Generations by Pattiann Rogers. Penguin Books, 2004. $16.
Generations, the title of Pattiann Rogers’s new book of poems, is not one seized upon lightly. She has come to it, having entered upon the mysteries it entails over some eight books of poetry that span nearly a quarter-century. The most recent of these are Song of the World Becoming: New and Collected Poems, 1981-2001 and the workshop memoir, The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing as Reciprocal Creation, which suggestively mixes memory with desire in an attempt to plumb poetry’s deep structures. In those collections, her commitment to capturing nature’s minutiae in colorful language surrendering as little to imprecision as “the freedom / to say my unbound voice struggling / against its bars and chains” permitted her, remained firm and unequivocal. Nor did she surrender any more to the influences that over the years had an impact on her style. As a poet, Rogers could be said to have established her own Bishopric of exacting naturalism within a wordscape only occasionally dotted with Moore-ish temples and Ammons-esque ziggurats—of her own design. The following provides an idea of how the architectural sense is put at the disposal of Rogers’s own take on slide spectography:[private]
The landscape in this country is entirely
bare and blank, undistinguished
by any feature, except for a stitch
of swallows appearing and disappearing
above the sky-smooth lake, in and out
through the portals invented by their own
journeys. Here alone is absence, except
for many tiny punctures in the overall,
seeming like the prints of thorny grass
crickets, the pinpoint instincts of gripping
lizard toes, the stinging bristles of musk
thistle and the lesser spikes of lattice
spider. This is a dull, unbroken scape,
except for a pinnacle, a balustrade of forest,
except for a tip of hound-yelping and then
another, and the jagged red slash
of a rooster’s occasional “chicchirichi,”
except for a multitude of cracks in the oblivion
through which appear many eyes, yellow
or black cat on a tile roof, pierce of preying
gull, two glassy prongs of woodland
snail, old man in grey cap with cigarette. . . .
Thus begins “Tabula Rasa,” a not atypical foray of hers into unexpected reaches of the sublime where minutiae outweigh aeons in the divulgent prospect of things Rogersian. In her world,
Whatever is steadfast must be
as quick as an electron moving by no
means across the emptiness between
one phantom ring and another, like a firefly
that loses its vanishing place and finds it
again across a vacancy of night . . . .
which means that the Oder-Niesse Line separating particle from subparticle must be as instantiable as a firefly’s disappearing act and its reappearance across quantum spaces of ever increasing luminous discontinuity. Like the seasons, our evanescence comes and goes in a mockery of granitic recurrence. We speed the plough of our preoccupations only to be dispersed by the furrows of time and their sowings of distraction. How odd, Rogers is wont to muse in “And Motion in Philosophy,” are our misconstruals even of things as key to our motives as simple motion.
We say we move miles across desert
ice and black volcanic sand, down
numbers of leagues into the night
of oceans and caves. Marking
units and distances, we say we move
an hour among damp spring grasses,
two days along canyon roads
and creek beds, country lakeside
borders. This is the way we move,
because we pronounce this to be
the way of our moving.
But how all this is qualified by disproportions latent in our circularities of blood and mindfulness when parsed in terms revealing of the universal broadband:
All facts of the body, we know,
are composed solely of light
and its speed. Therefore, a traveling
beam of luminous star and a single blood
corpuscle of radiance in the heart must be,
in myth and song, one and the same. . . .
This is not so much nature poetry as “nature” poetry, with a twist. Pattiann Rogers’s particular gift lies in establishing links—via expansive metaphors that fall short of being fully dressed conceits—between what is of moment to what is, no less pressingly or important, of the moment. The scare quotes around nature invite the release of energy, not the amassing of Letterman-esque irony. A less ambiguous term for what Rogers does might be “nurture” poetry, with quotes around nurture that do not scare. As a poet she seldom neglects the fact that man’s sentient life is spent locked in the interstices between the pulse beats of earth’s diurnal round and those vibratory waves let off within the tide pools of the human psyche by such rilers as the lunar tuning fork. Imagine John McPhee apprenticed to the early-to-middle Yeats, and you’ll have a working notion, in rough and ready terms at least, of the quarry most likely to appear in this poet’s cross hairs. For to be truthful to Rogers’s modus operandi is to see her primarily as a collector of intense calibrations, converting those to neat and responsive stanzas which notably involve a physical this impinging on, or attuning itself to, some biological that, and then choreographing an expeditionary dance along the artery quickening the two.
Outside the realm of breath and bone,
of vision with eyes, outside a sentient
vein of any kind, outside the tangible
or any of those ways we ordinarily tell
ourselves of presence, there may be a place
where one could be fire, for instance,
not a body lit by the light of fire,
not a body hearing the humming furnace
of fire or watching the orange, ash-
rimmed coals of fire fading, but a place
where one might be the fire itself,
if be is the right word for such a state,
if state has a definition in such a realm.
