Review of John Lane’s “Abandoned Quarry: New and Selected Poems”

by Scott Owens

by John Lane
Mercer University Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780881462418

You really can’t judge a book by its cover . . . front or back. All four blurbs on the back of John Lane’s Abandoned Quarry: New and Selected Poems mention “nature” or “landscape. So, of course, as I started reading these poems I was predisposed towards finding environmental themes. Now, I admire Gregory Orr, Ron Rash, Kate Daniels, and David Lee, the authors of those four blurbs, a great deal, and certainly nature plays a vital role in Lane’s poems, but it’s not exactly the primary thing I experienced or reflected upon as I read them. I may be splitting hairs to some degree, but they’re important hairs to me, and what comes out most strongly from Abandoned Quarry are revelations not about nature per se but rather about human nature and about the relationship of human nature and the larger concept of nature in general. The reader is introduced, for example, to a very empathetic and later ironic understanding of the human proclivity for destruction in “Quarries,” an early poem about what the speaker of Lane’s more mature poems might consider “childish” desires:

Even as a boy I begged to be drunk
on immense stretches of emptiness–
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I longed to grow into a man and work
to quarry the emptiness outward
until all was level again.

Such revelations of human nature continue in what is, perhaps surprisingly given the early nature of these poems, the most memorable section of the book: “Early Uncollected Poems.” The poems in this section are uniquely sharp, each speaker’s perception wide open, uncalculated, unabashed, unrehearsed, and the tone is as much “in the moment” as any poems I’ve ever read. The effect, of course, is that wonderful transportation of the reader that only really good poems can manage, as in the Marxist “Sugar Cane”:

. . . You, the one with no shirt.
The one who shits where he works,
whose machete like a part of your arm
hacks the cane three times. It falls,
stripped of leaves and halved.
You move on. Again, the same motion.
And again the same. Then the gathering and loading.
This all day until the sun drops.
You’ve been at it since dawn.
For your work there is six dollars Belize.

An even more extreme transportation, one not just of place but also perspective, takes place in “Reptiles Teach Him About Hunting: Notes on Catching Crocodiles in Belize,” where the reader sees first from the perspective of the human hunter, “He fixes the croc’s red eyes in his lamp, / whispers, ‘It’s still up,” and then from that of the reptilean hunter:

. . . you
are the croc hunting for pond turtles.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You spark red, stay up,
until the light in you blinks out as buck shot
cracks the tight bone of your skull.

Very different in subject matter, location, and technique, but equally about presence, in fact bringing conscious attention to our tendency to pretend or substitute presence through intellectualization and the denial of difference or uniqueness is “Along the Little Betsie”:

If you are somehow here, so full of joy to have lost
the Little Betsie, you have learned a new skill, to clear
things up, the difference between what is
and what is not, like the river, far from you
which in your indifference you have allowed to be.

Finally, in “Shopping,” the poem from this section that comes closest to fulfilling the expectations established by Orr and the others, Lane grieves the presence that is lost through our submission to the endless cycle of consumerism, the loss of natural man. Even here, though, it is not simply the loss of nature that is grieved, but also the loss of nature within us: “Every purchase a little wildness / goes out of us / and the world gets smaller.”

To some extent, the issue of presence becomes the central issue of the entire book. It shows up quite clearly, for example, in “Seeing Wild Horses”:

If only I could tell you how wildness shows
the space between us and the green world;
how an island is the same island with our
presence, but with that presence we lose
some hope of seeing . . . .

What are the consequences of human presence on the natural world and subsequently on human being? How can the needs of human nature and nature be reconciled? How can the human need for nature continue to be met without resulting in the destruction of nature and the eventual destruction of man? Absent from nature, man suffers. Present in nature, nature, and eventually man, suffer. After seeing a wild horse for the first time, the speaker continues,

. . . I fight
some need to call it from that animal world,
then lose it in the shock of its leaving;
I call this the greed of human caring,
and count all my losses among its history.

As all of these comments indicate, it is not at all the case that Abandoned Quarry’s blurb writers are wrong. They are, in fact, to a large extent quite correct in their characterization of the poems. After all, the environmental manifesto expressed in “Allegiance” is as unarguably clear as that of the Lorax: “I pledge allegiance to the trees– / the green republic of roots, limbs, / and leaves under which I stand.” And in what may be my favorite of the poems collected here, “This Morning You Wake in the City,” the speaker reveals the animus of the natural world in the most urban of settings:

the city isn’t simply city but built-up resins
actions of enzymes, castings of human desire.
so you wake to streets running to water
(still water, mountains across the inlet (still stone).

the yellow taxis are easy to call coyotes.
the signs on tall buildings no more
than the raised tail of a mule deer.

The problem with the prominent and repeated use of terms like “landscape” and “nature” in each of the blurbs is that it invites limited perception of the poems, invites thinking in clichés, and these are not beautiful tree poems or magical-mystical nature poems. Rather, they are poems that look at our relationship with nature and with our own natures honestly, deeply, and complexly, challenging the easy answers to our lives which fail to admit the frequently contradictory, illogical, tragic and plainly ugly sides of human nature and existence. Like the boy in “My Dead Father’s Bypass,” these poems tell deeper, more complicated truths than clichés, platitudes, or generalizations could possibly convey. And on a very practical level, the marketing of these poems as nature poems, wilderness poems, or environmental poems insures that they will be read only by those who least need to read them, those who already find themselves struggling with the challenges of environmental concerns.

Besides, the simple truth is no review, much less a 40-word blurb, stands a chance in hell of fairly suggesting the range, depth, power, vitality, and importance of these poems. Because of those qualities, among the thousands of books of poems I own, there is not a single one I will more often take from the shelf to reread.

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