Decades of Nothing Between

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These poems are often about the strange, complex and imperfect mapping of nature—human and wild—onto our 21st century lives.

What a collection! Marianne Boruch’s The Book of Hours is the work of a grown-up, full of gravity and understanding. These poems are sharp reflections, half caught before they’re gone. The words don’t always line up in sentences with conventional meanings, but at the same time, you know what Boruch is getting at, and her insights are worth the attention.

I’ll write a poem down whole–these are impossible to subdivide and get at the sense of them. Perhaps that’s high enough praise of a poet? She’s making things whole and smooth; chopping one up is like slicing into a raw egg.

Take a look at this one, called “To live in the bird guide, the yellowthroat’s”

To live in the bird guide, the yellowthroat’s
down thicket and hedgerow, like any
storybook would have it. And maybe his
witchety witchety witchety is love my life!

Times three. It could be steely: how dare you
and what do you know of migration
and ice. It’s the edge, prime happenstance
between woods and field, most ordinary

tangle of vine into brush. But his new
pause before each overdrive triplet
means some weather’s coming, weather
said secret, with a spike through it.

No. I’m bad weather closing in,
his silence tripped by my noise, my shade.
four seconds of threat. He’s at it again,
his fate to say nothing he says.

Like Wallace Stevens and his “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” this poem rolls around the yellowthroat, and you see why I couldn’t leave off any lines and still make any kind of point about it—as her phrases leave us off balance and looking around corners, “it’s the edge, prime happenstance/between woods and field, most ordinary” we wheel around the stand-off between the yellowthroat and the person—is it right to watch a bird survive for an aesthetic delight? The person’s shadow frightens the bird, even as she loves the bird’s life—and then, in the last line, a reminder how opaque the bird’s meanings and intentions are to the human mind.

Another poem, “In the crosshairs of mystery, they” juxtaposes the viscerally of death—one’s own personal death—beside the conventional phrases, the religion and the hospital IV.

Here it is, complete:

In the crosshairs of mystery, they
say to say: you can let go now (mother,
father, fill-in-the-blank). I know you’re only
holding on for us.
Imagine. But imagine

the body. Imagine only half scenes and flashes,
decades of nothing between. You’re eighty,
in a diaper, everyone too nice, words
fast, too faint, making over the pretty flowers.

How many IVs? How much oxygen?
Our sitting there, our staring—she did let go of that,
the room, the cheap chairs, let go of Mondays, the guy
bringing the host to her from Mass, gravely aware

of his part in the drama, then someone else
entirely when no, she turned away.
Later, how to find her? I tried blurting out.
I tried letting go of the sentence, midsentence.

The poems jump into the air, twists around and land somewhere five feet away, you can see how impossible it would be to quote a line or two for purposes of review. These poems are sophisticated, mature works. I hope, in writing about them, that I don’t give the false impression that I’ve got to the bottom of what they have to offer. They’re often about the strange, complex and imperfect mapping of nature—human and wild—onto our 21st century lives. The nature Boruch has in her crosshairs; sometimes it’s the yellowthroat’s witchety witchety witchety, and sometimes it’s our own mystery.


Catherine Nichols lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More from this author →