Abandoned Quarry: New and Selected Poems
Mercer University Press, 2011
169 pp., $20.00
Riffraff: Poems (LSU Press Paperback Original)
LSU Press, 2011
80 pp., $16.95
Queried about the meaning of "landscape," a speaker of 17th-century English would likely point to a burgeoning field in painting, that of natural scenery. In the next century, a reader of Dr. Johnson's dictionary would find that "landscape" could also describe a region or vista, the latter definition implying a particular perspective from which the prospect is viewed. A more scientifically minded Victorian would add this meaning to the list: a tract of land with its distinguishing characteristics, often discussed in terms of shaping natural forces and events. The early 20th century developed "landscape" as a verb—meaning to modify or ornament some patch of ground—and there soon followed that most expensive and back-breaking of gerunds, "landscaping." Our contemporary "landscape," then, yokes two densely populated syllables, referring at once to a natural world that can be seen as well as to processes of perceiving, classifying, depicting, and transforming that world.
If landscape was and still is closely associated with painting, so too it has long been and continues to be the terrain of poets, as recent collections by John Lane and Stephen Cushman show us. Traditionally, landscape poetry has been an art of withdrawal, in which a speaker leaves behind a busy city or highly formal space (such as, for the pastoral tradition, the court) and finds relief in rustic, unindustrialized, more genuinely "natural" spaces. The Romantics taught us to find in these secluded experiences not only beauty and sublimity but also sustaining nourishment—"life and food / For future years," as Wordsworth puts it in "Tintern Abbey." These desires—for escape, for wild beauty, for sustenance—are very much apparent in both Lane's and Cushman's poems. Whether directly or indirectly, however, both collections admit that such a formulation is complicated in contemporary America by the fact that natural spaces are now rarely untouched; few views are free of the signs of the encroachment of modern life. Such circumstances raise an elemental question for poets: what can be made of the landscape now? What poetry is suitable to a diminished or diminishing natural world?
Lane's Abandoned Quarry traverses his three-decade career as a landscape poet, particularly within the green corridor between Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains and South Carolina's Upstate region. The collection bears witness to a recurrent tension between what Lane's speakers desire in and from the natural world and what they actually find in the landscape. "At Cherokee Ford, South Carolina," an early work, exemplifies this tension. Initially enchanted by the sight of a hawk sleeping and waking in the wind, the speaker is soon distracted by "power lines wading in the shallows." The power lines are "transgressions," the infiltration of the world of human industry the speaker has ostensibly come to the ford to evade.
"At Cherokee Ford," however, is not merely or simply the poetry of protest: it is also a reflection on the complexity of human perception. The power poles trigger the imagination: they "could be / Whitman's cavalry crossing the ford." The contribution of Whitman's "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" here is far from uncomplicated. Whitman's poem is full of sparkling imagery that would seem to enhance the scene, and Whitman's influence is described lovingly throughout the collection. At the same time, this "apparition" puts further distance between the speaker and the present scene. The superimposition of Whitman's Union Cavalry on Lane's Southern ford, moreover, suggests again that the poles are intrusions, invaders. At the poem's end, the speaker turns back to the hawk, noticing that "small eddies / of light still [catch]" its "eye." This minimalist perspective is at once attractive to and impossible for Lane's speaker. The landscape cannot be seen straight or singly: the ford confronts Lane's speaker with too many visions, which the speaker ultimately discovers he cannot "balance." Abandoned Quarry describes many such vexing encounters, which are rendered all the more poignant by the sincerity of Lane's speakers' longings for a purer, simpler experience of the natural world.
Lane's landscapes are also haunted by the past. The landscapes are often dotted by discarded objects and forgotten spaces—tires left in the shoals, a graveyard hidden beneath the underbrush—that recall previous lives and visitors. The collection is particularly arresting in its juxtapositions of landscapes as they once existed with their present state. "Green Memory," for example, maps the past onto the present: the poem recalls the ancient trees that once stood where one now finds a mall, a parking lot, the "new suburb." The poem laments the loss not only of the trees but also of the unhurried way of life and lavish aesthetic experiences that the trees fostered. Memory here functions in a manner reminiscent of Wordsworth's model noted above in which natural forms can remain lush, even life-giving, when recollected by the poet. The alarming prospect of Lane's poem, however, is that there may, one day, be no further reservoir from which the speaker or, by extension, the reader may draw fresh images because landscape has become a thing of the past.