Poets in the Pits

Reviewed by Kirsten Alm

Since Thoreau’s experiment in living and writing in the Massachusetts woods in the mid-nineteenth century, many ecologically minded North American writers have followed his example and recorded their own retreat to the wilderness where they too “earned [their] living by the labour of [their] hands only.” For example, replace Thoreau’s forest, pond, and field of beans with the mountains of the Cascade Range and you have the lookouts where Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac wrote and read in between watching for fires in the employ of the United States Forest Service. Ostensibly, whether they are writing from mountain peaks or the Massachusetts woods, the non-urban world is where writers in this line can find the “broad margin to . . . life” that Thoreau celebrated, and produce literature blending careful observation with reflection about self and society. This tradition is continued by Jordan Mounteer and Owain Nicholson, who find inspiration in the pits of the archaeological dig site and the rutted terrain that is the territory of tree planters.

Tree planting serves as a focal point for the theme of loss—of love and political innocence—which pervades Mounteer’s Liminal. In “Watersheds,” the central section of Liminal, the tree planter exists in “blue-collared numbness,” the tree planter a typewriter who moves “left to right, left again” through each “capsized forest.” Mounteer’s poetry acknowledges his own implication in an economy of “life taken / at softwood price” and the poetry questions any naive belief in the hope that the denuded slopes might be “mended.” This disillusionment is poignantly expressed in the poem “Fugitive Upbringing / September 6, 1991.” While planting seedlings in the “[c]orridors cut through / western cedar grid hillsides” that his mother once tried to protect from logging, the speaker looks back to his childhood and a futile protest. “[T]he . . . work of narrow shovels” becomes a form of compassion for a place and the people whose “innocence was broken” in trying to preserve it. Poems like these introduce a complexity into the volume that prevents it from becoming a formulaic coming-of-age travelogue.

Nicholson’s Digsite records another journey out to the wild. As the archaeologist seeks prehistoric remains from the earth, these poems consider the meaning of time and place and necessarily raise the question of Indigenous inhabitation, possession, and dispossession in North America. Lamentably, though, they do not explore these themes as fully as they might, caught up as they are in the close work of archaeological description and self-reflection. Indeed, the collection lives partly in a childhood school-world of “double major[s],” tracing first losses and loves. The voice which speaks about these experiences is juxtaposed against the more mature voice which speaks when the poems turn to archaeology. In these poems, the isolation of the archaeological dig site provides a metaphorical location of exploration that directs the collection, although not entirely successfully.

While tracing the writers’ experiences, the two collections also walk some of the same paths taken by other ecologically minded poets and, at times, trip over roots. Both Liminal and Digsite are maps of male experience where women appear only in memory or as objects of longing, or, like the female tree planters who are briefly present in Liminal, are significant by virtue of their female difference. Certainly, the comparative lack of female presence in the collections reflects the highly gendered nature of the forms of labour which feed the poems. Still, it continues the unfortunate pattern in North American writing wherein women are excluded from the male encounter with nature. Moreover, since the encounter with nature becomes a source of inspiration in ecologically minded writing, the absent woman is excluded from the poetic vocation itself and must seek poetry from the male poet—“write a poem about a girl who steals into the night to sleep with animals,” requests one woman in Liminal. Admittedly, no single collection can be held responsible to correct the gender blind spot that exists in some ecologically oriented writing, but one wishes to find stronger depictions of female presence in these male encounters with nature and hopes to find more female poets depicting their own stride down these pathways along with fresh and nuanced male voices in these times of gender orienteering.

This review “Poets in the Pits” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 159-160.

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