Alice D’Alessio, Conversations With Thoreau, Parallel Press, 2012
Reviewed by Tim McLafferty
You are seeking that blue boundary of distant mountains…
Alice D’Alessio’s Conversations With Thoreau is a solid new addition to the Parallel Press chapbook series. Its 30 direct and lucid poems are divided into three parts, the first of which features a group of poems that are conversational in tone, often responding to quotes taken from Henry David Thoreau, and in one case, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Thoreau set himself apart from the system, observing the natural world and the nature of man, reading deeply, taking time to pursue his interests, and trusting in his perspective. As an artist, D’Alessio also stands apart, trusting in and presenting her observations, but unlike Thoreau, she is tied to her world in ways he was not.
In many of the poems in Part 1, D’Alessio sets her milieu against Thoreau’s. In "What I’m Doing Now," she contrasts a set of wishes against what seems to be her inescapable reality—
Before the rain comes, maybe a few miles
or so to name each plant and bird,
butterfly, and beetle (in Latin)
muse on the succession of trees—
contemplate our oneness with nature,
and take meticulous notes in my journal,
accompanied by sketches,
I know that’s how you did it, Henry.
But my watch says it’s after 4, and the phone
rings, the mail comes, and I must start the evening meal,
peel potatoes, pound a meatloaf into shape.
If you could join us for dinner, Henry,
maybe you could explain how to simplify.
These poems often cast Thoreau as an ideal, and serve to contrast this ideal with what is happening now. D’Alessio’s poems look hard and steady at the world, a world that often pushes back and overwhelms; to this, several poems address the need for shelter, or the need to cope with limited shelter. This shelter may be found in a partner, family, a safe place to live, and perhaps, in the embracing of some form of faith. She asks Thoreau, in the poem "Transcendentalism," "Today, Henry, even you / might find Religion…
You have said there is no need to conjure gods,
since all nature is one
and we are sacred as the single leaf,
the rock, the breeze. But humans are not easy
without fable. We need our temples,
deities and demons; need comfort to quell the fear
of drifting, all alone.
Environmental destruction and loss of habitat are major themes throughout; "Our Holy Howling Mother" is a perfect example of this, and also typical of the style of many of the poems in Part 1—
Our Holy Howling Mother
Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around,
with such beauty
H.D.T. from Excursions
Bad news, Henry,
it’s hard to find Her anymore,
She’s been so scraped,
so raped, so scavenged.
And yet you’d be amazed to watch us
seek the relics left behind—
each lonely riff of trees,
each butterfly. Girded with late reports
we hurry to be the one who gets there first
who pokes the camera
at the purple prairie clover
chases the tattered Mourning Cloak
through ditches, races home
to post the photos on the web.
Yes, we fret about her savage howling—
louder now in hot dry creek beds
and blown-off mountain tops.
But we are lulled by the sight
of an Oriole at the feeder
as our Mother rumbles deep in her core
breathes fire and wind
D’Alessio is careful not to over-idealize Thoreau, and in several poems, she wonders how he managed without certain comforts, including intimate companionship. In "Questions for Henry" she asks:
Or, how about
a warm and breathing body
next to yours?
Yes, dandelion fluff
is nice enough, in its place.
But does it really set your pulse tingling,
light up the nerve ends, light shortened wires?
Does it answer
that craving for a gentle touch.
the sensuous message human fingers
etch on skin?
One doesn’t need to have read Thoreau in order to understand or enjoy these poems, but if this chapbook serves to send a reader in search of Thoreau, that would be no bad thing.
The second and third parts of this chapbook present poems that are more purely D’Alessio. In Part 2, Revelations, she continues with themes of shelter and environment, also touching on politics and current world conflicts.
Almost central to the book, we find "Green Heron in Marsh," a perfect example of how D’Alessio hears and plays the music of spoken English. Her careful use of language, sound, and rhythm is clean and refreshingly spare, yet remains natural and flowing when recited:
Not everything that happens is for the best.
Ask the heron, round-eyed, wary—
a plump meal for coyote,
her nest a serendipity
for crows, raccoons, hawks,
and yet she is at home
in the greens and tawnies,
spangled webs, slurry of leaf rot,
puddle and seep. She is tuned
to buzz and hum, to roiling water
and flash of minnow.
"Continuo" comments on the strange and uneasy feeling of living in what seems like a safe and fruitful place, while knowing there is horrible conflict in other parts of the world:
Season of gathering and stocking seeds
to replenish the prairie. Indian grass bends plumes
in morning breeze that doesn’t carry dust
from bull-dozed homes, or stench of blown-up bus
and burning flesh. The only cries I hear are jays
and chickadees collecting bounty. And yet
beyond the hills the rough chimera breathes,
tolling the names, weighing the awful harvest.
In the third part of the book, Seeds of Hope, there are two interesting and thoughtful poems on impermanence and chance, "Sunset on Rainy Lake," and "Unfathomable Fortune":
I wasn’t here
but something of me was
a windblown husk of seed
and you perhaps a breath
exhaled millenniums ago.
I found Conversations With Thoreau to be filled with poems to explore and think about. From first to last, the poems travel an intuitive arc, and in fact, the third section is a journey from winter to spring and onward, where in early fall, the milkweed seeds are rising— a hopeful ending to this collection of poetry that looks at our current situation with such clarity.
Tim McLafferty lives in NYC and works as a drummer. He has played on Broadway in Urinetown, Grey Gardens, and many other interesting places. His work currently appears in many fine journals, including Forge, Painted Bride Quarterly, Pearl, Portland Review, and Right Hand Pointing. Visit timmclafferty.com.