, published in 1864. Nearly 160 years later, Jordan Dunn reminds us that we’re ever more in the midst of the ethical and existential consequences of human intervention in natural cycles. Yet, to call this work an “ecopoetics” feels off-tune. Dunn is working at something different, something sui generis. Embarrassing to admit, but I don’t know how to reproduce a page of the text so you can see what I’m seeing. But I can try to give a small sense. In a section titled “PARTLY CLOUDY INVENTION,” the lyric listing of the poem’s concerns begins:
like the crane who sleeps standing on one leg tethered to the
world surface— wilderness, painted turtles, mayapples, and
restorative light in natural basins— firestorms which regulate
mindfulness— subterranean reservoirs with relation to other
selves— me essences and their means of subsistence in the stack effect
when I bring my parts together—
Which, in exquisite counterpoise, is balanced by these lines on the right-hand edge of the page:
rains of the following autumn
carried off much of the remaining
soil—retention of moisture on
mountain slopes inside a very dry
season—comfortable perches for
enjoying the landscape effect—lichen,
original fire, and a stratum of soil
thick enough to support a full-
Dunn is, I suspect, teaching us to read in a new way—not as an accumulation of knowledge gained from the logical progress from beginning to end, but through logic of a different method. I might call it saccadic—that shadow-motion of the eye from point to point that draws lines between disparate places. In doing so, Dunn creates a sense of the whole by the eye’s inherent moves from point to point, word to word, no single order being the right order, but the gestalt of the whole being the truer achievement.
Speaking of the sui generis, Michael O’Leary has a wonderful new book with one of our nation’s most essential poetry presses, The Cultural Society. O’Leary has a resume like no other poet in America—landscaper, ghost-writer, nuclear engineer, and now quantitative analyst in the financial industry. Indeed, Out West springs out of an experience towards the end of his engineering career, when work exiled him from Chicago to California, six months away from family and friends, caught in the placelessness only a new place can give us, that rootless open-eyed wonder-fear of the new world where you are but can’t belong:
It was so much the end of things
I found myself in California free
of most ideas. Here I am,
with no place to stay, at the end
of the recession on a field
assignment out west, where the fog
that nourishes the hanging moss
can’t slake the coastal range so pale beneath the ceaseless sun.
His knowledge brought him here—a knowledge of the physics that turns matter to energy:
A neutron hits uranium
and splits into krypton and barium
releasing three more neutrons
and all the binding energy
described by E = mc2.
But such knowledge of the primordial processes, removed from the bedrock certainties of home, opens in O’Leary some form of wonder that destabilizes the days and put him in the place where what is known and what is unknown run tangent to one another, that territory of very good poetry:
The things our bodies to stay
alive and to reproduce don’t require
our understanding; things like sleep,
digestion, breathing, pumping blood,
constricting pupils in the light
or amplifying vibrations to cells
of stereocilia which
transform waves into neural signals to become our words.
The poem as bodily process, akin to breathing and digestion, is but one of the mysteries gently encountered in this astonishment of a long poem, a small bildungsroman in verse, that is the eponymous poem of the collection entire, that asks questions so simple we’re often afraid to utter them: How am I in the world? Who am I in this life? The book ends in another long poem of different delight, a set of “Notes on Joy.” A logical primer on the nature of our undefinable happiness. The closing gesture feels quietly revelatory, deeply humane, honestly humorous, undeniably touching, and as fine an end to a book I didn’t want to end as I could hope for.
Brian Teare’s Poem Bitten by a Man feels as unclassifiable in terms of genre as Jordan Dunn’s book, maybe more so: prose, poem, prose-poem, collage, illness memoir, ars poetica, art history queered into proper vision, treatise on the nature of labor, treatise on the nature of suffering—all are true. Many more are true. I want to make a simple claim. I find few things as genuinely enjoyable, as honestly useful, as endlessly revelatory, as watching a poet’s mind at work. This feels the primary gift of Teare’s newest book—a kind of echo accompaniment of his lovely, and recently reissued, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven (please, buy it too, and read them together), his poetic correspondence/collaboration with the work of Agnes Martin. Here, Jasper Johns is part of the conversation, as are many others. As with Dunn’s book, I hardly know how to quote. You have to experience each page—not a thing a review can offer, not exactly, save to urge you toward the work itself. But let me trust to the one page I was willing to dog-ear, as it feels touchstone to the whole:
A mosaic of quotation, I lie down on the healer’s table. I bring her my
compendium of identifications: this body, the dearth of the author.
My headache gripped in her hands, I feel the grid, how to stand at
its edge & look out is to turn toward emptiness without form. When
her palms gently flex against my occiput, a painless liquid silver fills
Odd that any thing is arrived
at, if it is
what’s the word
for this unanticipated gift? What’s the word for this queer
technology of association, this intimate contact site charged with
sensuality? The poem! It floods with unfettered gratitude for
everyone, every book, all the art I’ve ever loved, the sweet weave
of what remains of me each time I fall into loss. It’s why I need the
grid, its tension
How can it be that the poem, one of our oldest human technologies to gather a single human’s pain and make it our general human inheritance, can still be for us this gift? Such might also be the gift of Teare’s newest book. It’s a poem that leaves none of us alone—right where we feel most alone: in ourselves—that pain, that joy, that wonder.
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.