Don’t Muddy the Waters, Do Rock the Boat

Everything That Rises by Joseph Stroud

Copper Canyon Press, 2019

Paperback. 159 pages. $14.00


Everything That Rises


Stroud is remarkable, having both lyric and prose gifts, a reverence for nature, and a willingness to face up to hard truths. His craft allows him to write necessary poems with immediacy, yet maintain a certain distance in a plain, powerful voice. W. S. Merwin said, “The authority of Joseph Stroud’s poetry is startling . . . it is the recurring revelations that poetry brings to us, the crystal of our ordinary days. Stroud’s poetry comes from the clear source.”


Everything That Rises is an ambitious collection with seven sections, including masterful translations of Tu Fu, Catullus, Neruda, and others. Stroud moves back and forth between lyricism and his more classical distance with ease.


In “The Perfection of Craft,” Stroud gives us a sample of what he does best. The speaker takes us on the hunt with a great blue heron who “stalks among the reeds,” halting to snare his meal. The bird “stabs its beak, flings, into the air a roiling snake, and catches it / tosses it again, . . . / still alive, slithering down the heron’s throat.” He treats his meal as if it’s a game. While the imagery stands out, this poem is really about craft. Is the poet like the heron, and the poem is the snake? The ideas and point of view are complex, the images vivid—a signature Stroud six-liner.


His previous book, Of This World: New and Selected Poems, contained many brilliant poems like this one in the book’s opening section, “Suite For The Common.” And again, in this new collection, with “The Tarantula,” he takes us to a place “below Solomon Ridge,” where this arachnid “the size of my hand” rears up, “feels the air with its front legs / its body covered in silky hair.” The speaker kneels down, and it follows the shadow of his hand, “a little dance before pouncing on the twig I hold before it.” The Theraphosidae is curious, intelligent; then “its fangs click open,” and the speaker stands, takes a step back.


It watches, unmoving,

waiting inside its own arachnid time,

before continuing on,

touching the ground delicately

with each tip of its eight legs,

heading out into the Mojave,


A powerful nature poem, like D.H Lawrence’s snake poem, this tarantula, “walking like a hand,” seems like one of the lords of life, “disappearing into a world where we cannot go.”


Mortality is the undertone and undertow in this book. At the end of Stroud’s first section, we get “Remember This, Sappho Said,” where a nameless shade from the underworld tells the speaker, “remember that / among the living you were once offered love— / you, with your great pride and haughty disdain, / remember, love was once offered, and you refrained,” setting the tone for the scenes of death that follow.


In “Heart Attack in An Oregon Forest,” an anonymous “you” directs a sheriff by cell phone to a remote river where the speaker waits, hearing this stranger on the phone, “his voice calling your name, / asking directions from the dead.”


In “Homage to the Water Ouzel,” Stroud begins, “Times you get so down into pain . . .” but then the speaker thinks of the water ouzel, “into / this aching cold water the little bird plunges / and walks the bottom just trying to stay alive. Imagine that. Jesus Christ. Try to imagine that.” What’s striking is the speaker’s detachment at first, and then the immediacy.


This dark undertone continues in the next section of the book. In “The End of Romanticism,” Stroud gives us a college teacher’s talk to his students at the end of a course on Romanticism. In this powerful prose poem, the teacher talks about Charles Lamb, whom they have not studied, who took care of his mentally ill sister after she had to be confined in Bedlam, “a hospital worse than prison,” for stabbing their mother to death. Later released into Lamb’s care, she and Lamb wrote Tales from Shakespeare. When her illness recurred—and they had learned the signs— “they knew she had no defense.” “All semester,” says the speaker, “we’ve been discussing Romanticism, The Sublime, the articulation of Personal Emotion, and the power of Imagination.  Now imagine this. Holding each other, carrying the restraining straps with them, Mary and Lamb, sobbing, walked the long road back to Bedlam.”


In “The Bridge of Change,” the suicide of Stroud’s teacher and mentor, John Logan, is the subject. We see Logan at the No Name Bar in Sausalito in the 1960s, drinking and holding forth about a boy who witnessed his mother’s death—jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge—as he and his father watched, helpless. Logan offers insight by telling his own theory of poetry,


the poem as a bridge

connecting me to you,  

you to me, poetry
in whose healing music we might trace

how to forgive, how to cross over,

making our long difficult way

into grace.


Stroud renders the death of his own parents with restraint in “Campfire.” The speaker remembers a night with his father in the Tehachapis, “How ghostlike his image / appears to me now, how he seems almost a stranger, / and the boy sitting next to him, staring / into the flame, unable to make anything of it, / what do I make of him, / what would I tell him that he should know, / comforted as he is by the warmth of the fire / and the presence of his father sitting next to him / within the deep fatherless night surrounding him.” The speaker’s distance makes this moment universal.


