Book Review

Kinnickinnic by Thomas R. Smith.  Madison, WI:  Parallel Press, 2008.  $10.

Reviewed by B.J. Best

Kinnickinnic, at its core, examines the relationship between our lives and the natural world.  In these poems, Thomas R. Smith imbues the natural world with both power and morality, and we, as denizens within it, are wise to consider its lessons.  Smith’s best poems use natural life to instruct and inspire us, who are all too often removed from the natural landscape.

“Red Willow,” the first poem in the collection, is an excellent example.  In it, Smith defines kinnickinnic—a Native American word for red osier dogwood.  It is a plant which is incredibly resilient, where it

                  can grow new roots
                  even in sandy soil,
                  earning red willow
                  its reputation
                  for resurrection.

In winter, the red bark of the kinnickinnic is the most visible and arresting color, the speaker tells us, and then makes a strong connection to optimistic, early-spring emotions likely familiar to those living in the upper Midwest:

                  My winter-
                  emptied heart
                  gathers itself,
                  a willow basket,
                  to catch that dark
                  alizarin burnish.
                  Then I too stand up
                  out of the scabbed ice
                  of a dead season,
                  ready to flower and leaf
                  again from a bare
                  red stick.

Smith aptly begins the collection with this poem, as it introduces the titular word, a clear natural landscape, and the idea that nature can invigorate us—in fact, can serve to resurrect our lives sullied by the workaday world.

The second poem, “Confluence,” introduces a second meaning to the title—the Kinnickinnic River which flows through Smith’s city of River Falls in northwestern Wisconsin.  In the poem, the speaker considers how nature can inspire us, remembering that

                  When heart cell cultures are placed near
                  each other, the smaller one’s rhythm
                  synchronizes with the larger.  So my pulse flows

                  into your drumming, planet muscle, heart river!

Indeed, with the final exclamation point, the poem takes on the tone of a psalm, praising the ability of the river to rouse (and mediate) the human heart.  For Smith, nature is often holy, as in the transformation he makes in “Cottonwood Seeds”:

                  Cottonwood Seeds

                  This time of year the air fills with stars,
                  the warm wind pushing them upstream
                  against the river's fast glimmer.

                  From their radiant swarm, one can sometimes
                  pluck a tuft so insubstantial
                  it's difficult to pinch the gossamer

                  wings back from flight. The seed, white inside
                  its silver aura, sails the light's current
                  to arrive at a darkness it needs.

                  We might imagine it there, planted,
                  growing an angel instead of a thick-
                  barked, deep-rooted cottonwood tree.

Describing this annual phenomenon, Smith effortlessly reveals the holiness that hums barely beneath it.  The poem moves along in light tercets until the final stanza, which presents us with the surprising image of an angel superimposed upon a mature tree that can bear the weight—and meaning—of such a connection.  Likewise, Smith takes a similarly small topic and transforms it into a universal holy hunger in “Baby Wrens’ Voices”:

                  Baby Wrens’ Voices

                  I am a student of wrens.
                  When the mother bird returns
                  to her brood, beak squirming
                  with winged breakfast, a shrill
                  clamor rises like jingling
                  from tiny, high-pitched bells.
                  Who’d have guessed such a small
                  house contained so many voices?
                  The sound they make is the pure sound
                  of life’s hunger.  Who hangs our house
                  in the world’s branches, and listens
                  when we sing from our hunger?
                  Because I love best those songs
                  that shake the house of the singer,
                  I am a student of wrens.

Smith uses the strategy of bookending the poem with the same line—seen anywhere from Thomas Lux’s “I Think You’re Wonderful” to Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Snail”—very effectively here, as the meaning of the final line is so much larger and deeper than it is initially, and it brings the poem to a powerful conclusion without being redundant.  The development of this poem is crisp and makes a vivid leap from a single nest to all the world’s warbling.  Those are the qualities of the best poems here:  tight diction, compact metaphor, and an inevitable connection between natural lives and our own.  For Smith, nature provides us all opportunities to reconnect with our true lives, to rejuvenate the holiest parts of ourselves.  “Firewood,” the final poem in the collection, serves as a fitting conclusion as it explores the relationship between essence, transcendence, and release:

The flame is not external to the wood, but instead is its essence, dancing its religion, its long tongues licking the pine board’s belly and evaporating upward into the most ephemeral scarves. … Above the flue and into the night, it escapes toward its homeland of stars. 

