Sunday, August 6, 2023

Coming into Grace Harbor

by Jan Minich
(Broadstone Books, 2023) 

Reviewed by Kate Kingston

With Jan Minich as your guide, be prepared to hike dry arroyos and see their new life, to pause at the pond’s edge and smell the decay of leaves. Be prepared to raft whitewater, meander alongside snowmelt in desert, inhale the canyons first light, and finally break through the fog “Coming into Grace Harbor.” These poems emerge through water, effervescing with a sense of diffusion, condensation, precipitation. They flow from puddle to pond, from canyon to arroyo, from river to ocean, so that one experiences the fluidity of water alongside its gathering force and its ability to reshape everything it touches as expressed in the poem “When So Little is Left.”
    I hear the power of the wind 
    and water in these canyons
    and out alone on Superior
    one last distinct 
    but distant drum,
It’s as if Minich has picked up the thread Henry David Thoreau wove for us on Walden Pond in 1854: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things / which he can afford to let alone.Minich selected this quote to introduce his book which attests to the premise that nature makes us rich, that honoring each of its components whether it be the black-shelled turtles, the wintering elk, or the dragonflies. From juniper, hemlocks, and giant oaks, to lichened rocks or the blue-green shallows, each poem attests to our environmental richness. Yet in all this beauty there is an underlying tension, a deep concern for environmental impact—carbon footprints, global warning—affecting our wilderness as well as ourselves. This tension resonates in the lines “one last distinct / but distant drum,” warning us of the precarious need for caution. In the same poem, he expresses his concern:  

    I think I would like to die 
    before the coral’s all turned white 
    and the last sharks 
    swim between glass walls
    before the last polar bear has drowned
    and the last cougar’s shot,
    more like Heathcliff at his window now
    than Hayduke with his wrench. 

Again Minich picks up threads woven through our literary consciousness by writers who have preceded us as he engages references to characters from Emily Bronte’s  Wuthering Heights (1847) and Edward Abbey’s  Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). Here in 2023, the character is contemporary, a bridge between wildness and what it is to be human. His is a unique, timeless voice that persists through the bedlam of our everyday culture, comparable to the cadence of waves lapping the bow of a boat, waves breaking on shore or scuttling over pebbles. Primarily he appeals to the “silence between waves” to give the reader time to process images that lap at our consciousness. From the last lines in the poem “Following Arroyos” white space between stanzas offers us this silence to pause and absorb a certain truth.    
    we need to know more of the green
    clear-cut for another development
    the junipers we uprooted
    with chains between bulldozers  
    we need to feel for something not human
    to take away our fear of dying
Minich, river guide and naturalist, guides us through current, a steady hand on the pen, his strength anchored in the image, his eye on the surface as he reads the undertow to comprehend what is hidden. This poet’s strength is in his ability to pause and listen, to observe his surroundings in detail, to bring us images that resonate with the voices of nature which he clearly identifies in the poem “Return to Courtland” where he offers us the language of rocks:
    the sudden storms still miles away
    flashing down through arroyos
    the voices of loosening rock
    and rips of being sucked downstream,  
    a dark sound the rocks make
    as they find one another along the bottom.

These poems take us through waterscapes in their seasonal shifting—flood and drought. They take us back to an Ohio childhood of ponds and lakes and onto the waters of Lake Superior. They take us to the San Rafael Swell, the whitewater of the Colorado and Green. Nothing lies still in these poems, not even when “a bell-buoy / at a harbor far away leaves you / with this one last sense / to navigate in the heavy fog.”  This is a voice that walks in solitude, a voice that seeks quiet, speaks through silence, and convinces without argument.

Kate Kingston is the author of five collections of poetry. Her most recent book, The Future Wears Camouflage, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2024. She is the recipient of the Karen Chamberlain Award, the W.D Snodgrass Award for Poetic Endeavor and Excellence, the Ruth Stone Prize, and the Atlanta Review International Publication Prize. Kingston has been awarded fellowships from the Colorado Council on the Arts, Harwood Museum, Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, Ucross, and Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, Spain, among others. Several of her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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