A lot can be learned from Stroud regarding craft. He builds vivid imagery, much like with the blue heron, in “Imagining (Poetry).” Young Stroud and his twin brother hook up a walkie-talkie with tin cans and tell each other secrets, intimate words connected by a string, “hearing at each end only what we might imagine.” And in “Oppen / Praxis” Stroud instructs, “Say what happened in a way that makes it happen again . . .  Clarity and accuracy honor the reader. / Don’t muddy the waters. Do rock the boat.”


Stroud has traveled the world searching for poems, novelty—and possibly grace. He’s looked in dangerous places— “somewhere out past Swat, near the Korkorams, no road into it, Westerners forbidden. It was important to me that it be secluded, that to get to it I would have to leave my whole life behind.  What was it I so yearned to find?” In the section, “Convergence,” we get a persona poem of a young Incan girl chosen to be sacrificed to the god. In his notes, Stroud says he was haunted by this image for years. He continues this section with omens and religious touchstones, as if the poet is “shoring fragments against his ruins.”


Everything That Rises has no simple arc from grief to redemption. The deaths of family, friends, the coming extinctions in nature, his own mortality, his pain due to the nature of this violent world are all real, but he asks, “Who was it that said / in some long-ago poem / this world is all we have / of Paradise?” Stroud’s instinct is praise.


Winner of many awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lamont Foundation, Stroud gives us poems of nature’s abundance with craft folded around absence. In “My Diamond Sutra,” Stroud mentions “dragon boats of poems, set on fire, pushed into the stream.” In this way, he balances light and dark, showing one man’s search for transcendence. His work deserves a wider audience—not only poetry readers. Stroud’s poems do rock the boat.


A Game of Hide-and-Seek with the World

Wild Persistence by Patricia Hooper

University of Tampa Press, 2019

Paperback, 100 pages, $14.00


Wild Persistence


Patricia Hooper’s fifth book of poems, Wild Persistence, is a beautiful and moving collection, mixing, as it does, dark and light, grief and wonder, and engaging us in her world, which includes the world of nature. Her forms range from haiku with surprising turns to blank verse that is plain and elegant. Her range is unusual—she gives us graceful poems, witty poems, complex ones, and powerful ones.


“Sightings” is a poem that demanded my attention from the first reading:


The world leafs out again, the willow first

and then the river birches near the road

we’re driving down, you in your car seat watching,

for hawks or smaller birds returning home.

Two years have passed since you could walk or stand

alone.  The winter-damaged fields are sown,

and there, along the ridge, unraveling,

spirals of song birds, drifts of dogwood trees,

restored to blossom, beauty that breaks the heart.

And you whose spinal cord could not be healed:

you’re lowering the window, looking up

at miles of wings, your face alive with joy.


As we’re drawn into this car drive in spring, a bird-watching trip, the language is quiet, not calling attention to itself. Then those “winter-damaged fields that now are sown” make their entrance. The “you” is the speaker’s paralyzed grandson. Hooper has raised the stakes, and we feel her urgency with the “drifts of dogwood trees,” an injury that “could not be healed,” heart-breaking beauty, “miles of wings, your face alive with joy.” Clear images, deep feeling—the grandson’s wonder and the speaker’s joy and gratitude—this poem is also a gift to the reader in the way it finds beauty in the natural world even in the face of tragedy.


The word beauty sometimes takes a beating in the streets. I met a well-known poet who said in a disparaging way, Nay-chuh poems, as if it were a skin condition he thought had long ago been cured. However, Hooper’s poems go beyond the simple observational nature poem. Often, she starts with the plainest things. For example, in the book’s first poem, “Sketchbook and Journal,” she catalogues items found in her friend Dan’s freezer: “birds found dead along the trail / in snow ruts, autumn’s crevices, the wren / almost mistaken for a leaf.” The poem moves to Dan’s essays, other “sightings, swift details / that can’t be seen in flight, wild, secretive, / a voice, a look, a gesture half-concealed.” It ends with “wing-bars and stripes, the margins of a feather, / what the mind salvages to study later.”


In other poems, Hooper gives us an elegy for a son-in-law, a move from Michigan to the Piedmont, news of a grandson’s accident, a copperhead, nine birds, a spider, and an evening at a country inn. In a sometimes-witty haiku sequence, Hooper says, “I left those three crows, / the last corn in my garden, / and not one thanked me.” In “My Junco,” the bird has hit the speaker’s picture window with its “slate feathers and soft gray throat,” and she buries it by “those Whirlwind anemones / I planted under the oak tree / beside him— / next summer’s wings.” A hopeful, quiet walk-off.