The calm, explicative voice presiding over such Rogers poems as “In Another Place” is a not so distant relative of that Augustan stentorianism which was given a whole new lease on life—not to mention periodicity—in those late, prolix efforts by Wallace Stevens with tags like “auroras of,” “transport to,” or “notes toward,” or other dead giveaways in their titles. The difference is that in Rogers’s poetry, there is precious little to prove and even less to insist upon as regards the saliences of order. Her iron truths have all been duly metabolized by an endocrine system that does more than hum along the wires of the blood and execute arias of intimation amid the subtle sloshing of the viscera. If it were possible for her to advance the overall knowingness of the nous undergirding her poetic language, she would no doubt jump at the chance to do so; but she knows in her heart of hearts that in order to brighten the strings of revelatory logos she would have to monkey with the leadstrings of evolution. The communicative ratio between DNA’s statutory writing and verbal star power allotted to poets was fixed in the heavens long ago. Unlike certain refractory bards who cannot imagine not raging, raging against their particular star facing ultimate extinction, Rogers has no trouble in accepting such limitations. In the spirit of the famous female interlocutor of Carlyle who was willing to accept the universe, Rogers finds the cosmic state of things less a straitjacket than a curse from which multiple blessings flow. “Not soul alone, but soul consumed / by a single bee descending into the center / of a purple mountain lily is soul / to a soul suckled in sleep,” she insists in “This Little Glade, Remember.” Surely she has a point, for whose soul is not suckled or comfortingly borne aloft by Wordsworthian intimations of nourriture terrestre as the coign of immortality?
But no less assured is the other side to that coign, the other face to that busy intersection where possibility rubs shoulders with grandeur and life is no less comforting in its local confirmations than “in the round.” It is to this that Rogers accords the greatest notice in Generations and in her verse generally. This new collection is subdivided into six sections designated “stories,” the “first” through “fifth being supplemented by a sixth “following story” containing eleven poems. Poems contributing to the first five “stories” show nature at play in the field of lordless determinism, while the sixth and final one fields “songs of experience” to offset the canons of innocence earlier descanted by the poet in the interests of “paleo-ontological” accuracy.
But it is to the terminal “following story” that the dour task must fall to account for the double-entry bookkeeping that keeps nature solvent, from its slyboots fudging of “death by natural causes” to the annals of euthanasia tout court. For while security may for some lie in knowing that everything is deprived of mindful existence ultimately, little comfort can be taken in the means nature habitually resorts to when going back on its contractually entered upon obligations to the living. And this barbary extends through all the links of the Great Chain of Being, from man, supreme in declinative potential, to “stray cat,” depressing as a study in “black and white,” but no more optimally a downer than any other. The “fact compounded” (Rogers’s own titular compactor) by this extrapolation is well worth the unpacking at greater than usual length:
Stray cat (one of ten million million
anonymous ordinaries) slinking through
the hedges as if slinking mattered,
you were never designed by great fortune
of the heavens. No god of the beginning
ever commanded, “Let there be forsaken
cat moving belly-to-ground through the ramparts
of these scraggly bushes tonight.” No god
took a winter forest of shadows marked
with snow, modeled them specifically
to fashion your pelt. No glad god held
your head in his hands, breathed the soul
of felinity into your own particular nostrils.
Why act as if you knew differently?
no one has anointed you with fanfare
and trumpets. No wise men knelt
beside your blind and squalling birth.
You were never chosen by priests
to have your neck wrung and broken,
your body mummified, wound with cloths,
offered up. And no one desires you now,
not even to butcher or skin you, not
to roast you or feast on your stingy flesh.
Why then prance your case?
Why yowl tonight of your predicament?
What is it among your mass
of molecules and corpuscles, among
the strings and roots and smolder
of old star material composing your presence
that convinces you so thoroughly
of the integrity of your being? . . .
As resolutely as this verse defeats any attempt to schematize its prosody into “molecules and corpuscles” of rhythm and rime, its questioning rhetoric leaves all religiosity turned natural history a shambles. As Denise Levertov has approvingly written of this poet’s sublime debunking of sublimity,
Pattiann Rogers is a visionary of reality, perceiving the material world with such intensity of response that impulse, intention, meaning, interconnections beyond the skin of appearance are revealed. Her language, unmarred by clichés, springs up out of a sense of how various and endlessly amazing are the forms of life and the human ability to notice them.
Notice them, not set them to revolving endlessly on some rotisserie of mystification, divine or merely actuarial. Rogers, despite some folderol in returning cases to the appropriate lower courts, is a stable but inspiring presence on the bench. In Generations hers is always the swing vote for sanity, even though she knows it’s more often than not a minority opinion baring its briefs.[/private]