James P. Lenfestey, Earth in Anger, Red Dragonfly Press, 2013
Jeannie E. Roberts, Nature of it All, Finishing Line Press, 2013
by Estella Lauter
James Lenfestey dedicates his book to John Felstiner, author of Can Poetry Save the Earth: A Field Guide to Nature Poems (Yale, 2011), a book that includes an astounding array of British and American poets, some of whom were known as “nature poets” but many others who wrote arresting poems about nature even as they were known for other themes (Adrienne Rich, May Swenson and Wallace Stevens come to mind). Felstiner’s own answer to the question posed in his title seems to be that poets may do more than we give them credit for simply by paying attention to phenomena of nature and raising awareness of it to the point that we recognize and embrace our love of it and so become willing to act to ensure its survival.
Jeannie Roberts illustrates the movement from attention to awareness and recognition of value beautifully in “This Very Moment” (29), the poem that ends her chapbook. She notices a four-leaf clover—but it is the one “Near the hydrangea, /by the block house,” and the block house is the one “lined with lilacs/ and windowsill wasps—“and it is surrounded by dandelions, wild violets and ryegrass topped by dragonflies. “Its leaves beam” as if to draw attention to themselves but also to the plethora of other life around them, and in this place already so full “grasshoppers leap,/ snapping their wings/midair.” So by the time the poet says that this gift shines “around me/ in me,” the attentive (usually American?) reader may have remembered a similar experience of an unexpected gift from an uncultivated field. This kind of “mindful” walking allows the poet to “dwell deeply,” thereby “releasing/all darkness, /all boundaries, /all judgment/to the wind.” It also plants the idea that any of us may have this experience of freedom from our daily preoccupations, and that such freedom is perhaps more important than the luck that is said to attend the appearance of a four-leaf-clover. The book is filled with such gifts, from the songs of a wood thrush, a spring peeper or a tree frog to the ripple of tadpoles, the whirr of hummingbird wings, “The Punctuation of Ferns,” the path of the earthworm and many other moments of delight and insight.
In James Lenfestey’s book, images from the natural world are framed differently—by the grief G.M. Hopkins foresaw in his poem “Inversnaid,” when the world would be “bereft/ Of wet and of wildness,” and by the anger (“hot fury”) the poet has felt in his role as a journalist in recent years covering the events of climate change. Although he quotes Thoreau’s statement, “A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry,” he worries that Yeats’ warning that “Out of a quarrel with others we make rhetoric, of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” may be more to the point. He follows Whitman in taking the risk of rhetoric.
Lenfestey’s worries strike me as unnecessary. I have no doubt that he is writing poetry. It is a different kind of poetry than Roberts’—less concerned with attending to the moment and more with placing experiences of nature in a mythic (Judeo-Christian) tradition. This perspective is established in the first poem with an epigraph from John 3:19 that grieves mankind’s love of “darkness”—the “witless pact we mortals signed/ to gain the slave toiling inside our dishwashers” (7), but it continues in the language and cadence of all the poems. Thus a pair of herons appears in “funeral cassocks” and the speaker of a poem about the new geological age called the Anthropocene echoes the Psalms: “Yea, though I sit on the lip of the bluff . . . I fear all excess” (8). Invoking dinosaurs, El Nino, the eagle, the “game of predator-prey,” the monarchies of Europe, the Wailing Wall, the ancient sturgeon and Indians, Lenfestey’s purpose is the opposite of Roberts’—to reframe the present moment so that we cannot help but recognize the path of destruction we are following. Even the poems toward the end of the book that express love for earth, water and air (e.g., “I Swam A Long Time In The Lake,” “Pewter Morning,” “Heaven”), the sense of their impermanence is palpable.
Lenfestey’s book ends with a long poem, “On Azure Huron’s Shore” (40-43), in the style of Whitman’s “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” section 12 (1848), where the older poet met a “Phantom” who questioned him about how to heal a nation. Using Whitman’s Invocation verbatim (except that the last word is “earth” instead of “nation”) along with the persona of the phantom, the poet poses the questions we must answer and the studies we must undertake if we are serious about the task of saving the earth. Some are philosophical and religious, others practical and political. Whitman’s long lines and irregular cadence allows Lenfestey to include the language of both science and popular culture before he ends with a question that makes saving the soul of the earth a matter of saving our own souls. The poem was published first as a broadside and “may be reproduced free forever” (40).
I cannot say which approach may be more effective in moving readers to action on behalf of the elements that support all life. That will depend on the individual reader. I am glad that both kinds of poems continue to be written for different readers, and I refuse to call one kind poetry and the other rhetoric. Poetry has changed its forms and purposes many times in its long history. Great poetry emerged in eras when its main purpose was to support religions and monarchies. How much more important it is in the vast scheme of things to support the planet.
Estella Lauter is Professor Emerita at UW-Oshkosh and lives in the Door Peninsula. Her first chapbook, Pressing a Life Together By Hand (2007) appeared in the New Women’s Voices series from Finishing Line Press, and was nominated for two Pushcart prizes. The Essential Rudder: North Channel Poems was released by FLP in 2008. Her poem "Gaza, January 2009" tied for first prize in the 2009 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Contest; it appears on www.wagingpeace.org.