This lovely chapbook by Catharine Savage Brosman, poetry editor of Chronicles, offers a delightful collection of 20 poems from a small south Louisiana press. Many of the poems feature familiar Louisiana landscape and avian life. All in some way address the underlying ties between nature and art, their metaphysical underpinnings: an order perceivable in natural form and in the work of artists. Mostly in iambic pentameter quatrains with an alternate rhyme pattern (abab), the poems in this 11th volume of poetry by Brosman relate through the symbol of trees, emblems of natural cycles of winter and spring, death and renewal.
The collection opens with “Tree in Winter,” the companion piece to the title poem, the last in the collection. The two poems use similar form, an order the poet’s vision imposes on her subject and observations. Yet that order parallels one found in nature, for
The tree’s deep being orders the design
of root and trunk—no alien intent—
well replicated in each texture, line,
and leaf—implicit as the branch is bent.
These images suggest a beauty of form: the frozen maple’s “gestures—sculpted, fixed in place,” a work of art and the ordained form that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins named its “inscape,” those unique qualities that permeate its being and which the poet perceives. Yet the poet reminds her readers here that this wintry form is also cyclical, a phase in the eternal pattern of winter and spring, destruction and creation, a theme echoed in an image comparing the tree’s “gestures” to “Shiva, who destroys and then creates.”
In “Trees in a Park,” the focus is a landscape photograph, a gift “from English friends.” A meditation on the photograph and the impact of art, the poem suggests how nature and art merge. As Brosman notes, the trees here, like the poems in this collection, are
. . . artistically photographed,
on textured paper, framed and matted, . . .
. . . [and] provide a paradigm
of form and function realized in green . . .
Significantly, it is the poet, the observer of the photograph, who finds this model in nature through an imaginative vision that she imparts in the rich imagery, form, and language of the poem itself. As she concludes,
Imagining a leafy, forest feel,
I let my gaze stroll leisurely, at ease
to verify in nature the ideal,and know why lovers often
That last line serves as reminder to the reader that these are also, on one level, love poems dedicated to the author’s husband and her daughter.
In the tradition of the Metaphysical poets (one thinks of John Donne’s elaborate conceits in his love poems), Brosman finds in “Radish” a form that can be delightfully made into “small roses in a bed of green,” but one that also serves as a conceit for two lovers engaged in intimate consummation:
. . . stem and leaves and root,
two bits of nothingness, but ruddy, whirled,
each act of love inscribing a volute
in coronary rhythm with the world.
“Radish,” moreover, evokes a lighter mood found in several of the poems here that address the subject of food. Perhaps the most humorous is “Portobello Mushrooms,” one of the few poems in this chapbook not in quatrains. The poet here laments that these ugly specimens of fungi are “now in vogue, along with fava beans, veggie burgers, / feta cheese . . . ”
Driven to ask, “Where’s the bello part / in portobello?” she finds this mushroom resembles
some strange, slimy creature living underground, or rather,
in the sea, a cousin to a sting-ray or a jellyfish, a slug
Contemplating these creatures, the poet exclaims: “Good heavens, they’ve got gills!” Yet true to one underlying theme in this collection, the poet seeks some transcendent meaning. Here, having reached a decision to eat the portobello mushrooms “Well-diced and in a sauce with garlic,” she finds that in this way they will not “seem too close to nature” and perhaps her own nature “may be transcended, sublimated, borne beyond itself” and find
. . . yet an ideal—the being of the angels
without appetite, their wings transparent and their
Other delightful food poems in this collection include “Truffles,” a poem in five sestets that focus on the links between the truffle and human sexuality; “Endive,” a poem celebrating a vegetable with various forms as chicory, escarole, and witloof, inviting the poet to word play; “Composition with Broccoli, #2,” which finds a “tableau” of crudités inviting her guests to “compose a world,” as the poet does; and “Watermelon,” another humorous piece in which the poet imagines swallowing a seed and having “melons” grow from her feet.
Implicit in all of these poems, despite their lighter mood, is the sense of some ordering principle in nature, a design in the universe and in experience that the poet attempts to capture in her work. Besides the tree poems, those which best capture this inherent design focus on the subject of birds. “Five White Birds,” in unrhymed sestets, describes the birds visible from Brosman’s New Orleans condo near the Harmony Street wharf on the Mississippi River. In a richness of language evocative of landscape painting, Brosman writes of “the sun” as “a brazier” that “smolders through the crumbling clouds.” But it is the birds, their “sleek forms,” that reveal the import and cycles of nature and time:
. . . So one is, and is not, what has passed,
windy patterns on deep, loamy grasses, stilled
at dusk, a watermark of images upon the mind,
wings beating for a glassy
moment in desire—
a gesture’s meaning as the shaken air resounds.
“White Pelicans,” “Aviary,” “Dove in Water,” and “Yellow-Crowned Night Heron” belong to this grouping. In “White Pelicans,” purpose and order are found in the work life of the Calcasieu River channel in southwest Louisiana with its bevy of “barges, / tug-boats, shrimp boats” and avian life. The pelicans, however, do not “work to other purposes.” Instead, the birds are elegant, and “their elegance is metaphysical,” creating “a totality—a painting, / whole, a dance of being.” This vision the poet translates “into swans of thought,” the poem itself.
A master of meter, form, and imagery, Catharine Savage Brosman captures in this collection the natural beauty and spiritual significance of landscape, birds, and trees, many common to Louisiana and Texas. Each of the poems in Trees in a Park finds a moment of transcendence, a philosophical arc when the reader, along with the poet, recognizes the artistry of nature, whether in a cottonwood tree in Santa Fe or a simple radish, and revels in the insights the poet has discovered in her experiences.
[Trees in a Park, by Catharine Savage Brosman (Thibodaux, LA: Chicory Bloom Press) 31 pp., $15.00]