A Gathering of Larks
by Abigail Carroll
William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2017.


In “Genesis (I),” the opening poem of Habitation of Wonder, the Vermont poet Abigail Carroll reimagines the Creation:

We read the Word
spoke forth creation, but
I’m not so sure it wasn’t
sung into being.

Whales, for example, emerged from bass lines/deep blue tones, and ostriches from strange improvisations, while elephants …are echoes/ of ancient, sacred chants. The poem ends with

a buzz, a kind of celestial

purr, a note so perfectly
content with itself that
it sparked, became what
it dreamed: a universe.

It turns out that Carroll, a food historian whose delightful nonfiction book, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal (Basic Books, 2013) garnered strong reviews, was simply gearing up for her emergence as an extraordinary nature poet in the tradition of, among others, Wordsworth, Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Mary Oliver.

Her first and second books of poetry, both published within the last twelve months, are not at all similar to one another in terms of form and approach. The first, A Gathering of Larks, comprises forty letters to St. Francis of Assisi, from a variety of correspondents (among them “a reluctant idol-worshipper,” “an advocate for wonder,” “shoe-clad,” “…one who has been burned”). Subjects range from the seemingly commonplace (planting a garden, walking barefoot) to the speculative (an imagined meeting between Francis and Thoreau, a meditation on what Francis would make of computers), to the nature of conflict:

If we had possessions, we would need weapons
and laws to defend them”

you told the bishop, who must have thought you
mad to give up armor,

clothing, furniture, horses, clocks…

In Carroll’s hands, even the most ordinary activities turn out to be, somehow, divine. A missive that begins, The showerhead is broken./I’ve been bucketing water from the faucet,/ladeling it over my shoulders/and hair… concludes, There is something about the breaking/and re-breaking of water/over the arc of the body–/with each downflow/a baptism. The letter is signed, “Rechristened.”

Carroll addresses Francis familiarly, often with quirky humor:

Dear Francis,
I have never prayed in a cave,
but once I ran down a highway before dawn
to encounter God in a particular field.

A trooper stopped me to ask if I was OK,
said someone had called. My sundress
must have tipped them off—not running gear

for sure…

As the letters continue, the reasons for Carroll’s affinity for Francis become apparent. They share a sense of wonder of the natural world. They have no use for materials beyond the basic necessities. They have no use for cant, and no desire for power. Both care deeply about the dispossessed, the shunned, what we refer to as other. Perhaps the most moving letter in this collection addresses Francis’s first encounter with a leper:

I wonder who first saw who—or did he avert
your gaze? they say you kissed that greasy

knob-fingered man

awash with sores, rank as a battlefield strewn
with death. They say, Francis, you kissed illness

itself—

afterward were never quite the same.

 
 

Habitation of Wonder
by Abigail Carroll
Cascade Books, 2018.

In the second book, Habitation of Wonder, the narrator immerses herself in the natural world again and again, sometimes literally: The lake/is a mirror, a question you cannot answer—yet one you choose to enter. She divines the lives of a heron, a red-tailed hawk, a fish, a willow tree, even moss. Often, as in the title poem, she writes in a repetitive cadence reminiscent of the Old Testament:

And the granite was ours, its
rippled grain cool under out hands,
and the granite was a home,
a compass to a home,
the habitation of our wonder…

In fact, there are Biblical references sprinkled throughout these poems, the titles of which include Genesis, Canticle, Creed, Prayer, Benediction. Always, however, they are in service to the pantheistic ethos of the entire work. It is not the church that is transcendent here, but nature itself, as in the poem titled “Hallowed Be”:

O Father, who art in heaven,
     I saw your name:

It was as tall as the oak
     I grew up under,

The bark grooves deep enough
     To tuck my fingers into.

Hallowed was the vine
     circling up the trunk.

There is humor here as well, in poems called “Reading Hopkins at the Auto Repair,” and “Ode to the Passive Voice” (The Rock of the subject is plunged/into the deep pond of the sentence, fished out/by the verb, which the object keeps/or throws back…), as well as in “M is for Mary,” set in Hampton Bays, Long Island: M is for Mary, Mother of God/patron saint of suburban front lawns,/blue-mantled saint of sinners and pinwheels…

Carroll is keenly aware of the suffering, the injustices, the myriad inhumanities visited by humans upon other humans daily. Yet she steadfastly maintains a positive vision throughout. Like a virtuoso pianist performing the Moonlight Sonata, she makes it seem easy. But there is nothing facile, sentimental, superficial in any of these finely-wrought poems. What does come through is Carroll’s abiding sense of wonder in the natural world, for which she is deeply grateful. (In fact, three of the poems in Habitation of Wonder are titled “In Gratitude.)

There is something else here as well, something that flits among these poems, just out of reach, until finally, in the form of the last word of the last poem in Habitation of Wonder, it makes a sweet and gentle landing. The word is grace.
 
 

Andrew Merton

ANDREW MERTON's nonfiction has appeared in publications including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Ms. Magazine, Glamour, and Boston Magazine. His poetry has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Rialto, Comstock Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Louisville Review, The American Journal of Nursing, and elsewhere. He is the author of two books of poetry: Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs (Accents Publishing, 2012) and Lost and Found (Accents Publishing, 2016). His review of The Academy of Hay, poems by Julia Shipley, appeared in GMR in 2016.He is a professor emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire.