Teddy Macker, who teaches in UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, is a precise and sensual observer of the natural world and a committed spiritual seeker. His first collection, This World, explores both the physical and spiritual realms, drawing much inspiration from ancient poets in Latin, Sanskrit and Chinese, some of whom he loosely translates. Macker’s own poems are similarly earthy and agrarian, full of sensuality and ardor, and attentive, precise observations of nature.
But the speaker of these poems is undeniably modern, too— often self-conscious, sometimes troubled; admittedly struggling to embody a Zen consciousness only achieved in small bursts. The poet’s spiritual task is transcendence, through radical acceptance (radical love, even) and profund attention. He works doggedly at this practice; we see how difficult it is. “Into The Garden” closes with this plea: “to let myself in,/ into the beauty of our days,/ as if I am not the terrible one,/ as if I, like everything else, belong.”
The poetic styles in this collection vary widely; alongside ancient works in translation and imagistic nature poems, there are also a number of short-story-like prose poems, some semi-biblical parables, a healthy number of sexy praise poems, and others. This can make the collection stylistically a bit jumpy at times, yet the variety of poetic approaches also lends dimension to our sense of the poet’s internal landscape, as we see him in a range of postures and tones.
Throughout, there is precision and simplicity, and a deep reverence for the essential nature of things— for example, the boulder-ness of boulders: “…Bouldery in the morning, bouldery at midday, bouldery at night when no one is watching./ No politicking, no multi tasking, no hating yourself./ You ford each moment without moving an inch.”
Macker’s attunement to essential natures also brings us gorgeous, resonant metaphors:
I wish the world’s pain
the steady unfleeing eyes
of human clemency.
I wish the world’s pain
the healing sleep of a boy,
suffering from nightmares,
who’s crawled into bed
with his mother.
I wish the world’s pain unstaunchable laughter.
I wish it shade.
I wish it the final roar of an old dragon.
I wish it the sight
of a naked woman
on a naked horse
in the pouring rain.
The sensuality of women is another strong thread through This World— likewise the ancients’— particularly the Sanskrit poets, whom he channels naturally and well. Here, The First Hot Day of Spring: “The odor of jasmine/ sugars the air,/ buds on flame trees/ kindle,/ bees/ gold their combs…/ and sweat gathers in that place/ where a woman’s breasts touch.”
Women from the poet’s life also appear, similarly rendered by the shorthand snippets of precise physical detail: his wife’s “small freckled hands,” her quavery voice singing a lullaby, their daughter’s “gummy smile.” The poet’s appetite for the lush, physical world is well-rendered in this tiny ars poetica:
Like a small bird, a finch,
who pecks at a persimmon
hanging on a branch,
pecks her way inside
the large lush fruit,
Throughout this collection, Macker offers examples from nature as self-evident proof of life’s beneficence: “the dark veils of tadpoles swimming in the ditch,/ the dog sleeping in the shade of the mule,/ the mule sleeping as the afternoon cools, / the boy kissing the girls breasts behind the water tank…” (This World II). Even on a small family farm, there is much to see and praise, like “the last-left coins of light on the floor of the orchard,” an “insect wing nickled with sun,” or “the foggy sweetness of pear.”
But there is pain in this landscape too: “It is another day, and the suffering of this world continues. A mother pig shitting in the chute. A woman dodging stones” (The Kingdom of God). The poet’s task, of course, is to face and name these wrongs, but to “see the bees yet in the lavender/ the spokes of sunlight down through the oaks” (Prayer III). To find, in this world, “the kingdom we’ve been waiting for.”
Macker is sometimes overtly present within the landscape he’s describing, an attentive and purposeful observer, as in Culmination: “… just two owls/ calling to each other, and the oak and pine trees/ dripping. I listened. By God, I listened. Very clearly/ I listened to two owls calling to each other/ in the dripping night, my wife asleep beside me.” This glimpse of Buddhist/poetic practice felt like a tiny documentary.
To read a collection of poetry is to enter into the consciousness of the poet. Sometimes that entry is difficult, but Macker (like a good teacher or an old monk) wants us to penetrate his consciousness, which is brave, reverent, and capacious. He is a little like a Chinese poet who deconstructs being a Chinese poet; who shows us backstage so we see the preconditions of deep attention. He lets us watch him watching, so we might become better watchers ourselves: