Nature of it All
Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
Every poetry text and, for that matter, every poet has a different definition of poetry. Using the same words as prose, the poet creates a symbolic work where phrases are images and similes can point to a larger truth. One of the pitfalls every poet must deal with is being categorized, pigeonholed into a subject where their work will languish unless a reader has interest. Mary Oliver, a poet of great depth and ability, is listed by some critics as a “Nature Poet” because of her use of imagery from nature. That categorization is sometimes followed by the stereotype of a poet gamboling through the meadow enraptured by the sound of the thrush or the ephemeral beauty of the butterfly. Unfortunately, such a characterization ignores the basic wisdom of her work as well as how her images from the beaches of Provincetown draw us toward a deeper introspection.
Jeannie E. Roberts’ latest work, Nature of it All, is also a work of a poet-naturalist who observes living things, from bryophytes to snapping turtles. I use the term “poet-naturalist” because of her ease in identifying the organisms populating her work by the poetically daunting Linnaean classification. It is not often that one sees words like bryophyte and Lepidoptera in a poem. Many of her poems have short lines, a difficult structure for complex Latinate and Greek rooted names but she carries this off with an amazing dexterity. There were no stumbles nor any discordant words in any of the poems.
Like Mary Oliver, there is a depth to these poems. The nature imagery, rather than obscuring meaning, creates a framework where the reader can find a commonality with their own lives. In her poem “Birdbath”, a Chickadee hen breaks away from her nest for an evening ablution
“Your feathers flutter, carefree
you call, chick-a-dee-dee-dee!
A simple birdbath yet within the last few lines is the relief of a parent, however momentarily, from the duty of child rearing. It is an easy transition from bird to human, carrying all of the attendant joys of a moment of sybaritic solitude with a leap into song.
Her naturalist’s eye is evident in the poem “Butterfly”. The very first lines of the poem begin with a two double entendras when Ms. Roberts’ narrator refers in astonishment to the “class act” of this “Insecta” flying, fully formed, through her door.
of Insecta –
Anyone with enough of a memory to recall Biology 101 will recognize the Linnaean grouping of “Insecta” as a class of invertebrates. She further describes the butterfly’s development from a vulnerable insect drying its wings to a fully matured Lepidoptera, the order classification of butterflies. She sets up this facile use of scientific descriptors to describe the development of her own life. I do not recall any poet skillfully using the arcana of biological nomenclature to establish a series of metaphors.
In her poem “The Hummingbirds”, she describes this small bird defending territory as if it were a swordsman using “stylized display” to protect his nectar. The comparison is accurate; we see the hummingbird, on one level, as fighting for turf yet the rich description of this fight calls to mind an avian Cyrano fighting not out of desperation but out of enjoyment.
Nature of it All is an absorbing book. Ms. Roberts so successfully combines the discipline of poet and naturalist that it is difficult to see any boundaries between these two areas. The poems are not simple descriptions of her environment. At the center of each poem is the heart of humanity beating in the rhythmic cycles of the life around it. The depth of her poetry can elate and astonish, sometimes within the span of a few lines. This is an ideal book to read this season, while the flames gently crackle in the fireplace and Spring prepares for another grand entrance.