Of course, along with the solace nature provides comes our society’s penchant for destroying it.  Smith directly addresses this topic, devoting several poems to the ways in which we conquer nature, no matter the cost.  “Raccoon” is a prose poem that describes the titular animal stiff and stuck on the inside of a culvert grate, where it “died from drowning or concussion or both.”  The storm sewer only exists because of “housing construction off South Main.”  Hence, those directly involved with the construction—and, by extension, anyone who has ever lived in suburbia—are complicit in this destruction of nature.  However, at the end of the poem, Smith also suggests perhaps these people have killed a bit of themselves as he calls up the image of the raccoon’s paws, suggesting to the reader:  “Think of the new streets and homes, the people who no longer know where they are.  Notice how closely the hands resemble your own.”

The speaker of “Rice Lake Burial Mounds” is also concerned with suburban sprawl, watching “dust clouds from a denuded field where bulldozers scuff and rumble.”  This particular poem also develops a respect of Native Americans and dismay at their subjugation by European settlers; here, the burial mounds are fenced in and “surrounded by concrete and concrete-to-be.”  The Native Americans, who “knew how to warm their dark skins without the aid of petrochemicals” (“Small Town During a Popular War”), lived much more harmoniously with nature than we presently do, so therefore should be honored and mourned.  This idea is developed similarly in a few other poems, including “Sesquicentennial Song” and “North Country,” and helps complete Smith’s worldview about the preference of living attuned to the natural world, as opposed to apart from or against it.

Most of Smith’s poems are lyric and anecdotal—they present brief scenes of the speaker’s forays into nature, such as canoeing on a river, lying down in spring woods, or watching a hawk briefly rest along its migratory route before resuming its splendid flight.  Smith’s poems present clear, vivid images, and while they don’t always use much figurative language, when they do, it is pitch-perfect. Consider a popple grove where “slender branches thresh softly / the small wheat of the wind”, or how a hawk can menace the sky until the clouds are “white as clean-picked bones.”

There are a few missteps here, though.  “Mother and Child,” a poem concerning the speaker’s encounter with two horses off a roadside, is strongly reminiscent of James Wright’s “A Blessing,” and Smith’s poem is weaker by comparison.  (Consider Wright’s famous epiphany about breaking into blossom versus Smith’s final line which tries to hit the same note:  “Between heaven and earth the brown colt and the white mare shine.”)  In “The Snapping Turtle,” a poem that admires the drive of the turtle to lay its eggs in a roadside grade, Smith at times loses control of concision, burdening the poem with adjectives and adverbs—the turtle’s soul receives four adjectives alone.  And in some poems where Smith shows how our contemporary lives diminish nature, sometimes the language lapses into mere scolding, as in “Rice Lake Burial Mounds”:

Turning back toward the car, we still hear bulldozers working overtime to scrape more land bare for houses for commuters who will buy more gasoline to operate their minivans to make more oil wars necessary.

Smith is adept at delivering an environmental/political viewpoint in his poetry by focusing on the immediate subject at hand (as in “Raccoon”), but here the speaker reaches too far and seems too eager to draw the conclusions for us.

These are localized concerns, though, and Kinnickinnic remains a strong chapbook for those who find meaning, beauty, and inspiration from the natural world.  Smith is a perceptive observer of the natural things others cannot or will not see.  These poems make a clear case for why attending to nature is more important than ever before, and why we must be careful to preserve it for the future.

B.J. Best is the author of two books of poetry, State Sonnets (sunnyoutside) and Birds of Wisconsin (New Rivers Press, forthcoming), as well as three chapbooks from Centennial Press.  He teaches at Carroll University in Waukesha and lives in West Bend. He also serves on Verse Wisconsin's Advisory Board.