Reviewed by by Jenny Grassl
by Meredith Stricker
Tupelo Press, Inc.
September 1, 2022, Paperback, 86 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1946482723
The most transformative art and poetry can create conditions for something like photosynthesis to begin in consciousness, renewal by way of language and image in the face of devastation. Although words cannot in themselves rewild land, in this collection Meredith Stricker’s lyric poems rewild our relationship to the documented human destruction she presents. However, as she says, “this is not about regeneration, it is about ashes ” Exploring the rewilding of wasteland to thriving ecosystem on sites like Hiroshima and the DMZ between North and South Korea, she assembles the book as a language-landscape collage of texts about change—narratives, quotes from Dante, Rilke, John Hersey, and John Berger—and her poems.
A careful arrangement of parts reveals an inner habitat for searching, a place to grow questions about the nature of our manmade, natural, and spiritual worlds. Are they one and the same? This interior space is framed by chronologies, yet lies open to a cosmos that might be heaven and might be stars. The opening quotes of the book are the last lines of Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. These quotes connect the stars and struggles for attaining paradise to Rewild’s depictions of hellish destruction, the image of “star” functioning in its traditional role as “hope.” Heaven is a great inclusive story for Stricker: “What would you leave out, ” With tempered affection she shows us glycerine, gazelle, safe-house, skin, and this ‘sad empty pen,’ allowed through the gates. “Why shouldn’t I expect paradise in the roar / of a septic tank pump…” Interrogating the particulars engenders larger questions.
This book uses form with the skill of a master storyteller to reveal content. Poems laid out like landscapes, in couplets, and prose speak of the diversity of species in both wilding and rewilding, manmade and organic order, and growth. Simple markings of time become jarring poems: “1948 Hiroshima / 1948 The first shopping mall is built in the U.S.” The collages both contain and are embedded in the fragmentation that is the book’s content—atomic fission, destroyed land, human and animal decimation. “The moon rises outside Barstow: ocotillo, cholla, santolina, / yerba buena.” This note follows: “Dictators’ statues are corralled behind barbed wire outside / the city, a cacophony of fingers pointing into the air— / excess inventory of power in stone, bronze and ferro-cement.” The natural world and the political are pieced together. Dates of events are positioned to lead into wide views of time and space:
1926: Rilke dies.
1929: the cyclotron is born.
Presently the vista enlarges and we float / soundlessly over the water’s surface / seeing ourselves reflected in the uncountable rifts / torn into its clarity.”
‘”Unbuying,”situating ourselves in the “unbuyable,” and disconnecting from the consumer vortex are offered as hope. The last words from Paradiso refer to an experience of “love that moves the sun and other stars.” This action, an enormous effort of human and cosmic upheaval, is of a comparable magnitude to “unbuying yourself. ” Stricker slips witness into her argument that a love we find in nature and the cosmos, we also find in ourselves—”I am burning with animals and greenness / and a burning thing cannot be placed in a paper or plastic bag / cannot be downloaded or barcoded cannot be held only once only this time only wholeheartedly in the risk / of your eyes.”
These eyes burn a fire both ancestral and of the moment, a light suffusing all the collected evidence of ruin and renewal in the book. Stricker asserts, based on environmental evidence, that for rewilding to succeed the human being must be absent. Yet here, a human being is present after all.
I do not think Rewild suggests that love will save the human race. Rather, it brings us to consider that by participating in love we will save love, perhaps contributing to its existence and triumph in the cosmos—animism from an earlier human understanding of the world, wielded against indifference. We can infer the possibility of a universe without mankind. This creates and acknowledges a familiar feeling of powerlessness. Maybe we can’t save anything, yet we can perish loving. Is caring for that big, unknowable outer space of darkness, occasionally illuminated, a consolation for us as humans at the end of our world?
In the section titled “Staring Into the Atom,” Stricker’s poems about Rilke and quotes from his writing about “Bees of the Invisible” are intermingled. The first poem, “Shot List for Rilke,” holds directions for marketing him, and readying him for a photo shoot. “If there is no niche market, put him on roller blades in a snake pit.” Information about Rilke’s insulation from the practical world follows. “Messages Rilke will never receive…” “Little post-it notes of infinity…” For human eyes, staring into the atom is a paradox of scale. We stare into the invisible, smallest world, while staring at a large quantity of matter, say a sheet of paper, about a million atoms thick. As we stare we become invisible ourselves. Science tells us that observers change physical realities, and vice versa. “We are the bees, the zeroes…” “The page erasing as we read.” In “Flame Hive,” the line ” atoms dragged out of their dark beds of matter ” elucidates the science and the dread.
Scale is itself a subject of Rewild.: the unimaginably small size of an atom and the huge capacity for destruction in its splitting. The power of the whole of language and the smallness of an individual word, such as “rose,” are brought to our attention in a discussion of Gertrude Stein and Rilke’s differing voices. The monumental shift of language in poetry is introduced by chronology, including the dates of WWI. The shift took place, word by word, in the work of individual writers. The war was big and world changing, yet took place with the death of individuals. Stories of the author’s grandfather at the Russian front and an uncle shot at the end of the war illustrate this reality. We are led to consider: ruined land rewilds by way of tiny discrete shoots. The familiar miracle of spring follows winter. Multiplying, the seedlings create expanses of meadow and forest. Quoting John Hersey about Hiroshima, Stricker writes: “everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goosefoot, morning glories, and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean, purslane and clotbur and sesame and panic grass and feverfew. ”
“The Thin Line” poem describes a newspaper photo of drowned children in a canal in Lagos, appearing above a thin line dividing it from an ad for a giant silver cocktail shaker for $950.00. The compartmentalization of our perception is presented as an aberration. The tragedy does not touch the trophy. “Heaven would restore our sight. Earthly paradise would dissolve the lines.” “This is earth. This is paradise—how one grain of paradise / looks on a day in January. We are its eyes.” Heaven is described as a rewilding. “Silver is covered / with mud. Mud is covered with silver. The wounded / are cared for and made whole. The dead are washed / and mourned. We would leave nothing out / Not one atom of existence outcast. “ This kind of vision she says, “is no dream”
I wonder, could anyone but the gods be able to survive in such a place? That thin line in the newspaper and the break in consciousness it creates may be all that stands between our sanity and madness—as flawed and distorted as the artificial separation may be. Thwarted by reality to survive this seamlessness, through language we can erase the line without fear. Stricker expertly gives us the capability of the gods to gaze at the whole. We come near comprehension through Rewild, a “grain of paradise,” both on the threshing floor and carried by the wind.
About the reviewer: Jenny Grassl’s poems have appeared in The Boston Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Laurel Review, Green Mountains Review, The Massachusetts Review, Lana Turner, Bennington Review, Best American Poetry Blog, and other journals. Her work was published in a National Poetry Month feature of Iowa Review. Her manuscript Deer Woman in the Dining Room was selected as a runner-up for the Tupelo Press July open reading in 2021. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.