Review by Cameron Conaway
SPOKEN AMONG THE TREES
by Jeff Gundy
The University of Akron Press
Akron, OH 44325-1703
107 pp., $14.95
Things in this world can rarely be compartmentalized. Can rarely be defined as one thing. The reason there is a word such as "expected" is because there is always a chance it--whatever it may be--won't happen. The idea that the natural world and our personal lives are interconnected, yet the explanation of this can't be pinned flat on its back and held there, is a recurring theme of exploration in Spoken Among the Trees, Jeff Gundy's latest book of poetry.
"Sometimes you can spray all you want and let the wipers run, but the / windshield just won't come clean" is an example of embodying the unexpected, found in the poem Late Psalm. The line represents the idea that even inventions we have crafted to minimize hassle, to make our lives more comfortable, sometimes will not work when you may need them the most. "Almost free" and "almost comfortable" in the poems Notes toward an Interrogation of Staged Violence and Ode to Luna with Implausible Quotations further the notion that things are often not quite, that even when we feel a certain way or do a certain action, it is so difficult to pinpoint a word--one word--that can do justice in describing it. And so it becomes, obviously to the poet, an itch that is nearly impossible to reach. When internalized, it can very well become a part of life that can only be. Just be: something not fully understood that, as humans, Gundy seems to suggest, we need to admit that our "not understanding" is ok. In Astonishing Details of the Universe, the speaker, speaking perhaps for all animals in the natural world and still grappling with similar ideas: "Too many are neither awake nor asleep," and in February Report on Conditions in the Interior: "I was either too early or too late again this morning, but the sun had me covered." And again portrayed in the poem Signature, or Jonathan Edwards and Joe Walsh Meet in the Electric Brew:
Signing two hundred times in a row will reveal the weak spots in any soul.
What hope can there be for a middle-aged guy who can't make
a decent G or a y that doesn't twist this way or the other?
If I could please myself just once, I'd know what to aim for,
but over and over it's no, not quite.
As has become a trademark of Jeff Gundy's work for many readers, he continues his quest to find meaning and life lessons from the natural world that he can absorb like water--as do the plants he is so familiar with--and carry with him into everyday living. All the while, though, his probing is not just for the sake of. There is the characteristic Jeff Gundy admiration and appreciation for the natural world just as much as there is a questioning, listening and extraction from it. And the extraction need not be only out-of-doors. In the poem, Rules (Observed and Unwritten) for Hot Sundays in the Heart of the Empire the speaker states, "The longer the man on cable takes to answer, the more chance he's blowing smoke," followed by, "The body knows what it needs, though it tends to mumble." Later in the same poem:
The shoreline rocks are parched and pale, but they know it
wasn't always this way and won't be again, and so they pulse with
the same wild patience they bore when people like us were still
learning to flake arrowheads.
Gundy's intimate relationship with nature continues in the poem The Song of the Weed Witch, in which the speaker states, "the air / so damp it's one degree from fog." And in the poem From the Screen Porch he states, "I want to eat the world." Jeff Gundy is indeed in the life-long process of ingesting this world. In a line toward the end of the book, in a poem called Spring Tractates, is the culmination of Gundy's relationship with himself and the world around him:
and how can I worry about the gray in my beard
or soaring Chinese oil consumption or even
the misery and rubble my tax dollars are buying
when the cardinals are showing off
and the mallard sprints toward the far shore
with its green head glowing
and all the hard work happening out of sight?
As a final note, the subtle use of lyrical devices employed by Gundy is just enough to play sweet background music and further the smooth verse. Too often it seems, a poet can become lyrically insensitive and the elements pull away from the depth and heart of the poem. Gundy doesn't let the music overwhelm the poem, but infuse it, like that last pinch of thyme on an already delicious dish.
Cameron Conaway is the Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona.