Review by Carol Derby
THE LAST SACRED PLACE IN NORTH AMERICA
by Stephen Haven
New American Press
2606 E. Locust Street
Milwaukee, WI 53211
2012, 98 pp., $14.95
In The Last Sacred Place in North America Stephen Haven has built a seaworthy vessel, a container ship for everything from Ping Pong to the California Plum, from George Inness to Mark Rothko. I would confidently appoint a number of these poems to dwell in a time capsule to represent the turn of the 20th to 21st century in North America, while others could capably serve aboard some satellite as an introduction to intelligent life on Earth.
But knowing Stephen as I do, I read The Last Sacred Place as a very personal account of what occupies the mind of this poet, and what comes to his attention receives a kind of free association that is nimble and unfettered. Stephen Haven has so many active synapses in his brain that reading his poems is a bit like witnessing a trapeze artist alighting from one neural network to another, swinging from the learned past to the experienced present and back again. “The Longnook Seal” is a poem that revels in this kind of movement — from reading Henry Adams to watching the Deepwater Horizon underwater bleed in the Gulf of Mexico, to Colonial America en route to contemporary Provincetown. With the succession of failures to seal the BP valve off the coast of Louisiana to the seal of the title, the book posits the vulnerability of life on a Cape Cod beach. That all of this coalesces into a cautionary tale about the fate of a civilization bent on plundering will come as no surprise to Haven’s readers. Nor will the high wire attempt for some glimpse of beauty in all of it, which the poem delivers in the last stanza.
While the landscape shifts from the Gulf to New England, from Amsterdam, New York to Ashland, Ohio and on to Chongqing and Beijing ,China throughout this volume, Haven first centers each poem and then casts a wide net around it. There is, in this approach, a constant regard for “the silent power of the periphery” as the poem “Minute Man” puts it. Sometimes this silent power is the human, daily existence in which larger events occur. In other poems, like “Minute Man” the quiet missiles now presided over by the National Park Services are called upon to explain why their destructive silent power should still linger over our human daily existence. This tension between what is plainly, openly happening and what is “off in the shade somewhere” is a trademark of Haven’s poetry and is reminiscent of Auden in “Musee de Beaux Arts”: “…how everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster.”
It took this reader a while to get into the rhythm of this synchronicity in The Last Sacred Place, with the title suggesting we’ll be dropping anchor right there, over the last sacred place and contemplating it, while bobbing on the surface. But this volume of poems refuses to be still. The only anchor for this bounding might be summed up by a line in the poem, “Stole,” which begins in the moment when the poet’s father has died. Starting there, with the stop of a life, sets up some expectation that from there, we can only go backward in time, and remember the man as he was. Instead the poem stays in the active present, takes off into decisions to be made, belongings to be gathered, and when a La-Z-Boy is about to be pressed into service as a modern day litter for the body, the poem offers this:
“Don’t worry, my brother said,/Strange things might happen in this exact moment.”
By way of entry into this heady mix, I had some help. On the same day that I began this book, with its American Buffalo (or, as I have learned to call more accurately, a bison) on the cover, I read an account in the New York Times about a white bison calf that had been born, not on the Great Plains as one would expect, but at a small dairy in Connecticut called Mohawk Bison Farms. That this reported “one in 10 million” event occurred in such a place would likely have resonance for Haven (who also wrote “The Long Silence of the Mohawk Carpet Smokestacks”). It is also just another way I’ve come to marvel at how Haven’s poems tap into the fault lines of American history.
Viewed as a sacred event in the eyes of many American Indians, the Lakota tribe members from South Dakota as well as tribal elders from the Mohawk, Seneca and Cayuga tribes traveled to Goshen, Connecticut to welcome what they understood to be a harbinger of good fortune that had come to an unsuspecting farmer by the name of Peter Fay. It was Barbara Threecrow, an elder from the Naticoke tribe who lives in Hudson Valley, New York, who said “I believe this is an awakening. This is a way of telling people to remember the sacredness of all of life.”
I knew how much Stephen would enjoy this synchronicity of life reverberating with The Last Sacred Place. I wish I’d had some connection to an American Indian who could have invited Stephen to that event, because I trust he would have translated for all of us, as earnestly as he does the Chinese poems in this book, all that it meant to that very sudden community of Goshen and Lakota, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga and Naticoke tribes. As Farmer Fay put it, “I think it’s not coincidence that all this stuff is happening… The country is now in pretty sad shape, so you never know what can help. But for now, I’m just trying to learn about it.”
That birth served me well as an escort into this latest volume of Haven’s. Given its breadth, I’d be willing to wager that upon picking it up, you might just experience your own uncanny encounter with a sacred place that resonates with you, something so silently powerful that might leave you wanting to learn more.
Carol Derby is an unpublished poet who has studied with Lawrence Rabb, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, and Billy Collins. She lives and works in New York City as Director of Environmental Strategy for a prominent textile company. She spends her spare time reading, writing poetry, practicing yoga, and traveling, often back to Western Massachusetts where she was born in 1960.