Book Review

Alice D’Alessio, Conversations With Thoreau, Parallel Press, 2012

by Jeanie Tomasko

Alice D’Allesio’s Conversations With Thoreau is a love letter to Henry David Thoreau. It’s a wake-up call to the rest of us from the heart of a naturalist and woods-walker. It says, Henry, how I wish I could have walked with you, and at the same time, Fellow 21st Century Walker-of-what-woods-is-left, take note of the beauty, before it’s too late. The letter looks backward and forward at the same time, it bemoans and praises and wishes, and it is far more than an ecological treatise.

D’Allesio starts out easy with, May I join you Henry, to hike the Massachusetts hills?  And there begins the imaginary conversation with HDT, full of reflection and humor. In “Star Crossed” the speaker reflects on the kinship with HDT and wonders:

                  You and me, Henry,
                  we would’ve made a pair.
                  Two lopsided apples in a barrel
                  weird birds, odd ducks.

                  Too bad we missed each other—
                  passing                  like comets
                  in eccentric orbits.

Each poem responds to, or contains, a Thoreau quote:

                  When you wrote, I love my fate
                  to the very core and rind, we believed you
                  and we wanted a bite of that same melon.

The first section is easy, conversational, “me and you, Henry,” and it moves then into a pretty meaty longer non-letter. The subsequent sections are poems that show more than tell, the heartcry of one of earth’s perceptive citizens. I suspect even HDT might be more enthralled with the rest of the book. Compare these lines. One from the first section, the other from later in the book:

                  Time, Henry, has speeded up and fame is transitory,


                  Our brief days—fashioned by happenstance
                  ephemeral as borealis.

I imagine him saying, “OK, Alice, now we can talk. Now, I want to take a walk with you.”

Fine imagery and precise description satisfies me, a fellow walker and natural-world poet. In fact, I walk the same trails in the “Branch” where Alice walks, I watch the same cranes, but I have never thought to call them pearl gray sails. I have looked at the moon thousands of times and never called it lopsided. I love that! Nor have I conjured as many, or any, of the metaphors for how poems arrive to poets as in “Mutterings of Thunder”:
                  Sometimes it’s more like the sting
                  of a mosquito—and perhaps you fight it
                  or swat it but you can’t get rid of it,
                  like an itch that swells and festers,
                  troubling your sleep.

Alice’s language has a Midwest sensibility, is rhythmic and punctuated properly (as English Lit majors are prone to do). She takes no big risks, but there are elements and layers that beguile. The groundedness in musical terms is one consistent element. Turn to most any page and you will find words like crescendo, tympani, brassy, flute, trumpet, voice, rumble as well as poems titled “Prelude” and “Spring Overture.”  The book is full of sounds. It is also certainly full of literature, art, and intellect. There are allusions to Newton, Nabokov, Giverny, Boticelli, Monet, Celtic forbears and, of course, Henry David and Walden. There are not many unfamiliar words and personally, I don’t need them. Not that I mind picking up a dictionary to look up cosset, but there is strength in bringing the reader common words that delight, as in [the heron]:
                  is at home
                  in the greens and tawnies,
                  spangled webs, slurry of leaf rot,
                  puddle and seep.

No dictionary needed. Simple words take you there.

Conversations is a book of practical prayers. Prayers to the past:
                  that halcyon time before trucks

                  Write a poem now and then, and post a letter
                  damning those who drain the last wild marsh.

and future:

                  Keepers of tomorrow,
                  yours is the earth—

Prayers to family, friends, and loves. Prayers to the prairie, the heron, the crane, and all matter of other creatures. Prayers as letters, prayers as poems. Books, like Conversations With Thoreau, that access a place of reverence and humility are books I buy.

My favorite poem is “From all that haunts us.” The speaker shows us a fawn, “nestled among the birdsfoot violets” while on a walk. Later, the grandson learns about hunting and questions why anyone would hunt this graceful creature. The speaker turns the question over like “the parchment skull / of the scavenged hawk" and doesn’t give anyone a clear answer (which completely satisfies this poet), and then executes the perfect light touch ending-to-die-for. Read the poem, you’ll see what I mean.

Another favorite poem is “Seeking Green,” about the speaker’s drive south from Wisconsin to the Gulf Coast in spring and back again: Brown to green to brown, to sum it up. And “the problem was coming back,” “a nature film reversed.”  But, to make up for the loss of Spanish moss, the speaker and spouse (?) do some pretty inventive green things, that again, you must read, because one of my pet peeves is commentaries that give away perfect endings.

I have notes throughout the book, oh, yes, little things I might change, little things Alice probably has already changed, knowing what poets do. But her voice is distinctive and I’m not here to change that. I’ve learned to read poetry—or I try at least—to read from the speaker’s point of view, not to ask what do I want but what does the poet want me to know about the poem, and about themselves.
And what I now know about Alice is that she is praying for the ongoingness of the world, that somehow the music of it will never stop, somehow the heron will go on flying, somehow the careless will take note and start to care and that, of course, the poets will go on seeing.

Jeanie Tomasko is the author of Sharp as Want (Little Eagle Press) a poetry / artworks collaboration with Sharon Auberle, and Tricks of Light (Parallel Press). She lives in Middleton where she and her husband, Steve, grow garlic, eat garlic, give away lots of garlic, and are in an exquisitely pungent poetry group called Garlic. Her chapbook, The Collect of the Day, is forthcoming from Centennial Press. (Parallel Press, 2011).