Malahat Review

Untitled Review

Theresa Kishkan

The cover of Christopher Patton’s poetry collection, Ox, shows a parting in grass. Something has passed. It might have been the poet: The book’s epigraph, from K’uo-an Shih-yuan, tells us, “In the pastures of the world / I endlessly push aside tall grasses / in search of the ox.” As if those giants might hide in the grass instead of pulling ploughs or carts or walking in endless circles to grind wheat or pump water. Or it might have been the bees, birds, moths, seeds drifting in the wind, and other presences animating the pages. For this is poetry brim-full of life: the natural world is spoken to, and of, with an ardour and decorum missing from much current writing.

The first section of Ox is a series of poems titled for trees. They are as lovely as anything I’ve read in recent years. Patton employs a range of metrical and sensory strategies to take the reader deep into a complex arboreal landscape. The opening poem “Red Maple” describes both the species and its unusual characteristics –“Its red-green / flower: adders’ tongues, flawed / trumpets, baby- / squalls of flower-birds” – and creates a small drama of equine birth and death (the leaves of the red maple are toxic to horses). Listen to the foal in the poem: “the leggy / cluster prancing / under cirrus / celebrates an awkwardness.” The rhythm modulates to capture that moment when a young horse finds its feet, its motion in space. The tongue hastens over “leggy” and “cluster” to be momentarily thwarted by “an awkwardness.” Patton is well-schooled in prosody but his techniques are in service to the poetry: “forms falling through themselves.”

The poet has taken care to keenly observe the trees as biological entities and before they are vehicles of allegory (the old queen of “Weeping Willow” telling her sad tale to those who gather around her, the soldier of “Hawthorn” returned from a war) they are entirely themselves. Every calyx, bark-plate, seed-pod: all as clearly seen as though through a hand-lens, vein, apex and node articulated. Patton’s observant and playful eye is evident in “Hawthorn”:

                                Rose, a cousin,
                visits, but not often.
        After she has cleaned and cooked
for them, she spreads a lurid whorl,
        then full, seeding hips.

From trees we move to a sequence of poems about alliances or relationships in which we overhear fragments of conversation, hanging in the air of the page.

        I was not meant to be
this way.
                    —Not meant to be what way.
—I will show you. I will make a scene
        of it.

The voice in this section is restrained and formal but the material is intimate; a son mourning a mother’s inattention; loss of a lover; the anguish of a soul in extreme pain. I admire how the poet takes the reader into a confidence so that the dialogue extends to this relationship as well:

                                Though you look and glance
        away, you may forget
        about flowering once
only. I am you. I am not
                you. There is no death. Speak! Speak!

The third section of Ox is spoken in the voice of Pliny the Elder. I loved these poems. Phrases from Pliny’s Natural History are woven through them as a richly resonant homage to that quirky observer of both natural and human affairs:

                                Stroked to a charge
                amber draws up dried leaves and chaff;
        carved in human effigy
I have known it to
        sell for more than a man in the prime of life.

Pliny is notable for his sense of story and atmosphere, his insistence that we listen and learn (and suspend our disbelief. He is nothing if not didactic). And to hear that voice in another context, another landscape, as Patton provides in “The Vine Maple” (a native of our own moist coastal forest openings), is a singular pleasure for this reader:

                                beneath the conifers
                leaves arrayed in parallel sun-angling planes that flare
                gold in such deep shade or
        brandish fire-engine reds as fires rage
in fall on open slopes; spreads through regions moist to wet, clear-
        cuts often, and lava flows; wants either courage

        or rain

Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Lone Pine, Jim Pojar and Andy McKinnon editors) has replaced the Natural History here as source but it remains Pliny who directs our attentions.

Patton concludes his collection with a long poem, “Weed Flower Mind.” Constructed of 30 eight-line stanzas, it is a kind of daybook, chronicling time in residence at a Zen monastery. The poet begins with setting:

A nature no one could tell you how to tend.
Brown stalk and cracked pod. Spilt milk, blown seed.
A waste of pain. A leaf-tooth
gnawing the edge of noon.

From there, through each day’s entry, we follow a spiritual journey. From the desolation of the third stanza – “Snot and old weep / crusting on cheek, I quiver in a lit place” – through a difficult attempt to reconcile with a host of visitants (a father, a lover, ghosts of the past), the poet arrives at a semblance of peace:

                        Oh, enough.
Returning, early evening,
with ordinary gifts: carrots,
tomatoes, dill weed, sugar peas in a white
beat-up bucket.

This is a skilled and beautifully-wrought pieces of writing, full of physicality, and with the stanzas fitting together like the flags the poet sets and tests: “Each stone a path. We are not our own.”

Ox is a collection of great originality. There are echoes – I hear Roethke at times (“I kneel. I list to small / promptings: daddy longlegs on a rock”), early Pound in “Underwood” and Patton owes something of the way he moves his lines to Gary Snyder, especially the Snyder of The Back Country. But what fine teachers! And how refreshing to read a poet who has paid attention to the traditions of poetry, both in North America and elsewhere, and who has learned the craft with such excellent care. The K’uo-an Shih-yuan epigraph continues:

lost on the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains
strength failing, vitality exhausted,
I cannot find the ox.
I only hear locusts chirring through the forests at night.

It requires tenacity and insight to learn to give oneself to what is found, the actual ox or the sound of locusts, and to make such poetry of the experience.

The Malahat Review (Winter 2008)