» Book Review
A Game of Hide-and-Seek with the World
Wild Persistence by Patricia Hooper
University of Tampa Press, 2019
Paperback, 100 pages, $14.00
Patricia Hooper’s fifth book of poems, Wild Persistence, is a beautiful and moving collection, mixing, as it does, dark and light, grief and wonder, and engaging us in her world, which includes the world of nature. Her forms range from haiku with surprising turns to blank verse that is plain and elegant. Her range is unusual—she gives us graceful poems, witty poems, complex ones, and powerful ones.
“Sightings” is a poem that demanded my attention from the first reading:
The world leafs out again, the willow first
and then the river birches near the road
we’re driving down, you in your car seat watching,
for hawks or smaller birds returning home.
Two years have passed since you could walk or stand
alone. The winter-damaged fields are sown,
and there, along the ridge, unraveling,
spirals of song birds, drifts of dogwood trees,
restored to blossom, beauty that breaks the heart.
And you whose spinal cord could not be healed:
you’re lowering the window, looking up
at miles of wings, your face alive with joy.
As we’re drawn into this car drive in spring, a bird-watching trip, the language is quiet, not calling attention to itself. Then those “winter-damaged fields that now are sown” make their entrance. The “you” is the speaker’s paralyzed grandson. Hooper has raised the stakes, and we feel her urgency with the “drifts of dogwood trees,” an injury that “could not be healed,” heart-breaking beauty, “miles of wings, your face alive with joy.” Clear images, deep feeling—the grandson’s wonder and the speaker’s joy and gratitude—this poem is also a gift to the reader in the way it finds beauty in the natural world even in the face of tragedy.
The word beauty sometimes takes a beating in the streets. I met a well-known poet who said in a disparaging way, Nay-chuh poems, as if it were a skin condition he thought had long ago been cured. However, Hooper’s poems go beyond the simple observational nature poem. Often, she starts with the plainest things. For example, in the book’s first poem, “Sketchbook and Journal,” she catalogues items found in her friend Dan’s freezer: “birds found dead along the trail / in snow ruts, autumn’s crevices, the wren / almost mistaken for a leaf.” The poem moves to Dan’s essays, other “sightings, swift details / that can’t be seen in flight, wild, secretive, / a voice, a look, a gesture half-concealed.” It ends with “wing-bars and stripes, the margins of a feather, / what the mind salvages to study later.”
In other poems, Hooper gives us an elegy for a son-in-law, a move from Michigan to the Piedmont, news of a grandson’s accident, a copperhead, nine birds, a spider, and an evening at a country inn. In a sometimes-witty haiku sequence, Hooper says, “I left those three crows, / the last corn in my garden, / and not one thanked me.” In “My Junco,” the bird has hit the speaker’s picture window with its “slate feathers and soft gray throat,” and she buries it by “those Whirlwind anemones / I planted under the oak tree / beside him— / next summer’s wings.” A hopeful, quiet walk-off.
In “August in the Little Field,” Hooper’s speaker addresses us and asks if we have “ever heard of a purpose as clear as this one . . ., the resolute persistence” of this goldfinch that all spring “flew back and forth over the meadow, watching,” then fed her offspring seeds all summer, as if knowing “the fields and their bright design. . . ,” / . . . her faith so simple / I could only wish it were mine.”
Hooper has aptly personified the bird and attached human fate to it. The poet Erin Belieu has said that Hooper’s feeling for nature reminds her of Mekeel McBride, who in fact provided a blurb for one of Hooper’s earlier books: “Craft and vision here, lighting from the inside the most common things.”
Hooper’s vision is complex, and this leads her to take a surprising point of view sometimes. In “Copperhead,” she writes in third-person about this snake about to strike in her garden—“its orange head lifted, / body a silk rope, / the hourglass bands around it like a bracelet.” These images are precise, almost pretty, but this speaker steps back for a shovel, thrusts it down, and the snake hesitates,
not long enough to see the rims of trees,
to see the houses leaning toward the hills,
to see the hills far off, the gray blue mountain,
to see the pink crepe myrtle in the yard,
to see the front porch with its pail of berries,
to see my knees blue-stained from berry picking,
to see the bare skin shining at my ankle,
to see, if it sees at all, the chance before it,
to see what I might see for the last time,
if no one came . . .
This is one of Hooper’s signature moments. The snake, almost outside of time, is allowed its point of view. The gaze moves to the sky, as if to evoke all the things the copperhead will lose. The feeling of distance here is odd, making the world slide sideways. The blank verse—easily readable and at the same time carefully crafted with alliteration, other sound ladders, and anaphora—gives an odd formality to the scene. The idea is complex, the language is plain.
In “The Spider,” we see “blowsy / overblown roses, heavy as hydrangeas,” then an empty spider web “tattered but glistening” in the speaker’s garden. “It’s strange, something dies, and the world stays,” she says. The speaker goes back in her mind to her childhood lake—not to the lake really, but to this moment after she, a girl, has returned to school in the fall and pictures “the dock, the sand’s hard ridges, and the waves still there without me, lapping at the shore.” This memory re-imagined, a frame inside the frame, gives this moment a poignant, unearthly quality.
Hooper has played this hide-and-seek game with the world throughout her previous four books. This strategy of up-close and far-away is a key to her craft and vision. In her first book, Other Lives, we have a surprisingly effective second-person point of view in “A Child’s Train Ride,” where the speaker is able to perceive the child’s thoughts about existence and non-existence. Now in Wild Persistence, we have “In the Clearing,” where Hooper’s speaker sits in the woods after rain, studying the light: “If I sit still enough / by the damp trees, sometimes I see the world without myself in it, / and—it always surprises me—nothing at all is lost!” No matter where she is in her own life trajectory, Hooper seems able to imagine the world without herself and her loved ones.
We also get powerful autobiographical poems mourning a loss, such as “After,” which begins, “After I left your body to be burned . . .” In a matter-of fact way, the speaker catalogues all of the details she has had to take care of. The poem ends with this speaker looking down from a great distance at all of the things in a house, as “if she were looking back from the next world,” an ending which seems to slam the door shut.
Sometimes her humor rests alongside solace. In “Sandhill Cranes,” two birds walk up to her window “in their scarlet caps.” The male sees his reflection and begins dancing: “his wings six feet across, / rose in the air / as he leapt in his black leather slippers, / his coat of feathers, / and pranced like an Iroquois brave to impress his bride.” The narrator expresses wonder and delight at their unusual “bowing and strutting” thinking “it was just in time / that they found their way to the house / in which I was grieving, . . .” gently reminding the reader of the poet’s loss.
There are some very witty poems in this book, too. In the heat of Hooper’s newly adopted South, her speaker says she sometimes thinks of “heroines / in southern plays or novels: sultry, steamy / women whose ways I didn’t understand / before—like Blanche du Bois reclining in a chair, / restless, desirous, half-daft, but barely able / to rise, to lift a hand.”
It’s hard to find any weaknesses to comment on, even beyond the particular aspects focused on here. Although I haven’t discussed Hooper’s poems that address the world’s injustices, they take their place in the story of her poetics and have contributed to the fact that her books have won a number of awards, including the Norma Farmer First Book Award, Bluestem Award, Lawrence Goldstein Award for Poetry from Michigan Quarterly Review, and most recently, for Wild Persistence, the Brockman Campbell Book Award from the Poetry Society of North Carolina. This book deserves such widespread recognition. And, perhaps, a re-examination of how far nature poems can actually take us.