Sunday, September 26, 2010

Reading Novalis in Montana by Melissa Kwasny

In case you are a bit behind on your German Romantic poets, as I was*, here's a brief reminder on Novalis:  he lived in the 18th century, died young, and wrote about the spiritual meaning of life and nature.  One of his most famous quotes is "Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason." 

With this information in mind, I readily enjoyed Melissa Kwasny's book Reading Novalis in Montana.  I assumed it would be an ode to all things in nature, but the book is far more complex than that.  It does discuss the natural world, with a seeming focus on birds, trees, and animal life, yet it also examines the relationship of nature on the human mind.  The questions we ask about nature can be asked about ourselves.  The observations we make often reflect what is in our own hearts and imagination.  She finds a connection between conscious thought and subconscious connections.

In "Sleep Comes from the Flowers", her reflections on what she sees reveals deeper questions.

Three hours the deer sleep, then back to the vowels
of the water, the all-day drowse of mice and grass and owls.
Snow like white dahlias.  Deer curled together like buds.
The ice in the creek cannot bear any more cold
and cracks each night into a thousand mums.  Petal
of the squirrel's lid, closed and safe.  The trees stay awake,
or asleep, as you prefer.  Like me, they take
what is offered them.  But the animals strive, pace the fields
for food or mates.  Do moths sleep together or apart?
Everything with consciousness must sleep, not merely rest,
though bird dreams last nine seconds or less
and fish can sleep while swimming....
The dark blooms in winter on the walls of the canyon.
We achieve our imagination in increments.

Somehow, her choice of mostly one and two syllable words creates a simplicity and a pace that sounds repetitive and quiet, almost like tiptoes in a quiet night.  Yet the words 'consciousness', 'imagination', and 'increments' startle us out of our reverie.  It's as though she awakens us from the quieter thoughts of sleep and dreams to what is in front of us:  the natural world.  It seems significant that she finds motifs of flowers everywhere: in the ice, the snow, the deer bodies, the squirrel's eyelids, and the shadows on canyon walls. 

In "Herbs", she discusses nature's changes and emotional change:

Persephone caught
staring at a flower.  Can beauty be compensation for grief?
     Our own heliotaxis.

Like the robin, for instance, at sunset, atop the high spruce,
     turning its breast to the sun,
or the layering through our lives of a particular herbage,

sweet pine, the prairie sages, the pink-rooted grass-
     the American grass we braid and burn.

Even without belief, we must admit
to a certain sense of holiness, in their green-lit transparence,

in their capacity for light, and how our eyes are drawn to it....

     To be changed internally from afar.

The significance of her words is deepened when you realize (thank you, Google!) that the grasses she mentions (sweet pine, prairie sage, and pink-root) are all herbs used in purification, and found in Montana.  The reference to heliotaxis, which is the way a flower turns toward the light, also demonstrates a turning, or change, accomplished by focusing on light and beauty.  Here the references to Novalis are especially clear.

Again, blogger isn't permitting me to upload a photo, but a link to the book is found here:,shop.product_details/flypage,shop.flypage/product_id,876/category_id,52/option,com_phpshop/Itemid,8/

This collection is meditative, quiet, and appealing for its breadth of topics, all linked in some way from the outer world to the inner heart.
*Actually, I had no clue who he was.
Special thanks to Jessica Deutsch of Milkweed Editions for the Review Copy.

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