University of Toronto Quarterly

from Letters in Canada

Malcolm Woodland

A more resolutely earthbound animal provides the title and dominant metaphor for another impressive debut, Christopher Patton’s Ox. The ninth stanza of the book’s concluding thirty-stanza poem, “Weed Flower Mind,” gives a good idea of the texture of Patton’s verse:

Crow-tussle over corn stubble. And grasses
at edges: hair bentgrass, soft, nodding bluejoint,
timothy, meadow barley …
(—Wheat, oats, barley, rice, rye.) —Oatgrass;
foxtail barley’s fan of red-brown fur,
alert, at rest, at one. So is it here
I might atone for the mess
of fear I go on in. —Go on or go in. —The possible crosses:

The gardening/weeding metaphor that dominates the poem is adapted from Zen Buddhism; this is the poem of a self that seeks to rid itself of entanglements, atone for its sins, and start with a clean slate or at least a weedlessly “serene, mannered garden” (the beast that provides the book’s title is also a Zen metaphor for the self, and this poem’s eighth stanza has the speaker “pushing aside boundless grasses in search of the ox”).

The process is anything but straightforward; as the preceding stanza indicates, the verse abounds in a rich undergrowth of verbal particulars and phonic thickets; and this density is heightened by such devices as asyndeton, ellipsis (mostly of verbs, but also of subject-pronouns), and so on. And the movement of thought itself is trickily elliptical, with abrupt shifts between present and past, observation and contemplation (sometimes difficult to distinguish); “personal” references that remain deliberately opaque; quick and subtle wordplay (Patton knows his words’ roots as well as his plants’); and so on.

For the reader, then, moving through the poem is like moving through an overgrown garden or through the thickets of the self; the poem’s texture and its difficulties beautifully embody its dominant concerns. It’s a poem that rewards the persistent reader – first, when arriving at an expansive clearing of “earth where a rough unfastening // power moves, wordless and generous, unknown”; and, second (and third and so on … ) when each repeated reading reveals further complexities and marvels of craft along the way (Patton borrows his verse form from John Berryman, rhyming and half-rhyming with ease and point).

This sequence has something of a “confessional” feel to it, but it makes a strangely secretive and opaque sort of confession (as do the poems in the book’s second section); rather than directing the reader toward the life lived outside the poem, the poem keeps us engaged with the complexities of the poetry itself – appropriate, perhaps, to an age that is so uncertain about the transparency and coherence of the self.

Nature functions as a vehicle, too, in the book’s opening sequence, a series of portraits of assorted trees, each one organized around a single, anthropomorphizing metaphor. Personification aside, these poems remind me of Marianne Moore’s in their finely detailed observations of the natural world; their intricate stanza forms and syntax (though the former do not follow strict syllable counts as Moore’s do); their subtle use of unstressed rhyme, half-rhyme, and assonant rhyme; and their striking enjambments between lines and stanzas (sometimes mid-word).

“White Pine” in particular has Moorish adjectival pile-ups (“under the crystal gaze / of borne-up mica-glinting / April snow, a pine-lion-sapling / thrives”), elaborately developed similes (“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”), and, above all, an ethical critique of the Western desire to dominate and appropriate the natural world (contrasted here, as in Moore’s “Virginia Britannia,” to the ethos of Native North Americans). I’m not quite sure what to make of this poem’s close approximation of Moore, but it’s about as good as Moore at her considerable best.

University of Toronto Quarterly (Winter 2009)