Wandering Pathways, Scrabbling Claws

Stephen Burt on a geekily magnificent Florida poem by Allan Peterson.

Everglades, Florida.
The Everglades.

Gary Faber/Thinkstock

Adapted from The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary Poems and How to Read Them by Stephen Burt. Copyright © 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

By Allan Peterson

Within the epiphyte, the epigraph of a surviving oak
    after hurricane Erin, I hear claws,

small ones you’d have to describe by scurry instead of climb,

caused by intention, by fear, caused by who knows what,

a patterned self-saving conclusion in the meat-ribbons,

neat as Vesalius, as a Japanese figure of strip-bamboo and grasses
standing on a hill overlooking Hokkaido,

clever and wistful in the eyes.

So much more of the world can fit in by looking down
    the wrong end of the Bausch and Lombs,

and adding the one little wiggle before the s that means possession
at the end of every word. Accretion, flypaper, taking itself

as fact in the interconnection of all things,
    brain meat mediating not greedily, but serene.

It is easy to dream or visit Disneyland, both synonymous

with surreal, and then write outlandishly.

There is plenty around in plain facts stuck to each other,

flying squirrels gliding and scrambling, each finger-needle
    another idea for the bark, a little inward light as in August I dive in.
The ocean glows. I swim to the sandbar, a ladder of illumination,
self-healing lights, a scratchy quote above the waves.

Peterson has spent most of his life so far as a painter and as a teacher of painting: From 1974 to 2005 he taught and ran a gallery at Pensacola State College in northwest Florida. For most of that time he was writing and rewriting poems: All his six full-length books came out after 2000. These lines from his first full-length collection, Anonymous Or (2001)—there have been four since—say how he sees the world: literally how he sees it with his eyes, and also how he interprets the words, inscriptions, epigraphs, that attach themselves, like epiphytes, to its nonverbal images. The same lines say how he interprets the further evidence of hearing and proprioception, and the theories that come to us from the natural sciences, which begin from observations like those Peterson makes on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The underlying action could not be much simpler: Peterson says what he saw and heard after Aug. 3, 1995, when Hurricane Erin required the evacuation of Pensacola and surrounding counties. Then he goes for a swim. But its collection of facts and tropes seems complicated—perhaps awkwardly so. Peterson revels in facts whose relations would not have occurred to anyone else, and in deploying idiosyncratic (if you like it) or unidiomatic (if you don’t) strings of words to relate them: “meat-ribbons”? Andreas Vesalius, the Renaissance anatomist? Contact lenses? The “inward light” of English Dissenting Christianity? Disneyland? Yet these things are all related, in Peterson’s view: The poem will show you how. Peterson’s style emerges from the quietly enthusiastic way that he brings all these details together, while respecting the way that they drift apart.

Epigraphs—not to be confused with epiphytes, epigrams, or epitaphs—may be anything written (Greek graphein) on or above something else, but the term usually denotes a brief quotation from another author that a writer reprints before the start of her own work. An epiphyte is a plant—such as a climbing vine, orchid, or bromeliad (common in this part of Florida)—that grows on or over another plant. An epigraph can conceal, or reveal, an elusive author’s intention; an epiphyte can conceal something with claws, an animal that may “scurry” in search of prey, or away from a predator. Peterson is a poet at home with the natural sciences, though Peterson’s disposition favors not the models, graphs, and equations that nonscientists associate with physics and chemistry, but the ineluctably patient on-site noticings of the life sciences: ecology, organism-level biology, and the study of evolution.

Nocturnal southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans), native to Peterson’s portion of Florida, can be both predator and prey: Their claws and the teeth they are constantly sharpening (by chewing wood) make them easy to hear, though hard to see. The scurry, and the claws, may be said to have a cause in evolution by natural selection, which works on organisms and parts thereof as traditional calligraphers work on Japanese scrolls, imperfectly but with elegance. The triangular leaves of some epiphytes (bromeliads, in particular) resemble bamboo leaves, which in turn resemble ink brushes; the roots and tendrils along the “surviving oak” resemble the muscles (“meat-ribbons”) drawn by Vesalius in his famous illustrated catalog of all the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and other tissues in the human body.

Yet Peterson has written not just a teasingly intellectual, delightfully involuted observation, but a critique of the way that we tend to observe. What if the “self-saving conclusion” is not the behavior of whatever critter the poet has heard, but our own wish to find patterns we already know? If you look at the world the wrong way, you see “much more” of it, but you also make it—erroneously—your own, as if you had added the possessive ’s to everything (rather than, like a good pluralist, a plain s). Even as it explains its observations—hearing the claws in the epiphyte and watching what turn out to be “flying squirrels”—“Epigraph” warns us against overexplaining: There is always “another idea.” We should be like those flying squirrels, flitting from branch to branch, merely “clever and wistful,” or even evasive, rather than overweeningly confident, as we try to make sense of this world before we “dive in.”

Grounded in copious mental note taking, “Epigraph” also—like a patient instructor—tells us deftly what we should not do. Peterson repudiates poetry that does not begin from something—no matter how tiny—observed in the external world; he does not want poems with no source outside one person’s conscious or unconscious imagination. And, like many Floridians, he does not want to hear one more word about Disneyland or Disney World, theme parks whose corporate, synthetic monoculture displaced, or squashed, a diverse organic environment.

