David Wagoner has had a long, prolific career as a poet, novelist, and editor. In "Landfall," his 12th collection of poetry, one can feel the slow ripening of his outlook and his art.
More than the beauty of single poems, what the reader finds intriguing here is the book's sensibility -- groping, touching, examining, and then releasing the things of this world, weighing experience with language.
"Landfall" presents a five-part journey into nature: cultivated nature, as found in the houses and gardens where we make our "homes"; human nature, the unpredictable social garden; the magnificent chaos of the swamp, with its plants , insects, and wildlife; the rivers and the forests that run from the natural world into the territory of the spirit; and finally the sea.
In his third section, on the swamp, "The exploring and colonizing shapes of a world/Too good at living for its own good," Wagoner uses a meticulous and precise, luminous diction to explore the human role in this drama: What did I hope to find? This crystal-gazingm Brings me no nearer what the mergansers knowm Or the canvasbacks keeping their distance or the snipesm Whirring away from me, cackling, their beaks down-turned,m Heads cocked for my false alarm as they swivelm Loudly and jaggedly into the next bog.m Here among shotgun shells and trampled blackberries,m How can I shape, again, something from nothing?m
Reveling in the unrestrained, unpossessable being of the natural world, he tries to relinquish (even for a moment) his self-conscious, self-doubting isolation. . . . I learn why I came herem Out of order: in order to find out how to belongm Somewhere, to change where all changingm Is a healing exchange of sense for sense.m
For the most part, the poems of "Landfall" are lyrical, unabstract, firmly rooted in America's Pacific Northwest. Mr. Wagoner gives us long flows and loops and spills of experience that run on for what in prose would amount to many sentences.
His style is unpretentious, distinct. It soon becomes as familiar as a friend's voice, but it is not without its shortcomings. He stresses the frequent repetition and permutation of a word. In the weaker pieces, the repetition gives the lines a slackmess, a curious stagnation that saps freshness.
Unfortunately, the least successful poems are the ones that attempt the broadest reach, make the greatest effort to speak explicity about the general questions of living ("Elegy for a Firtree," "The Other," "At Sea"). Perhaps that is just the point: Those unspeakable essences are not easily addressed directly -- at least not in the sphere of poetry -- but are best hinted at, encircled, conjured by spells of language.
And that is exactly what Mr. Wagoner accomplishes when he aims his subtlest craft, his most delicate and precise imagery, toward the smaller moments of living. With subjects like months, algae, and driftwood -- celebrating occasions like "The Death of a Cranefly" or "Sleeping on Stones" or "Trying to Sing in the Rain" -- the poet's descriptive and emotional clarity seeds the reader's imagination with intimations of deep mysteries and revelations.
"Landfall" m akes us hunger to be more awake, more alive, more at peace on our fragile planet. To fuel that hunger is no small achievement for a poem.