Books in Canada

Cultivator of Wilderness

Eric Miller

In early June I went for a walk with my daughter in Uplands Park, a small remnant of native Garry oak savannah preserved in Victoria, British Columbia. The walk was not long, but our steps were detained repeatedly by the seasonal bowers among wild roses and snowberries into which my daughter, six years old, fitted herself like a happy human breeze gusting from recess to aromatic recess. The world seemed so rich in exfoliation and in the expression of perfume and song that our brief hike took on for me the formal sensuousness of a cultural event.

The poems of Christopher Patton, collected in his first book Ox, are great as Uplands Park is great. What recommends them is a degree of detail commensurate with their subject matter; his verse offers an apt verbal analogue to the plethora of the natural world. And Patton does not simply observe; he imagines; he creates myths, myths that form a fantastical yet plausible penumbra around natural fact.

I’ll confess to being somewhat dumbfounded by the general excellence of Patton’s poetry. It awakens an imitative impulse in the reader, who wants to see as clearly and carefully as the writer. This poetry is like a tart yet euphonious field guide, from whose pages we want to look up with eyes more informed. One gesture that a reviewer will make when confronted with such good work is to name other poets who practise analogously. In various ways, I thought of Marianne Moore, A.F. Moritz, Ted Hughes, Theodore Roethke and Sue Sinclair. I do not assert influence (I doubt there is any, except perhaps in the case of Moore); what I point to is a case of convergent evolution. I thought of Moore when I read Patton’s praise of the White Pine:

                                                And on a rise
                        no one knows who owns
                        grows a stand that escaped, distant-intimate as jazz
to the painter passing a beech tree’s
old codfish-flesh-yellow leaves strung out on wires; he sees
        a sudden miracle of clarity
        in infinite variety.

The sound and sense consort beautifully here; the eye is wide open to colour. The worn phrasing of “a sudden miracle of clarity” could be said to vitiate the passage, but the pleasing rhyme with “variety,” and the originality and accuracy of everything that surrounds it, partially redeems this defect. Better is the extraordinary little allegory that Patton educes from meditation on a hawthorn tree. It deserves extensive quotation:

        A soldier, reflecting
in a ditch, saw through his tears
                what the water’s mirror
                warned. No river
        will bear me away – I squat
steeped in myself. And you have crouched
        so long beside me, staring, that now
                no one will grasp you: your open
                arms have filled with thorns.

        His wood wrist clenches.
His eyes close. Muddied thoughts form
                between the furrowed bones
                the tip of a horn.
        It lengthens – rusty cockspur,
medic’s bloodied needle, dull sword
        turned but not transformed to a ploughshare
                with which he tills thin soil. Guarding
                the dull green bud

        that comes, father blares
blood-red alarms, though his war
                is over. Rose, a cousin,
                visits, but not often.
        After she has cleaned and cooked
for them, she spreads a lurid whorl,
        then full, seeding hips; when he invokes
                a military rationale,
                she slams her farewell.

Note the marvellous mordancy of this little tale, its sword not transmogrified to a ploughshare, its brittle sexual politics, and everywhere the phrasing as packed as a bud, as sharp as a thorn. Once again, the major praise I can supply is to cite analogies. The expert, somewhat vicious hovering between empiricism and fable reminds me of Ted Hughes’s “Thistles”:

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decaying Viking.

Yet Patton’s subtlety – not Hughes’s strong suit – recollects A.F. Moritz. Take Moritz’s eerie, myth-minded “In the Well-clipped Meadow”:

In the well-clipped meadow the dead and living
grew indistinguishable at twilight,
when someone can appear or leave unnoticed
with the changing colours of the air.

Their words were soft darkened coals,
downy ashes gliding on small wings,
whistling above the lawn.
Their king’s huge crown sat on the faceless mountain peak.

Where Patton differs from both Hughes and Moritz is in the remarkable patience that suffuses his work. By contrast, Hughes and Moritz seem rushed, eager to get their lines over with. But Patton seems immune to haste, although there is sufficient evidence of improvisation to enliven his testimonies. What kind of testimony is this? Poetry that devotes itself to agriculture is traditionally called georgic; Patton is, more paradoxically, a cultivator of wilderness. In “The Vine Maple,” for example, he actually dares to sound like a versified tract, an eloquent Vergil didactically celebrating aboriginal North America:

                                        Sites on fire
are later favoured by Douglas fir, from whose needles
                the gold-nubbed chanterelles poke with their undulating
                gills; beneath whose flutings
        of ridged, rough, mud-brown bark the wood, admired
by rained-on Coast Salish as fine fuel, even as it threw
        troublesome sparks, seeped a pitch that soothed wounds and tempered spears,

Usually, Patton does not tame the objects of his attention. Rather, his cultivation is always after the fact – sensuously he harvests what we cannot practically harvest, without resorting to a pernicious idealism. It is as if Patton were so soaked in botany that a vegetable slowness, not sloth but care, accompanied the registration of even the most ephemeral of phenomena, leaves and flowers. Very strikingly, in the context of Canadian poetry, Patton addresses himself to  nature without resorting to banter, to uneasy digression; he does not deliver himself to the sometimes disappointing jollity that can, at times, damage (for example) Don McKay’s otherwise excellent verse. Likewise, Patton draws on Eastern philosophical traditions such as Zen without the slack prosody that often accompanies the incorporation of these traditions into North American poetry. The natural world is both impromptu and organized–otherwise it would not survive. Patton’s work exhibits these features praiseworthily.

Perhaps another reason why his writing is so attentively focused is his drawing on a cosmopolitan fund of reference. He includes informed references to First Nations, but also to Rome. A lovely sequence centres on Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis. What is engrossing in these poems is a will not to judge, a disposition to present the sheer otherness of antiquity. Or, rather, empire and scholarship are judged, but in a voice persuasively accommodated to the period:

A man who heard
of paper there and thought
        to raise for thought a great erection
                set one on a spit
                of land that years of silt
        have borne back round now to shore: a dike
that keeps from the sea a flat,
        insipid, brackish lake.

The voice here is as disillusioned as Cavafy’s and as eclectically educated as Pound’s – but it sounds like neither. It is Patton’s.

Toward the end of a favourable review, it is customary to list a few flaws. I will follow this practice, but without much conviction. Occasionally, the reader may feel that Patton has not earned the aphorisms by which his poems are enriched: the oracular is a difficult register to attain. Also, the patience that I have praised so highly may awaken a hunger for different kinds of risk. Yet this complaint is churlish. Patton has written one book, one great book; other books exist, and to be satisfied forever by one volume is as improbable as imagining my daughter would consent to saunter eternally among the rose and snowberry bowers of Uplands Park on a June morning. But she will gladly return there again and again.

Books in Canada (September 2007)