In “August in the Little Field,” Hooper’s speaker addresses us and asks if we have “ever heard of a purpose as clear as this one . . ., the resolute persistence” of this goldfinch that all spring “flew back and forth over the meadow, watching,” then fed her offspring seeds all summer, as if knowing “the fields and their bright design. . . ,” / . . . her faith so simple / I could only wish it were mine.”


Hooper has aptly personified the bird and attached human fate to it. The poet Erin Belieu has said that Hooper’s feeling for nature reminds her of Mekeel McBride, who in fact provided a blurb for one of Hooper’s earlier books: “Craft and vision here, lighting from the inside the most common things.”


Hooper’s vision is complex, and this leads her to take a surprising point of view sometimes. In “Copperhead,” she writes in third-person about this snake about to strike in her garden—“its orange head lifted, / body a silk rope, / the hourglass bands around it like a bracelet.” These images are precise, almost pretty, but this speaker steps back for a shovel, thrusts it down, and the snake hesitates,


not long enough to see the rims of trees,

to see the houses leaning toward the hills,

to see the hills far off, the gray blue mountain,

to see the pink crepe myrtle in the yard,

to see the front porch with its pail of berries,

to see my knees blue-stained from berry picking,

to see the bare skin shining at my ankle,

to see, if it sees at all, the chance before it,

to see what I might see for the last time,

if no one came . . .


This is one of Hooper’s signature moments. The snake, almost outside of time, is allowed its point of view. The gaze moves to the sky, as if to evoke all the things the copperhead will lose. The feeling of distance here is odd, making the world slide sideways. The blank verse—easily readable and at the same time carefully crafted with alliteration, other sound ladders, and anaphora—gives an odd formality to the scene. The idea is complex, the language is plain.


In “The Spider,” we see “blowsy / overblown roses, heavy as hydrangeas,” then an empty spider web “tattered but glistening” in the speaker’s garden. “It’s strange, something dies, and the world stays,” she says. The speaker goes back in her mind to her childhood lake—not to the lake really, but to this moment after she, a girl, has returned to school in the fall and pictures “the dock, the sand’s hard ridges, and the waves still there without me, lapping at the shore.” This memory re-imagined, a frame inside the frame, gives this moment a poignant, unearthly quality.


Hooper has played this hide-and-seek game with the world throughout her previous four books. This strategy of up-close and far-away is a key to her craft and vision. In her first book, Other Lives, we have a surprisingly effective second-person point of view in “A Child’s Train Ride,” where the speaker is able to perceive the child’s thoughts about existence and non-existence. Now in Wild Persistence, we have “In the Clearing,” where Hooper’s speaker sits in the woods after rain, studying the light: “If I sit still enough / by the damp trees, sometimes I see the world without myself in it, / and—it always surprises me—nothing at all is lost!” No matter where she is in her own life trajectory, Hooper seems able to imagine the world without herself and her loved ones.


We also get powerful autobiographical poems mourning a loss, such as “After,” which begins, “After I left your body to be burned . . .” In a matter-of fact way, the speaker catalogues all of the details she has had to take care of. The poem ends with this speaker looking down from a great distance at all of the things in a house, as “if she were looking back from the next world,” an ending which seems to slam the door shut.


Sometimes her humor rests alongside solace. In “Sandhill Cranes,” two birds walk up to her window “in their scarlet caps.” The male sees his reflection and begins dancing: “his wings six feet across, / rose in the air / as he leapt in his black leather slippers, / his coat of feathers, / and pranced like an Iroquois brave to impress his bride.” The narrator expresses wonder and delight at their unusual “bowing and strutting” thinking “it was just in time / that they found their way to the house / in which I was grieving, . . .” gently reminding the reader of the poet’s loss.


There are some very witty poems in this book, too. In the heat of Hooper’s newly adopted South, her speaker says she sometimes thinks of “heroines / in southern plays or novels: sultry, steamy / women whose ways I didn’t understand / before—like Blanche du Bois reclining in a chair, / restless, desirous, half-daft, but barely able / to rise, to lift a hand.”


It’s hard to find any weaknesses to comment on, even beyond the particular aspects focused on here. Although I haven’t discussed Hooper’s poems that address the world’s injustices, they take their place in the story of her poetics and have contributed to the fact that her books have won a number of awards, including the Norma Farmer First Book Award, Bluestem Award, Lawrence Goldstein Award for Poetry from Michigan Quarterly Review, and most recently, for Wild Persistence, the Brockman Campbell Book Award from the Poetry Society of North Carolina. This book deserves such widespread recognition. And, perhaps, a re-examination of how far nature poems can actually take us.