By CHRISTOPHER MARTIN
A House of Branches
Wind Publications, 2010
Upon the publication of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse Ray’s prose testament to the rich human history and the devastated longleaf pinewoods of south Georgia, a reviewer for the New York Times declared, “the forests of the Southeast find their Rachel Carson.” A little over 10 years later, with the publication of A House of Branches, Ray’s first book-length collection of poetry, I would add that the Southeastern forests—along with Southeastern fields, rivers, swamps, ponds, marshes and beaches—have found their Mary Oliver.
Ray’s poems, like Oliver’s, are grounded in native observations that lead to breathtaking insights, such as “On the Beach One Summer Night after Hearing the Algae is On.” Here the poet drives along a road wrecked by a hurricane and walks out into the Gulf of Mexico at low tide. “Around us,” she writes,
the Gulf is charged, storm of weeds,
phytoplankton’s riot, water on fire. Around us
mullet dart and flop, comets in bioluminescence,
neon trails through India ink. Splash, glitter, flare.
Dripping, our clothes kindle.
Everything we do makes a mark.
But in stillness we undo, in stillness extinguish
the glowing wakes of Lucifer’s bloom.
Be still, then.
Such stillness is characteristic of Ray’s writing, and in that stillness is room to reflect on the gift of the world. Most of the poems in A House of Branches speak to that stillness and that gift—poems like “Edge of the World,” “Bone Deposit,” “Slave Canal,” “Okefenokee Swamp,” “Sleeping in the Forest” and “The Resuscitation.” These are lovely works, poignant, complex, heartrending as often as joyful.
“The Resuscitation,” for example, is about a woman who collided with a black bear “[o]n a shank of highway that rends / the national forest, where oaks shed / mast into palmetto hammocks and / wild boars root in the wilderness.” The bear’s death-moan “swept the dark, rank swamp, / sliding across roots of cypress, / black tupelo, past cross vine clinging / to planer tree, trembling ghost // webs of spider lilies lifting from / mouldy silt.” The moan reverberated through the swamp, through egret nests, through snake tracks, and then the final stanza comes:
The bear was more than in life
untouchable. At its shoulder
pennywort knotted in ragged umbels.
The woman lay down beside it and waited.
“What to do / with the wild pain?” Ray asks early on in A House of Branches. With “The Resuscitation,” she answers that we abide it, too, so that we might all rise together, people as much as black bears. This is not a sentimental answer, for with her poetry Ray speaks to the ugliness of the world—a world, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, that is “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” Like Hopkins, Ray does not wait with the destructive forces, but with the brokenness. She waits with the bear.
Perhaps my favorite poem from A House of Branches is “Courage.” Here Ray writes about a loon that “floats in the torn silk of summer morning, / placid through mist rising like white fire, a burning water / that holds the new green of hemlock in its light.”
The poet then recalls a time she happened upon a newly killed softshell turtle: “All night it sat in my refrigerator,” she writes. “Next morning, dressing it, I found the heart still pumping, / robust, though every other part lay stiff. Eerily the heart / throbbed, majestic and crazed in my hand.” The poet places the turtle’s heart in a bowl of water where it continues to pound for hours. And she concludes:
Let it not be said that in passing through this world
you turned your face and left its wounds unattended.
Instead, let it be said that when your friends
cut open your chest to partake of its courage,
a loon was calling.
“Courage” is one of the few poems in this collection not directly from the South, but from Montana’s Yaak Wilderness. The common loon does, however, winter in Georgia, and non-breeding adults will sometimes stay longer; I saw one not long ago, in fact, in early April at a polluted lake just north of Atlanta. And the softshell turtle is native to both states and many in between.
I mention this because wild and strong heartbeats are everywhere and I intend to tune my heart to them. I hope when I die that my friends will open my heart “to partake of its courage” and hear the call of a loon, or a Carolina wren, or a red-shouldered hawk, or a great blue heron. And I wouldn’t mind if they heard strains of Ray’s poetry, either, for hers are words to live by.
New Southerner contributor Christopher Martin’s work has been featured in Still: The Journal, Loose Change Literary Magazine, and, most recently, American Public Media’s On Being blog. He lives in Acworth, Georgia, and studies creative writing at Kennesaw State University.