The beauty of the natural world skulks around the edges of these poems, making inroads here and there. The impressive color photograph of a coyote bush on the cover, almost a montage of direct light and shadow, sets the ambivalent tone as mankind’s sensitivity confronts the indifference of nature.
The poem Sitting Under a Maple Tree portrays the poet’s persona resting under a tree, observing nature and its gorgeousness, and looking up at the sky for yet more inspiration (an upstairs, downstairs effect) . Seems almost perfect, but, alas there are a couple of problems. The poet demands food, warmth, and affection. All would be right he says if
…someone brought me
Bacon and eggs for supper,
Covered my shoulders with a blanket
From November to April
And kissed me good night
But even then he would be subject, like all living things, to the aging process—admittedly natural, but unpleasant for most of us. He says,
No great green tree
From whose branches white birds sing hosannas,
But an ancient horse
All hide and bone
Alone in a pasture
Bowing to the earth.
In his poem Tracks, Nash lies down in the dry needle imprint left by a doe and her newborn. Is he communing with nature, becoming one with a pantheistic earth spirit? Well, sort of. At first the poet’s soul and the doe’s soul simply merge in a moment of apparent understanding. But there is more (again upstairs, downstairs). High over grounded nature,
stands with his great bow by the River Eridanus.
Beside him the deerhounds
Tense at his sudden whistle,
Then rush down the star trails.
The killers from on high are also driven by natural instinct, lest the poet forget.
The affecting dedication of this book reads, “For Judy, who figures in some of these poems and all of my life.” It occurs to me that the beautiful, yet cruel context of nature only heightens human emotions such as love with tragedy and intensity. One good example of this is the poem entitled After You. The poet details the degradation of his household, the loss of pleasant detail and tasty cuisine. The meditation then turns internal. His thought patterns would change. The light would leave the sky. And finally the essence,
I’d gradually withdraw from the future.
There’d be nothing to look forward to—
No smell of rice pilaf and garlic,
No watching videos side by side,
Nor you breathing when I wake up.
In Judy’s Garden, Nash sees clearly the detail’s of his aging wife: her sore back, her dirty gloves, her baggy jeans, her gray hair. These are now inseparable from their shared life, their memories, and most importantly, his love for her:
“You look the same as ever,” I say.
She’s wearing her father’s felt fedora,
her gray hair in a neat bunch
covering the little hump above her shoulder blades
that doctor Dick said was osteoporosis.
“Yeah, right,” she calls out…
Maybe that’s a sarcastic “yeah, right,” or maybe it is an embarrassed “yeah, right,” but she knows for a moment anyway that he’s telling the truth. Love’s intensity cannot be hidden. It’s impossible.
Young love is expressive and sometimes explosive. Timeless love is more subtle and sometimes depends on subordinate clauses and gestures. The scene is the poet’s birthday party. He’s giving a speech and says,
At this age you can’t expect to run a mile,
I announce, looking at Judy,
and you’re damn lucky to hobble the distance
with someone who gives you a hand…
Later in bed:
she says she liked the part
about giving someone a hand,
then wiggles her toes against my feet—
our old signal…
The scene ends wonderfully with man’s unique or artificial nature resisting the pull of the natural order of things. In the poet’s words,
my bantam cock crows,
another old man yelling at the moon.
Nash expands his vision of man’s domesticity under siege with an extraordinary poem called The Garden. It begins with a description of wildness and beauty,
Once this was the flood plain of a river.
Bunch grass and wild oats fluttered in the silty soil
and poppies followed the sun with golden faces.
Then comes the tale of how this wild was made habitable for humans by art or, to be specific, his wife’s vision of her garden.
She put the garden in by herself,
mixed peat moss with fertilizer in the wheelbarrow
then eased dozens of roses
into the chocolate earth.
She planted the potted salvia,
wrinkled pea-like seeds of nasturtiums,
onions, carrot starts, the chunky eyes of potatoes,
three kinds of summer squash,
and dug iris bulbs in deep.
Once the earth has been defined by her art, the poet marvels at his wife’s closeness to and her understanding of nature,
She loves the feel of dirt between her palms,
the shovel against her boot,
the pull of the hose against her hip,
the heft of buckets dragging her shoulders.
Sometimes he sees her head bend close to the earth
inhaling the rough viney smell of green tomatoes.
There is an end of course. It may be tragic as man’s destiny will end as it began. Or maybe it is a marvel that it took place at all. The poem ends this way
In twenty years they’ll be gone,
the garden a few stalky rose bushes
poking up through the grass.
Plenty of time, he thinks,
for the ragged coyote bush,
the milk thistle,
to come back in.
And then, just possibly, somewhere in time, someone else will plant another garden and human love, so obvious in these poems, will flower again.
For more of my review of Coyote Bush go here: http://dougholder.blogspot.com/2012/04/coyote-bush-poems-from-lost-coast-by.html