“Toward a flower- / ing I came // lowly lupine raised / wrist,” Juliet Patterson begins in “Toward,” the opening poem of her latest collection, Threnody, out last fall from Nightboat Books. And with these few lines, she deftly establishes the themes and sensibilities of her project: nature raised up into inspection, and with it, inspection itself (the wrist). Quiet, patient, yet often with a swarming force, these poems worry the fraught intersection between humanity and nature, where, as we quickly see, threat abides. If nature is a flowering, it is a flowering against the edges of nothingness. “Toward” closes:
how many sights
the hollow and lake
how many transfigure
the ear of my ear and the ghost
of the ear.
Threnody is set against the backdrop of extinction—specifically, Colony Collapse Disorder, the sudden disappearance in recent years of millions of beehives that many scientists link to various human causes and which Patterson has addressed in other activist projects. While bees as a specific species figure prominently throughout the collection, the focus of these poems is often much more fundamental, concerned with nature as a generative force entangled with the human mind and its impulse to make both images and language. This relationship between human subject and nature is primordial and immediately hinges on implicit questions about human agency and responsibility. “What light is like this?” Patterson writes in the title poem:
What answers and rises
in our hand?
The shimmering plain
half in, half out of time.
Hands, wrists, legs, ankles: while the human subject is an explicit theme in these poems, the human figure is only ever barely drawn through the spare sketches of our limbs seen from our locked, first-person perspective. The effect is a kind of elemental humanism in which both physical and intellectual appendages (i.e. imagination and language) are deployed as the first crude (though elegantly used) tools of nature’s rendering within the human psyche. This is strongly established in some poems by a nimble syntax of short clauses that break angularly down the page and often balance tautological repetition, sonic echoes, and smart surprises to rough out the scenes. Here are the opening lines of “White Cedar, Migratory Noon:”
Cold and waxwings.
Waxwings in the
cold some wild pole,
so sky then, new
Patterson’s ear is at once impeccable and exciting, and as she moves through her landscapes this style evolves into more complex image- and sound-work. In “Littoral,” driving, assonant vowels move through thickets of sharp consonants, lending a muscular feel to language as a kind of assembler:
Now: the canted tract of what nature elects—
what the eye, wedging, jams: scallops clamped
in the crude heave of wave
and its countless facets—
image where we lean
With “leaning in” we understand the poet’s vision and language as a form of querying, a kind of existential question conditioned by existence’s constant opposite, nonexistence. The persistence of the subject-framed existential query imbues all of Patterson’s world-generative line-making with an abiding anxiety and sense of fatalism, an overwhelming finitude to which the speaker (and her occasional interlocutor—itself an interesting dynamic) are beholden. The titles of many of the poems in the final section more directly establish the theme of finitude: “Diminished,” “Extinction Event,” or “Elegy.” In this last poem, Patterson’s sonics loosen into a more natural, speech-like prosody, which feels like a kind of resolution:
Someone’s cutting with a chainsaw by water.
The sound of the machine rends its blade in air
that seizes and bends like a tongue probing the jaw’s lonely holes.
When the work is done, everything falls silent.
By then, we are walking the lake’s shore, slung with leaves,
thinking we might be grinding down
yesterday’s grief in a crush of twigs
blunted like the end of a sentence.
These lines bring us one of the fullest senses of the poet as a person, and it is here, too, that we might better view the rest of the collection within the context of environmental activism—itself a human activity. In an interview, Patterson noted that she “began to think of the poems as a sum of small, unseen catastrophes and more visible political and environmental challenges,” and Threnody encapsulates these paired scales powerfully. Lamentation and activism—even the addressing of Colony Collapse Disorder specifically—are not explicit subjects but rather inherent conditions of these poems. This is—to this reviewer’s mind—one of the strongest orientations to political concerns that poems can have. This is an ecopoetics of witness, a lyrical engagement that might not be suitable for a stump speech but can certainly motivate the private anxieties of caring readers, perhaps toward action, or perhaps toward a more articulated awareness of the era of threat and, especially, frustration that we undoubtedly live in. Returning to the title poem, we find a sequence of lines that give us a bleak but powerful sense of this frustration—of inaction, of the failures of our own sight and imagination—made all the more overwhelming by the simultaneous scales, both tiny and immense, that Patterson so deftly moves between:
on, the heather, the clover,
the juniper bushes, cheat grass.
And into land: water, the river
running into sea, and the sea, open ocean
contracted by a time-scale
of exponential growth,
the hale and the whole, effaced
and on the silent coasts,