[Reviewed by Andrew Rahal]
Hale Thatcher’s collected book of poems (1962-2008), including one verse play in five acts entitled Caves takes on the seemingly limitless inquiry of the natural center in each of us. At times the poems are self-dramatized and flourishing grand claims about our mythic states and new beings, but his poetic genius rests in the conversations he forms with the loud natural environment. Two words that one might use to categorize this collection: “nature poetry” undeniably stirs up a tradition of political sentiment, and throughout this collection, Thatcher does not fail in that perspective. He uses natural landscape not only as a backdrop for his writing, but as a character to develop the politics of his poetry. Oftentimes we hear the folk-like, prophetic voice given to the mountains, trees, and plants and there is no lack of heavy and obscure mystery like the one we find closing the poem “Stillness”
Vast calm envelop the stars.
Silence and calm are shields
for power resting in the deep.
This language becomes frequent, repetitive and the collection as a whole is colored by an intense, verbose and sadly, usual love of nature. Thatcher’s freak-flag flying and relentless style is bound to such rich and grand verse that page after page, a certain numbness overcomes the energy in the language. Though, on occasion, there are moments of restraint which give sharpness to this nature poet’s lyrical bathing. The poem ”The Eighth Day,” does this, approaching both elements of a candid personality and mythic questioning that dodge in and out of Music Crystals:
Over and over I stun my birth,
here in the cornflowers
in the dust,
where a first thin light still
slants among the changing hours,
and words grow, unspoken, sweet,
black apples of the lips.
Music Crystals offers a journey with the naturalist/poet distracting himself through ornate languages while writing at the wall of the supernatural. It is hard to detect any sea-change as the book gives us wave after wave of studies on the natural and supernatural. More easily, one might find exhilarating smudges of gray and dark matter in the water. Thatcher is a poet of place, an American Zen celebrating a wilderness in a world which often forgets its interventions with nature. His poem “Boxcars” takes us as far as we get from the bliss and desire of Edenic settings. We witness Thatcher’s version of a vicious and exposed reality and he offers us a more complicated reminder of what we, in blind human advancement, are perpetually fleeing:
The soot throats of the engines are clearing the way,
It is their lift toward paradise. Another twist
In the rails of fate. The caravans, the thrill,
The animal justice in their red eyes.
As one might take a placid and patient interest in watching a flower’s petals wither and die, the collection opens itself to a call for detachment. In the “The Poet’s Prayer,” a darker voice, a surprising and pleasurable departure in the poetry, confides, “I have waited too long with the skull,/ the chained stallion,/ the branch with no fruit.” I will digress into a sort of logical reading with book: having unearthed and enhanced his relationship with his natural surroundings, the speaker can claim certain and intimate premonitions, tangent to the mortal lens of human perception by which he is trapped. A sound argument Thatcher makes, but any attempt to invest in a singular narrative for this poetry would come up short. It takes a slow voyage through a sprawling vision of supernatural forms and mythic ancestors to arrive at the complex, orderless beauty of his human planet.
There are moments brimming with truth. There seems to be neither lack nor denial of “truth” in everything, but stylistically, as in the course of a life, I cannot say the poetry is even. “Jagged Landscape” is unique in that it comes to terms with a surprise and surrealistic play of perception. “When night buries the blue roofs/ a child floats away inside a balloon./ Cold metal rails of the locomotive where I left you in smoke…” But more notable are un-dropped images and languid revelations of such a repetitive and glory-making nature that overshadow the majority of the three hundred plus pages. Too often, the poems though rich and lyrically gifted as their title suggests Music Crystals, deny a quality beyond an improvised impression. And that seems essential to Thatcher.
His most unique moments are often the places he reigns in a lyrical bent for the clear common stakes we deal with every day. The poem “Caprice” finishes with an almost William Carlos Williams “This Is Just to Say” casual aside on reality: “Undressing in green lake/ our shadows were toys for the sun./ Cracked heart, clay chips on the floor./ I’m sorry for serving our feast on that fragile plate.”
The second to last section of the book inhabits a verse play in five acts. Caves wanders mystically through the lost secrets of an “earth emerged, hungry, elemental, titanic…” The characters, overburdened with titles like Rainbow Man, Rainbow Girl, The Dwarfs and The Trees bring a now familiar color and lyricism to a styled arc of creation- apocalypse- and beyond! Much like the collection as a whole, the celebration of our vibrant and uncertain nature over-ripens and empties itself “in endless, endless…” churning of language and mystical layering. It becomes difficult to digest and easy to discard a verse and politics trapped in this high register of legend.
The troubling fact, not singular to Caves, is that Thatcher rarely approaches a human question through these legends. Rather than breaking down the high myth and high imagery into more consumptive elements, any development of ideas greater than the page are bolted down on all sides to shapes and beauty, or resolved through basic obscurity. Merely covering the surface area, the poetry does not offer the kind of introspection that explicitly attracts us to wilderness.
Thatcher’s repertoire seems to admit unabashedly that the music crystals exist in his forest, and though we might not find them of any particular value (“commodity” is not a word in his dictionary), we are always meandering alongside. Music Crystals suggests as readers that maybe we should be listening for an overture in the language itself, which may be more important than what we were going after, and that kind of deception can be enough to make poetry.