by John Lane
Mercer University P, $20 169pp.
John Lane’s Abandoned Quarry records and celebrates over thirty years of his poetry. The book is divided into ten sections, most of which correspond to his single-volume collections, some chapbooks, some books, some collaborative efforts with photographers. Abandoned Quarry also offers a few early poems heretofore uncollected, as well as twenty new poems. This is an ample volume, and the running motif throughout is the natural world: It is clear that Lane’s mind is twined to the earth inextricably, and his love of wild things has inspired some of the most radiant poems written in and about the American South. Anything but myopic, Lane’s work explores and elucidates human issues using, almost always, nature as part of the tableau. These are not landscape paintings—platitudinous appeasers. These poems are true, borne of deep experience with nature and human nature.
The book opens with “Thin Creek,” an early, silent piece punctuated by only a few vivid aural textures, the “spit and hiss” of vines on fire, and the “slap” of a backdoor. The narrator observes his lover’s father working, as well as the earth that surrounds this scene. Early on Lane establishes a vegetal lushness akin to Roethke or Hopkins, full of “honeysuckle, wild rose, Virginia creeper, cedar smells, oaks and poplars.” Here, in the “green shade,” love itself blooms between the narrator and his lover, even as the father works out of sight, perceived by the two through the scent of smoke created by the father’s work, “a thin arm of dark air.” “Thin Creek” proves a well-chosen poem with which to begin this book, for even as it delights in non-human fecundity, it too acknowledges the importance of human presence and tenderness, themes that run the course of the collection.
Lane is a deft recorder of what most would consider peripheral, tertiary, if they would consider it at all—the “unnoticed verdancy and light,” as he writes in “Walking the Blue Ridge.” Here is a world in which foxes and quail, copperheads and oaks radiate an “animal light” from the inside, a light the narrator sees clearly and to which he is deeply connected.
Lane’s poems are not merely catalogs of earth’s flora, fauna, and episodes of romantic love. The speakers in these pieces long for an acquiescence to and assimilation with the natural world, creating vivid relationships that far outpace standard landscape poetry. In “The River Falling,” standing in a mountain stream, the speaker says, “You know I could be this river, easily / live my life between two places, two women.” To match this, the speaker’s lover responds with a powerful ending I will not spoil. However, nature comments just as intoxicatingly: there is a “perfect sadness” of a falling river, and the “wet air hum[s]” and “water” itself needs “something to hold.” Here we have both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic gestures, interplays and intimacies equally dependent on human and otherwise, and the harmony is beautiful.
There is a quiet intensity to the entire collection, a reserved masculine tone sometimes goodheartedly conspiratorial, reflected in the title of the book’s fourth section, As the World Around Us Sleeps. When the world wakes, the speaker is acutely attentive to humanity’s attempts to make life coherent, contained:
Even here, deep in our overgrown
country yard fenced by cedars,
I can’t lose the suburban drone
of a mower making an agreeable
lawn, establishing order.
The mower proves not only to be a petty annoyance, but a catalyst to the speaker’s familial history and the sorrowful resonance it engenders. Slowly the poem sluices the reader through these memories, as well as observations of the present. The narrative is patient in these vacillations, plangent, and lets the earth have its final say, even if the “saying” is wordless:
I stand, reeling
in a small bass to throw back
and the sun disappears.
For a second, the air goes
perceivably still. The mower stops
worrying the evening
with its own pitch of sanity.
The poem ends in a silence much like the eerie soundlessness one experiences upon exiting a dream, a silence that shatters an evocative, vivid, and mysterious world one yearns to reenter. Notice Lane’s careful enjambments, charging each line with its own syntactical coherency, its own significance—“I stand, reeling” connotes the poet’s lack of balance in a natural world freighted with human attempts at order. “For a second, the air goes,” suggesting a breathlessness, until the next line, when one understands that the air has simply stopped moving. “[W]orrying the evening” recalls the speaker’s idea of upsetting natural order, the uncontainable, as well as the overflow of personal and intimate memories throughout the piece.
Lane’s shorter pieces are just as potent as his longer narratives. Here is “Pinelands” in its entirety:
I am not the mouse stunned
in the field, am not the piglet
stone by the snake’s strike
headed north on the still trail.
I listen for the singing tail.
When the snake sings I stop
the way a hawk gliding above
attends the long, summer grass.
My shadow makes palmetto sing:
call me darkness falling over song.
