Poetry

Carol L. Deering:
“Paper Birch,” “Angle of Incidence,”
and “Wind’s Apology”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Paper Birch,” just eleven lines long, is a good example of the understatement and razor-sharp imagery used to great effect by Deering in her poems to evoke not just the natural world but also its numina. The opening image shows us the way bark peels off birch trees in loops and curlicues as well as the subtle pattern on the surface of that bark, re-imagined as an old-fashioned scroll of music imprinted with staves and spaces representing different musical pitches or percussion patterns. This image sets up the idea of sound, something played against in “hushed” and played towards in “stuttering” elsewhere in the poem. “Hem stitching” does double duty, evoking not just the hatch marks etched on the bark by growth stress and insect infestation, but also things like canoes and perhaps even tourist souvenirs made from birchbark and lashed into place.

What the author is thinking of are those canoes, made long ago by Native Americans and beautifully conjured in sound and action in “the hush / of paddle and canoe.” The dot-and-dash scarring on the bark also reminds the speaker of a “switchblade electrocardiogram.” Notice how the noun “switchblade” here functions as an adjective to impart qualities of something hard, sharp, and quick—that is, to bring a visceral edge of menace into the poem. The device is called anthimeria from the Greek words meaning “against or opposite” and “part.” Rhetoric has long recognized the power of transposing parts of speech, and such usages have become part of the vernacular, as in the noun “book” used as a verb in the familiar phrase “book the flight.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthimeria] At the very least, using a noun (or other word) as a different part of speech makes us take notice, waking us up again to the power of an everyday word.

Notice the oppositions set up in the poem—the “hush” of a moving canoe posed against the crackly stutter of an electrocardiogram, and the natural, living world counterpoised with the world of technology. Imagining the birchbark in the context of music and medical machinery gives rise to a deeper reflection about patterning in nature and technology and the mystery that connects them, imagined as “the stutter of a code / we can’t quite fathom, trace / of wisdom, the paths / we could wander.”

I define sonnets very generously and am tempted to call “Angle of Incidence” one, arguing that the lines in italics (4-11) are a volta that takes the speaker out of the present tense of the poem and into a memory of the past before turning, in line 12, back to the present. But for me, whether a poem is a sonnet is about feel, what the Norton Anthology of English Literature calls “the sonnet experience.” To me, the poem feels more like a fourteener, mostly because of its unusual lineation and also due to its lacking most sonnet indicia like rhyme, meter, traditional subject matter, and stanza structure.

In science or math, an “angle of incidence” measures the deviation of something from the straight-on line of normal horizontal, for example, the slant of a ray of light relative to the earth’s horizon. Playing off its title, “Angle of Incidence” opens in instability and unbalance, a place of “throbbing” that leaves the speaker blurred or “unclear.” The italicization of stanzas two and three signal a change, and we find ourselves foursquare in the memory of a painful parting from someone important to the speaker: a lover, perhaps, or family member or dear friend. The memory concludes with “I longed to disappear,” precisely what the speaker does next. The focus in the opening lines of the last stanza is not on the speaker’s internal musings but on something outside of her, in nature: “little birds on roadside stalks / [that] rise and shiver to a mist.” The poem closes with a return to the speaker, describing the impact of seeing those birds, “shying me to tears.” Used as a verb, “shy” means to draw back or recoil, to retreat before something. But, in another example of anthimeria, the line also asks us to envision the adjective “shy” as a verb, and the result is an action that more subtly communicates vulnerability and self-effacement than could the (somewhat horsey verb) “shy,” on its own.

“Wind’s Apology” is likewise spare but dense with imagery and idea, beginning with a title that uses personification, endowing the wind with human qualities such as the ability to feel regret. Like the birds of the previous poem, the author uses nature as a repository for human—perhaps her own—emotions. I love the image of the wind wrapping ribbon around the house, an example of synesthesia in which one sense (the sound of wind) is seen in the context of another (the visual image of a house tied up in a ribbon). That image has an edge, delightful but also conjuring restraint or constriction, and this way mimics the beautiful but threatening sound of what Deering’s Note calls “the whine and scour” of Wyoming wind. Wordplay puns “rapping” and “wrapping” and trigger the senses of hearing (branches tapping against a window) and touch (suffocation, from “wrapped”). Besides being punning homophones, those two words also slant rhyme with “sleeping” in the next line, sonically tightening the ribbon, and the sense of unease.

What the speaker is describing is a memory of the wind that blew in the past, “last night, and [the night] before.” On this night, in contrast, the wind is, “silent, and sleeping.” Next comes a visual and tactile image to describe the night after a storm, calm and clear as “polished obsidian.” The poem closes with another complex image that invokes more than one sense. “If you could run / your finger around the horizon, / it would sing like a bowl” makes me feel my wetted finger on a bowl’s rim at the same time I can hear that wonderful harmonic hum. It’s often a good bet to end a poem on an image, but when the image, like this one, fires more than just the visual sense, it is especially effective

These poems are from Deering’s new book, Havoc & Solace, a remarkable ode to Wyoming and the American West. Deering’s spaces are vast and intimate, sacred, and inhabited by all manner of wildlife: deer, coyote, cattle, elk, bison, bear, mayflies, a spotted fawn, pronghorn, rabbits, cougar, rattlesnake, lizard, packrat, lambs, wolf pups, and so many birds! Heron, crow, meadowlark, crane, bald eagle, vulture, pelican, starling, magpies, and more wing through poems also abundant with plant life like vines, ferns, fuchsia, daylilies, bearded iris, angel-wing grass, lodgepole pine, and “misshapen / pumpkins in a field.” We feel in these particulars Deering’s fiercely observant love for the land as well as her fear for its future.

These poems of place are highly condensed, imagistic, and devoid of sentiment, cliché, or any sense of straining to sound poetic. I so appreciate Deering’s rigorous restraint and complete absence of poetic self-consciousness! In fact, the self is often effaced in these poems, allowing the speaker’s consciousness to wholly inhabit the nature she so clearly sees and loves. It takes a lot to earn an ending like the one in “Angle of Incidence,” but Deering pulls it off again and again in spare free verse poems that, delicate and vital, often feel like sculpted air. I agree with James McKean, who describes Deering’s work as “poems of witness, wonder, and revelation, poems that rejoice in the act of looking carefully and intensely until ‘all the senses ring.’” If you want poetry that brings you into communion with nature seen through a prism of remarkable clarity and sensitivity, then you will love Havoc & Solace.

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