"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Review of Field Knowledge by Morri Creech

*This review originally appeared in Lyric Poetry Review.

Morri Creech. Field Knowledge. London and Baltimore: Waywiser Press, 2006. £6.99 paper (ISBN 10: 1-904130-23-2, ISBN 13: 978-1904130-23-9), 80 pp.

Reviewed by Luke Hankins

Morri Creech’s poetry is unabashedly a poetry for those who read. When he’s not speaking of what seems to be his own life, he invades the consciousnesses of the dead or mythic. In various ways, he conjures Orpheus, Job and his wife, Primo Levi, Giotto, Leonardo DaVinci, Isaac Newton, Blake, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Keats, Marx, Matthew Arnold, and Simone Weil, among others. Field Knowledge, chosen by J. D. McClatchy for the 2005 Anthony Hecht Prize and nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, certainly evinces knowledge of historical and literary fields, and assumes the same knowledge-base for its readers. Don’t get me wrong – I find this refreshing. It seems in no way presumptuous to suppose that those who love poetry love to read. This assumption has only recently fallen away from poetry in a large-scale way. As J.D. McClatchy notes in the foreword, instead of reverting merely to “private memory,” Creech “prefers more amplitude, and draws on a range of classical and biblical allusions, on the choreography of rhetoric, on the complexities of science and nature.” Creech’s poetry, then, is distinct from much of what is written in America today. Yet, for all its learnedness, his poetry is not obscure or “difficult” in the pejorative sense. Creech’s primary field is not myth, or history, or literature – it is the human experience and the human condition. The "field," in fact, is a recurring image in this collection, symbolic of the world in which we all participate, at once physical and symbolic, difficult and beautiful, practical and mythic. The field is the physical world acted upon, emblematic of the human drive to discover and to create significance. “Listening to the Earth,” a poem reminiscent of Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet,” imagines a people who are used to hearing the cries of a biblical prophet, and are, frankly, sick of it. But soon they begin to sense a loss, an emptiness. Here is the final stanza:

                     And in the plain streets we listened
          for those syllables that once conjured the cold,
fathomless swells of Leviathan-haunted seas,
          the fabled bush ablaze on hallowed ground,
                      and snowflakes’ mythic treasuries,
transfiguring our ordinary fields.

The task of the prophet is the task of the poet, the task that Creech takes up in his masterful second collection. Creech transfigures ordinary human fields – physical fields, as in the title poem, and figurative fields, as in “Some Notes on Grace and Gravity” – into messengers speaking specially for us. We would do well to listen, lest we forget the “things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken,” as Richard Wilbur put it. If we attend closely, we may find, as Newton finds in Creech’s book, that even “gravity […] becomes a kind of grace.”

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