Essentials: Lorine Niedecker’s ‘North Central’

North Central by Lorine Niedecker

Fulcrum Press 1968

North Central, published in 1968, is Niedecker’s meditation on humankind’s place in the midst of infinite Nature and eternally cycling History. She summarizes this predicament in the line: “Man / lives hard / on this stone perch / by sea / imagines / durable works,” which is followed closely by: “let’s say / of art / We climb.” Is art, then, the epitome of that “durable work” we struggle to create? Is it man’s only answer, or his only productive and positive answer, to being powerful yet ultimately undone by a world that survives each individual’s existence?

The contrast Niedecker strikes between the natural world and the manmade, highly industrialized world of pollution and war would seem to answer those questions affirmatively. In “Wintergreen Ridge,” as the speaker passes from pastoral to urban landscape, we leave “the simple / the perfect / order / of that flower” for monstrosities of human construction, action, and design, a world “So far out of flowers / human parts found / wrapped in newspaper / left at the church / near College Avenue.” And also, “the war / which ‘cannot be stopped.’” One thing remains in the poem’s last lines: “Old sunflower / you bowed / to no one.” But Niedecker does not present a straightforward dichotomy between Nature and Man; instead, she reveals how the mutable but resilient land is an integral part of us, our collective existence, deny it though we have, particularly in the last two hundred years. In the section “Lake Superior,” for instance, she reminds us that “In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock / In blood the minerals / of the rock.” In the same way, she addresses mankind’s origins and early formation as something always present and living in us, rather than as a closed chapter, long-lost and forgotten in the chaotic contemporary world.

Rather than seeing a cataclysmic end derived from our severance from Nature, she heralds our place in the natural cycle she reveres and so beautifully articulates. “We are what the seas / have made us,” she reminds her reader, and in this collection she plumbs that original vein again and again, using nature not as a decorative gesture, but as an essential component of art and existence that produces “best work” – as her own North Central attests.

–Laura Sims

Find North Central here and in Niedecker’s Collected Works.

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Laura Sims is the author of three books of poems: My god is this a man (forthcoming, Fence Books, 2013), Stranger (Fence Books, 2009), and Practice, Restraint, (winner of the 2005 Fence Books Alberta Prize). She is a co-editor of Instance Press with Elizabeth Robinson and Beth Anderson, and has written book reviews and critical essays for New England Review, Rain Taxi, Boston Review, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.