Here nature is imbued with its own poetics, the song of nature’s things, the myriad creatures, cycles, and silences counterpointed by the steadfast susurrus of “darkness,” a darkness that enlivens, emboldens, and revivifies, rather than subdues. “Pinelands” also reflects Lane’s unobtrusive and meticulous use of aural texture—note the sibilance throughout the entire piece, onomatopoetically signifying snake and shadow, wind and grass. Nature’s obligatory violence, caught in phrases such as “mouse stunned” and “snake’s strike” are counterbalanced by the gentleness of “long, summer grass” and “darkness falling over song.” Another short poem, “On Pratt’s Trail,” recalls James Dickey’s early poetry, wherein the narrator wishes to comprehend, intrinsically, that which the human mind can only imagine:
I want to know the sleep
of beasts in a field,
to lie in a ragged grove
and feed the live oak’s hunger.
If insects want me,
let them come.
The speaker is ready to nourish the natural world, to sacrifice his cognizance and corporeal form so that the earth might be empowered, fostered.
In the following section, The Body Poems, Lane demonstrates his tonal range, offering readers relatively surreal explorations of the self. Herein the narrator’s body is in one poem “a deep cave,” in another “the great salt-sea.” In these bodies we find “the deep groove of winter,” “water’s wind,” and “voices like broken glass.” Despite their surreal turns, the poems are coherent, intimate explorations of human relationships and memory; their imagistic leaps do not sacrifice clarity. As in the rest of the collection, nature’s bounty fills the poems’ interstices.
Another heartrending section, entitled The Dead Father Poems, is similar to Lane’s The Body Poems, in that they orbit around a consistent motif. However, these are not poems of interiority, but of ghosting the present with a lost loved one in order to gain some insight, some vestige of understanding about the loss. In these poems, the speaker’s dead father dresses, reminisces, tends a garden, gambles. The last of these poems, in which the dead father rebuild’s the poet’s engine, is poignant: Here the son and father bond most directly, where the father gives son permission to move on: “Then quickly as he came, the ghost foot / eases up on the gas, brakes, his dead hand poking / the button into park, and he hands me the keys.” Though the father will fade again, the speaker passes into manhood feeling acknowledged, encouraged, even if his residual sorrow never fades.
Noble Trees, the ninth section, opens with “Green Memory,” a poem of brusque directives, an urgency to remember, to conjure memory’s greenness:
Go down to where that old white oak
used to be. You know that spot
now open to sun and hot wind,
where shade used to weave some coolness.
Of all the poems in this collection, “Green Memory” is Lane’s most transparent ecocritical statement. Later, the poem introduces the “mall,” “asphalt parking lot,” and “suburb” and counters them with descriptions of the nature that preceded them, in one case “where / that big sourwood drooped white blooms / all June. You know, where the bees / used to buzz, where they made all that amber sweetness”. Two more poems—one involving a persimmon and another, the pine, respectively—are written with this urgency. The rest of the section, while retaining the nearly Saxonic word texture of many of Lane’s other poems, become more passive, observant, and celebratory—love poems for trees.
I will not comment on the new poems in the collection, but will suggest only that they are intensely successful, often stunning. In my hope that readers will acquire Abandoned Quarry, I want Lane’s new work to surprise without my qualification or exegeses, which can only dull the sharpness, spoil some of the surprise. The poems continue to harness nature, and they glow just as radiantly as the poems that precede them.
Abandoned Quarry needs to be in every writer’s library. It is a book that reflects a contemporary speaker in a natural world, where landscape is language, not merely an ethereal medium about which the poet romanticizes, but an uncontainable, wild earth in which the poet is involved. John Lane shares an aesthetic muscularity with writers such as Ron Rash, Robert Morgan, James Dickey, and Robert Penn Warren; his work is often Roethkean and, at times, Hopkinsian. He is a true poet of the earth, and his book is not one simply to read, admire, and shelf. It is one to have on the nightstand, one to bring on a camping trip, one to pack on a hike. It is a book that reminds us that the natural world is an indefatigable source of potential beauty—even when rough, predatory—as well as an endless spring for metaphorical potential for writers sensitive to its texture, its treasures. In a few coteries of contemporary American poetry, the term “nature poem” is tinged with the depreciatory, as though we are past nature (the exception, of course, is if nature poetry is used to further ecocritical studies—a field I respect). However, books such as Abandoned Quarry prove that the natural world will always be relevant in and of itself, will always harness something deep and complex within us, and will always offer us its language if we slow down to hear, savor, and record it.