Stephen Burt
Stephen Burt.

Blue Flower Arts

Nor does he want to write about anyone’s dreams: Dreams, like theme parks, like doctrinaire surrealism, seem “outlandish” in a pejorative sense, literally taking us out of the land, and the water, where the much more amazing, and less self-regarding, weirdness of nature and of earlier human accomplishments (e.g. scroll painting), reside. The critic Zach Pickard has shown at great length how the poet Elizabeth Bishop (who lived in Florida too, in the 1940s) repudiated surrealism and dream visions for what Bishop called “the always more successful surrealism of everyday life.” “For the surrealist,” writes Pickard, “emptying oneself of consciousness summons the unknown; for Bishop,” however, artistic discovery came from a patient readiness (which she associated with Charles Darwin) “to observe the conscious world.” Peterson sides with Bishop and with Bishop’s Darwin; he might even have had Bishop in mind.

But Peterson does not only refuse—almost jocularly—the anti-scientific hubris of surrealists and theme parks: He also pokes a “finger-needle” at the hubris of some popular science. During the 1980s and 1990s the Harvard-based ant expert E.O. Wilson famously argued for a close fit between genes and behavior, and a close fit between the natural sciences and other branches of human knowledge. He touted the discipline of sociobiology (which claimed that genes and natural selection could explain much of human behavior) along with the notion of “consilience,” which meant that one unified mode of explanation (presumably mathematical and empirical) would eventually tell us all we wanted to know about everything from photons to philanthropists. Wilson’s intellectual opponents at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, were no less committed to Darwinian evolution, but Lewontin and Gould stressed instead the unpredictability of still-evolving organisms and systems, the fact that one set of genes could produce many outcomes, and the truth that (so far) modes of explanation suited to the “plain facts” about one sort of object (photons, say) were not enough to help us explain another. Biology could not be reduced to physics, nor could philately or philology.

Peterson’s poem considers these rival positions: He shows us “the interconnection of all things,” as if to propose a consilient theory of everything, and a “ladder of illumination,” seeing the whole of the coast from the sandbar. (Peterson’s line breaks serve his sentences: The former emphasize the latter’s qualifications and doubled-up shapes.) Those “self-healing lights” over waves also echo a more famous Florida poem, Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West,” in which “the glassy lights … in the fishing boats … Mastered the night and portioned out the sea.” Stevens’ single idea, his graph of lights, fits a charismatic singer, who imposes her beautiful “idea of order,” “fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles” only temporarily upon the world. But Peterson’s Gulf Coast after the hurricane is no fit subject for one big theory. Instead it is a mass of amazing, wiggling connections, fit for partial explanations and endless investigations: There is “plenty around,” here, and always “another idea,” as the poem itself keeps coming up with more and more things to see and touch and hear.

By the time the poem reaches the sandbar, Peterson’s sentences have sided—wittily, wigglingly—with Lewontin and Gould. Stevens’ “Idea of Order” (for a moment), Christian thinkers (for eternity), and proponents of consilience (such as Wilson) treat the world as if it were one poem with one author, whose goals or meanings we could know, or as if it were an organism with one body, like one of the bodies sketched by Vesalius, or like one giant tree. But Peterson’s world isn’t like that: It is more like a tree with other plants growing on it (epiphytes), or a text that includes words written by another author (epigraphs), or fly paper (which can collect many sorts of insects), or an evolving, unpredictable interface between water and land. “The organism is not specified by its genes,” Lewontin insisted, “but is a unique outcome of an ontogenetic process that is contingent on the sequence of environments in which it occurs.” “Evolution is … an historically contingent wandering pathway through the space of possibilities,” and it is still taking place. Not only the vagaries of long-term uncertainty but random single events—a hurricane, say—can throw our models into a cocked hat.

That randomness enters Peterson’s wobbly, almost jocular tone. The poet Annie Wyman, in a generally admiring review of Peterson’s later book Fragile Acts, complained about his overenthusiasm for “snippets of popular science. … There can be something a little gauche in the brick-a-brackery of Peterson’s verse—something a little too wunderkammer-isch, a little opportunistic or even tacky.” We might indeed call his voice gauche, his enthusiasm for facts unmannerly, or unsubtle (“tacky”), or (to use an adjective he might or might not welcome) geeky. But the geeky enthusiasm, the awkward showing off, in these “plain facts stuck to each other” is part of the point. So is the lack of clear and consistent perspective (“the wrong end of the Bausch and Lombs,” a brand of contact lenses). Peterson’s poetry knows what it is about, and it differs from almost all other poetry written by living Americans (especially now that Ammons is no longer with us) in its power to encompass, and to admire, the oddity of facts and patterns of facts from the nonhuman world. Peterson treats these facts neither as symbols for something else human or divine, nor as parts of one big comprehensible pattern, nor as items that must be cordoned off from the meaning-making undertaken by human beings. Instead, they are still changing, still evolving, only partly understood: That is the glory in this view of life, which Peterson relishes as he listens to the tweets, watches the flying squirrels, considers the mixed legacies of human civilizations, and swims out—albeit a short distance—away from it all.

The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them by Stephen Burt. Harvard University Press.

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