In her first book of poetry, naturalist and award-winning essayist Eva Saulitis explores the web of connections between nature, science, language, and the continually opening territory of the self, where all of those topographies intersect and the individual must navigate a course through their beauty, terror, and mystery in order to reach that “far-off country,” a place to which the only map is her poems. In Saulitis’s work, we see the mind of a scientist and naturalist grappling with the deeper nature of the environment—the places that are beyond observing, cataloguing, measuring, or even naming. In her biography, we read, “dissatisfied with the objective language and rigid methodology of science, she turned to creative writing—poetry and the essay—to develop another language with which to address the natural world.” This goal is beautifully realized in Many Ways to Say It, which is evidence of her knowledge of both the natural world and the inner world that it reflects.
Saulitis writes poems that are full of nuance and subtle shades of emotion. She recognizes the “missed pleasure blossoming / at the edge of everything / familiar.” Her poems entice and invite us to see beyond the way science and even religion have taught us to relate to nature and to recognize our own desire to be seduced by its mysteries. In one of my favorite poems from the book, “Maybe I’ll (Go),” she presents this longing as a lover we might try to resist, but who is calling to us from the inside:
There’s a woods in my brain,
I think I know. I don’t know.
There’s someone who goes,
and she’s not me. She leaves
the bucket under the tree,
follows the tracks he’s trampled for her
in the decomposing snow.
Saulitis’s imagining of this shadow world, this unnamable place we can only find in ourselves, is haunting, erotic, and irresistible. She seems to be telling us in every poem: There is a world next to this world. It is hidden, but, any minute, you could fall into it, so you’d better prepare yourself. When that happens, the things you thought you knew will be of no use and you will have to learn a new way to see, a new way to say it all.
Saulitis is intimate with names of the plants, animals, and minerals that inhabit her surroundings and her poems, but she also knows that those names are often an inadequate way to express the magic under the surface. She recognizes that behind every name is something that cannot be said. This idea is played out in the second section of the book, which presents the character of Linnaeus (the father of scientific taxonomy) as a sort of King Lear figure, taken up with nomenclature and sexual classification (“As he looked // he touched. As he touched he named. As he named everything / changed.”), which, Saulitis seems to suggest, is a kind of madness. She writes, “Winter will / confound you, nature’s butcher’s block / unman the names and ranks.” Nature does not know nor need our names. Each thing is only itself:
No, adamant, it’s a pond,
no stranger, it’s nature actual, unnamed,
unmanned, no metaphor, no lure,
a pond drinking in desire
as only water can . . .
Set against Linnaeus is the persona of Cordelia, a daughter who refuses to submit to this vision of the world, to the role she is being asked to play. Saulitis deftly weaves images of domesticity, submission, and wild longing into poems that take the traditional correlation between women and the natural world to a new level. She draws more than the simple equals sign that says both women and nature have been subjugated, boxed in, and brutalized. Instead, she claims the power of that connection: “go girl, disappear / into that leaf-thrash vegetal / mosh-pit, tangled, but with openings, / openings, everywhere:” Ultimately, the Cordelia persona moves past the Linnaeus/father figure and becomes herself that entry point between what we think we know about the world and everything that remains secret and shadowed. She writes:
… I stopped. But my other self, the third person,
she got up. There was a smell like overturned peat. She forgot
all the names. She was tree & she was splayed,
like the fern. Pond and bog flame. Observed, observer, leaf
& lover. She was witness. She was water.
Saulitis forces us to face the edge—the place where our knowledge, skill, and imagined power is going to fail us. The places that are here and now, around and inside us, that we will never know on a rational or critical level. The places we don’t even have words for:
a place where knowing
ends, where language founders,
where the wind carries off all her word
endings. Remember that edge,
ships plunging off explorer’s maps,
& someone’s marked the margin: Here there be … ?
But the crucial part’s worn away–?
Remember? That’s where she begins.
This is the place Saulitis invites us to begin as well. She recognizes that we all live in this concrete world of words and things, of GPS and pollywog, of shrew’s den and feng shui, but that world can’t be the one that we end in. We must move past it, see through it, understand that the deeper we dig, the more is revealed. Everything is saying something and part of our work is to learn that language beyond names and to accept that we will never fully know it. Saulitis writes these poems that are like messages from the dark, lush country inside us, carried by “that nameless bird in the morning.”