These Few Seeds by Meghan Sterling
Terrapin Books, 2021.
“Maybe in death we become a collage / of what we have most longed for— / finally you are roots, seeds, earth…” This line from “Memorial at a Japanese Lilac” in Meghan Sterling’s poetry collection, These Few Seeds, gets to the kernel of truth about grief that the speaker in the poem has staged, “arranging flowers for something not imagined.” We don’t always imagine the end of life while we are in the midst of living it. We don’t always plan ahead for the times that will require more of us. We don’t always envision what we will do or how we will react to different experiences. This poem, appearing in the final section of the book, feels revelatory, sitting among poems that evoke familial images of longing, memory, and grief while simultaneously exploring trauma, extinction, and loss in both the natural and human worlds.
Throughout the collection, the speaker’s voice is a constant and consistently assured in its analysis of what it means to live with life’s everyday undertakings while discovering and assigning greater significance to what happens when life begins and ends, (sometimes repeatedly over time), and to be too often inattentive to what we create and destroy between the two absolutes. From the beautiful poem “California” describing “Cherry flames ripping up the sides of whole mountains, / redwood forests ringed in mist,” to the impeccably discerning “Upon Hearing the U.N.’s Report That One Million Animal and Plant Species Are at Risk of Extinction Due to Climate Change and Human Activity” in which “Winter comes later, and the grass / never fills in the front yard,” these poems and others in the collection hew into feelings to extract the sometimes painful sap of certainty from those we love who sometimes love us back by placing crowns of leaves on our heads or those who may never pretend to be cows or squirrels.
Although at times seeming paradoxical, the poems, small narratives of lived experience, juxtapose life and death, love and loss, trauma and healing in lines and stanzas that distill relationships, emotions, or encounters that exist only on the earth, this one planet that humans inhabit. In “Mincha, Afternoon Prayer, Meaning ‘Present,’” the speaker shares this:
We can love this light, this sun,
however brief, our sun, just one among countless stars
that soften into galaxies, showing us that to die
can be more lovely than to live,
that the shell of us will decorate the sky
for eons to come, and be more beautiful for it.
In these lines, Sterling affirms life on earth, how humans leave their marks on the sky and on those they leave behind. Born from personal experience, the speaker admits to the guilt that accompanies the living in “Ferryman,” noting “I have killed so many things with my life. / Cows, chickens, pigs, baby ducks, / a cat, a porcupine, a fetus my body couldn’t keep.” and then in the first line of the next stanza explains that they were “Accidents, but my hands stink of it.” These lines reach out with universal emotion met with a knowing nod of understanding. Life is messy and torturous and doesn’t let us off the hook even when we are oblivious to what we have done by merely living.
The poems in Sterling’s collection reveal palpable fear within the speaker of each poem, fear that names itself in order to free the speaker from its tight grip. With images of fire and flame and an “earth drowned in melt,” Sterling’s poems sere themselves into being with lines of heartbreak and uncertainty. In “Molokini Crater,” the speaker narrates what should be a beautiful memory of proposal but what turns out to be a “premonition of doom.” A gorgeous Hawaiian backdrop, where the speaker sees “the birds of paradise, stiff and orange, / splayed like flaming wings wide to the sky / above the nearby cliff,” becomes what the speaker refers to as “the lie of my life,” with “sharks slow swimming beneath us.” Each poem reveals a bit more of life and what the speaker would like to bequeath to her daughter: “all the courage / of birds and flowers, / water and stones.”
In much the same way that Cathy Song’s poem “In the Clouds, Volcano” uses nature as a compass for human life and behavior in these lines:
The cloud dome diverts the wind
the way a boulder divides a river,
rerouting the occasional car
from turning down the gravel road.
There are many ways to pass through.
There are many ways to exit.
and these, referring to time:
I frittered it away in such
a hurry, the arguments, the hostility,
grabbing at what
I thought would make me happy, so many missed opportunities
Sterling’s poems put nature next to the experience of living a human life and compares their adjacent qualities, knowing that the natural world has the edge when it comes to endurance. Sterling’s speaker in “Celestial Event” knows that when we consider stars, we can only wish we could change things, “these burning forests, these razed forests, / flames ripping across maps / shooting red into the center / of what was once so much green.” and also knows that “the truth of those colors / is black and white ash, and smoke, / skeletons of villages, a child’s toy / scorched in the center of what was her family’s bedroom.” Sterling and Song arrive at nearly the same place with images of “flickering starts” and “wisps of smoke.”
In one of the final poems, “Evening Prayer,” Sterling offers suppositions about what might happen when humans no longer inhabit the earth. The earth might repair itself, “Maybe forests bind their wounds, / come back fuller and greener from the scorch,” or “Maybe the moon / shifts and tides cover the earth, and coral and whales return.” The earth may be a phoenix rising “while mice and chipmunks, sparrows and swallows, / spiders and nearly-clear bugs with delicate wings / peek out from the meek shadows in safety.” A healing prayer for the natural world alongside a sense of finality for the human one.