by Melissa Kwasny
Milkweed Editions 2009
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson
That Which Haunts
The work and studies of late 18th century German poet and philosopher Georg Philipp Freidrich von Hardenburg, or Novalis, set a complex backdrop for Melissa Kwasny’s latest book. However, Kwasny’s poems never slip into the pedantic as one might expect. The poems remain plastic and, at times, Spartan, and while the landscape itself often feels cold and phlegmatic (“The dirt road is frozen.”), the speaker in the poems is never so: “I hear the geese first in my lungs.”
Novalis has great influence here. One of his most salient concepts is the continual striving of humanity towards the Golden Age. This ideal of harmony between man and nature is echoed throughout Kwasny’s writing. The first line in the title poem—“I hear the geese first in my lungs”—demonstrates a clear and powerful connection between man and nature. Both Novalis and Kwasny insist that sentience of all that surrounds humankind is central to a full existence, that everything observed “is a message.” As the poet investigates these messages, she continually encounters feelings of being lost, haunted, and abandoned.
A sense of abandonment is evident very early on. In “Redpolls,” the second poem in the book, Kwasny compares the syncopated migratory patterns of redpolls to the loss of her grandmother. She writes, “they won’t be back / next year or next, like my grandmother, for instance. / So, after work, I make popcorn, fill her green bowl / take it out to the creek where she might find it.” Though her grandmother is gone, dead it can be presumed, our poet still waits for a return, or imagines a presence, imparting that all of us are “surrounded by a bevy of ghosts.”
As the metaphysical informs these poems, so too does the physical. Kwasny consistently relies on the marriage of man and nature to inform her understanding of existence. In “Mule Deer,” she explores the lives of mule deers and the fact that their fate is similar to every living creature’s: “absence will replace them.” Later, in “Common Blue,” ants function similarly, and in their curious, transient diligence, lead the poet to lament the loss of the body at death: “The body, it is so sad what happens to it. / If you fell, you would dry up instantly.”
In contrast to the body’s flaws and weaknesses, Kwasny emphasizes the power of individual consciousness. She states, “When I am alone, I am godly.” She posits that our collective sense of abandonment stems from an incomplete notion of the self. If the self could be whole and trusted, perhaps there would be no need for gods. In part five of “The Waterfall,” Kwasny recounts the prayer of an old Cree man, and notes that “He was afraid of what he prayed to.” Prayer should be a more self-reflective process than it often is, and since fear often stems from that which is not fully understood, here the Cree man fears what is supposed to supply him with solace and trust.
In part six of the same poem, Kwasny states, “A baby is crying / but the sprig of snowberry we hang over the crib is said / to ward off ghosts.” The implication here is that the baby is crying because of ghosts, inexplicable presences that haunt. She also states that “The dark soil of each season is indicative of the veils / we kick through”; little about one’s surroundings is known or understood, yet one cleaves one’s way through the days anyway, for better or worse. Kwasny’s message is one of perseverance against the unknown, an insistence upon meaningful interpretation, if only for its own sake.
In addition to Novalis, Kwasny finds wisdom in Pound and Emerson. “It was Emerson who said the universe / is an externization of the soul.” It is difficult not to fall in love with such a grand idea, one that puts each individual in the driver’s seat, and Kwasny makes it even more irresistible by coupling Emerson’s notion with her immediate mention of a waterfall, an outpouring of that which is within, a blending of the physical and metaphysical. Accordingly, Kwasny, like many, also sees fit to interrogate the creator. In her long poem “The Directions,” which ends part three, she writes, “We are constantly translating Lord to / spirit.” It’s an incredibly apt observation; where “Lord” is representative of power and authority, “spirit” is more akin to something seraphic, a zephyr.
As experience mounts, interpretations change. In “Soul,” part two of “The Directions,” Kwasny notes that “Everything…divides itself.” Perceptions and understanding change. She lists images that she once found ugly and therefore hurtful: “a bar, an alley, a tar roof.” However, it is often these edgy, interesting, and ugly images that take on beauty as one ages. They indicate turmoil, but ultimately, metaphysical triumph in the ultimate defeat of the body.
Which is why it is notable that Kwasny decides, early on, to riff off one Novalis’s most famous conceits: that the slaying of oneself is the only true philosophical act. As she notes later in the book, “All are candidates / and all, of course, will die.” It is important to remember this, but in the meantime death is seen as a return, “the myth that we can go back again.” Does the urge to die stem from despair, from the overwhelming urge to know, or from the urge to fuse oneself with the universal mind? Could it be any combination of these? Is such a notion quantifiable at all? Of course, Kwasny comes to no perfect solutions or explanations, but she offers some key questions, arriving most convincingly at a blend of man (as animal), mind and nature: “When I broke with the earth, in grief, the animals still gathered.” Comforting. Sagacious.