Copper Canyon Press

2 posts

Darkness Sticks to Everything: Tom Hennen in Particular

As a Midwestern poet, Tom Hennen is often paired in people’s minds with Ted Kooser. That is, if Hennen is in your mind in the first place. For me, he wasn’t because I’d never heard of him, and while his poetry is, like Kooser’s, plain-spoken, it is also so nature-centric that I cannot in good faith consider these two that similar. Related by geography and style at times, but different, too.

First and foremost, if you crave rapidly-disappearing nature as a topic in your poetry, Hennen is your man. By modern standards where identity serves as the new Garden of Poetic Eden, he is quaint with his love of the four seasons (especially autumn), trees (especially pines), earth (especially its sky) and so much more. This collection, encompassing some of his best work along with some new poesies, includes the early image poems, focused with great specificity on the landscape, as well as his wonderful collection of prose poems covering the same matter, called “Crawling Out the Window.”

If you are looking for comparisons, Hennen’s quiet army of fans are more than willing to provide them. The Ancient Chinese poets. Robert Bly. James Wright. Francis Ponge. The Scandinavian poets Olav H. Hauge, Harry Martinson, and Rolf Jacobsen. Imagery, personification, and folksiness work together to bring big surprises in small packages. As you read Hennen, his poems grow on you like moss on a tree. Slowly.

So let’s look and see, shall we?

Spring Follows Winter Once More

Lying here in the tall grass
Where it’s so soft
Is this what it is to go home?
Into the earth
Of worms and black smells
With a larch tree gathering sunlight
In the spring afternoon

And the gates of Paradise open just enough
To let out
A flock of geese.

Finding Horse Skulls on a Day That Smelled of Flowers

At the place where I found the two white skulls
Sunlight came through the aspen branches.
Under one skull were
Large beetles with hard bodies.
The other one
I didn’t move.
Around them new grass grew
Making the scent of the earth visible.
Where the sun touched shining bone
It was warm
As though the horses were dreaming
In the spring afternoon
With night
Still miles away.

Things Are Light and Transparent

During the fall, objects come apart when you look at them.
Farm buildings are mistaken for smoke among the trees.
Stones and grass lift just enough off the ground so that you can
see daylight under them. People you know become transparent
and can no longer hide anything from you. The pond the
color of the rainy sky comes up to both sides of the gravel road
looking shiny as airplane wings. From it comes the surprised
cry the heron makes each time it finds itself floating upward
into a heaven of air, pulled by the attraction of an undiscovered

The Life of a Day

Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality
quirks, which can easily be seen if you look closely.
But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention
dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred
times more interesting than most people. Usually they
just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, such
as autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or
if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the
lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we want
to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t care to
reach our last one for a long time. We examine each day before
us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking
for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we
are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day
is going by perfectly well adjusted, as some days are, with the
right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze perfumed
from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak
leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meandering skunk.

Like I said, nothing fancy here. Country wisdom by a man who can name things and who sees movement and life in ways that we don’t and in things that we don’t. Like a warm breeze in early spring, it is. If you’re a certain kind of “old soul” reader, that is.

“Go on. Get on, girl.”

This week’s New York Times Magazine poem, selected by Rita Dove, is “One-Way Gate” by Jenny George. I immediately liked the poem, but I cheered even more when I read the brief bio stating that “Jenny George is a poet whose debut collection, The Dream of Reason, was published last year by Copper Canyon Press.”

“Debut” and “Copper Canyon Press” in the same sentence? Very, meet impressive! That’s a top-of-the-line poetry publisher, so breaking through is worthy of all available kudos (“All kudos on deck!” as was once said).

Now back to the poem. As it is, like us, set in January (take a look out your window if you need any reminders), and as it features lines where the speaker looks one way while the cattle look another, one can’t help but think of Janus, the Roman god famous for being two-faced.

Sounds bad, but is he any different from the rest of us, looking both to the past and to the future, regretting on the one hand and hoping on the other? Just don’t tell the Buddhists with their “PRESENT” pennants, will you?

Reading this poem, one can see why Jenny George might catch an editor’s eye. For one, her topic is unique. For another, she has an interesting facility with words and the underlying thoughts that marry them.

For a taste, let’s read “One-Way Gate” together and then run back through the gate because, unlike the cattle, we can.


One-Way Gate
by Jenny George

I was moving the herd from the lower pasture
to the loading pen up by the road.
It was cold and their mouths steamed like torn bread.
The gate swung on its wheel, knocking at the herd
as they pushed through. They stomped
and pocked the freezing mud with their hooves.
This was January. I faced backward into the hard year.
The herd faced forward as the herd always does,
muscling through the lit pane of winter air.

It could have been any gate, any moment when things go
one way and not the other — an act of tenderness
or a small, cruel thing done with a pocketknife.
A child being born. Or the way we move
from sleeping to dreams, as a river flows uneasy under ice.

Of course, nothing can ever be returned to exactly.
In the pen the herd nosed the fence and I forked them hay.
A few dry snowflakes swirled the air. The truck would be there
in an hour. Hey, good girl. Go on. Get on, girl.


In S1, I just love the simile, “It was cold and their mouths steamed like torn bread.” It’s one of those “stops-me” similes. What the…? Torn bread? But wait, I kind of get it. There’s slant rhyme and there’s “slant simile” (and if there wasn’t, I just made it up, so now there is.)

Torn white bread! Maybe circa 19 Wonder-Bread-Three. Like steam “tearing loose” from the mouth in the winter air. Get it?

Then, at the end of the stanza, the herd is seen “muscling through the lit pane of winter air.” Not as high on the Wowzer Scale, but still very nice indeed.

S3, which follows the middle stanza’s more philosophical turn, brings us back to concrete details. It’s one of those deadpan, “life is just so banal, but…” finishes. Nothing spectacular or catchy,  instead going for effect through the sheer simplicity of moving dumb beasts that are juxtaposed to a one-way gate of fate. These poor beasts don’t know the quarter of it (or should I say, the “quarter pound with cheese” of it?).

All that banal stuff only heightens the impact of those parting words: “Hey, good girl. Go on. Get on, girl.” Alas, the time to “get on” comes for all of us, eventually.

Our truck will be waiting someday. As will a market in the sky….