(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 33.)
By Jack Phillips
It is an easy walk down to the East Nishnabotna. The mowed path of ground ivy, darling of English gardens and planted by newcomers wishing Iowa to be elsewhere, makes a footsome cushion and one would go barefoot if the Glecoma were not laced with poison ivy. Asiatic strawberry tasteless in fruit though pretty pervades the path as well. Said Gustaf Sobin of language, never more than the arbitrary imprint of a violated silence. I am sure that applies to feet.
So I try to be foot-soft and like I said it was an easy walk. The redstarts that nest here are always vocal and vireos too. But today a heavy absence startles me. The always lovely cricket-chorus frog-Cope’s gray tree frog chorus is always no more. Alas the conservation area has been improved by the draining of a large wetland adjacent to the path. I feel the deaths of a thousand friends.
I need Sobin more than ever and I almost left his heavily-collected works behind as one who tries to tread lightly and light. At times I have set out to memorize a few Sobin poems but they are hard enough just to read. His use of space spawns a thousand poems between the words and lines and gains weight along the way. They are deeply porous but hard to carry even so.
The heavy clays and thickened rivers of western Iowa are not known to be porous, but the East Nish oddly cuts deep into limestone and deeper even now having been quarried smack in the middle a hundred years ago. It behaves more like whitewater in this stretch than the sandy-mud meanders we love. It is nonetheless fun to climb on down and so we descend, three companions one of them a becoming-barefoot son. And into this cut I carry a fourth, Sobin and his spacey poem:
the body being porous, spoke of
solid, as a
density quilled on
It brings to mind that just a few days ago I told a gathering of MFA students for whom I was guest, that an ecosystem contains countless porous bodies, alive and decaying, through which energy moves. “Therefore, write a porous poem completely free of nouns and punctuation, a poem that actively participates in the energies that produce it. Go into the woods and be back in an hour and we will read them aloud while we pick off ticks.” As it turned out, some found the prompt impossible but all wrote well and some wrote beautifully.
And for some, the act of poetry further integrated them into the wildness of those woods. Poems became place. Given the soft muscles of speech, they took us somewhere wilder as we heard them; light-filled and more open we became on that breezy ridge with bird song all around, oaks black and bur and red. A tiny lizard with a blue tail. Tiger swallowtails and silver spotted skippers. Snakeroot in bloom, desmodium long past flower still bright. And even for some or so it seemed to me, words became quilled densities of wild light. Poem became poet, a body. Did they feel it?
Now perched on a flat place in the sharp rocks a kind rivulet finds my now-become bare feet. I am a body rushed through with finally frog song fading in and out between the bubble and dance and a bird on the breeze. The lightning weight of quilled whisper slips on the thin mud of last-risen waters awaiting coming rains. My son distantly contemplates the properties of liquid earth under radiant heat or so it seems and I dare not interrupt the jabbering faces bobbing by. Our friend studies fossils yonder and soon we will find a small-town lunch. For now I am become a pilgrim lost in a liturgy of pebbles , a mendicant in mourning for lost and lyric amphibians soothed now by lithic faeries on whispered stone.
*Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris blandchardi). Photo by Robert Smith.