Thought That Nature by Trey Moody
Sarabande Books, 2014
Trey Moody’s Thought That Nature, winner of the 2012 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry (selected by Cole Swensen), shows a poet moved deeply by the mysterious relationship between Self and world. Take the opening poem, “We Use Spoons, Mostly”:
What this says
about a human, as opposed to, say,
another beast, has everything to do
with electricity and warmth. Through the window
to the backyard, the river crystal-clear
like glass. Like glass? Is it human
to be redundant and to overstate
the obvious? The river, crystal-clear
between the floorboards, under
my feet, and under your feet, and the way we stand may
or may not alter its course.
Already we see one of Moody’s great strengths: here is a speaker who is keenly self-conscious, one who wants to speak but, even more pressingly, wants to make sure he speaks truthfully. And he is a speaker who will not hide his own hesitations and revisions, but rather foreground them—a poignant glimpse into the attempt to say something true. This is not, however, mere narcissism, an obsessive study of one’s own utterance. Rather, this speaker understands that his difficulties with articulation are symptoms of a larger existential state:
When was our last
rain, wasn’t it Saturday, I’m pretty sure?
What memory performs as opposed to,
say, the sounds outside this window. There are
birds, and there are cicadas. There
are cicadas and there are birds and even crickets—
Hello, this moment has just recently passed.
We close our eyes more often than we think.
Let me just say, again and very quickly, one
last time, Hello.
Now we understand the urgency behind the speaker’s need to get the words right: the world is slipping always away. He cannot be sure of something as simple as the last rainfall, or the difference between the performance of memory and the actual world.
And try as this speaker might to be present, the present remains elusive. He repeats to himself the mantra of bird song and cicada song, and even discovers cricket song underlying these—but at the very instant his perception begins to deepen, the moment passes. That is, the birds and cicadas and crickets pass out of the world of experience and into the world of memory, with only these words to recall them. The speaker, too, is caught in this rushing transience: all he can do—quickly, before time runs out—is repeat to us his simple Hello.
The difficulty and importance of truthful utterance is a recurring theme in Thought That Nature. Take “The Fallacy of Perfection,” which opens:
I’m sitting in a chair in the middle of a field,
barely visible through cold fog.
A tattered notebook and a glass of water
lay on the grass, near my feet.
At first, it seems the speaker has managed to attain awareness of the present moment: we are given direct, concrete visions of the space he is inhabiting. Immediately, however, we realize that even this seeming surety is unstable:
Who knows how I got here.
I decide to write about the fog,
which is fog, which is cold, which is
is the one-eyed rabbit I’ve seen before,
running from under a pine.
We are made aware of the questions we didn’t know we’d forgotten to ask. Yes the speaker is in a field—but how did he get there? Questions are built into even the clearest declarations. As the speaker decides to write about the fog (why?), we realize that even this task is impossible: a consideration of the fog moves inexorably toward metaphor. It begins as fog, becomes cold, becomes the idea of concealment, becomes a one-eyed rabbit. When, exactly, did we lose sight of the actual fog? The speaker attempts to turn back to the fog again, but once again drifts into other images, before telling us at last:
I won’t lie to you. It is difficult,
keeping these projections to myself.
I take a sip of water. The grass,
in this fog, is it still green? These words
cannot be helped; they are—and are not—
soaked with reality. Save yourself
while you can. The fog is growing thicker.
This final stanza begins with amusing irony, and moves into philosophical inquiries into the nature of language. That’s all well and good, but Moody’s stroke of genius here is the final sentence: no matter how we philosophize, the fog—real fog? the fog of confusion?—is nonetheless thickening. Whatever conclusions we do or do not reach, that threat remains and gathers strength. A chilling ending indeed.
I do not wish to suggest that Moody glibly dismisses the importance of how we thinkl. Far from it: he shows us the extent to which our thoughts and metaphors shape our relationship with the world. Take “This Forest Isn’t a Room”:
The trees are always laughing down on you.
They bare their branches—you stare at your legs.
We begin in the realm of near-total anthropomorphism. Even though “branches” are different than “legs,” and the trees’ display is different than our self-conscious self-examination, the sonic echo of “bare” and “stare” closely links the actions; these laughing trees seem human. And yet:
The trees and you are different—they have water, continually consume.
They have trunks wider than your body.
Here the speaker stops and refocuses: attempting to free himself from the pathetic fallacy, he tries to engage the trees as trees. But this vision won’t stay stable either:
Their trunks don’t shake when they laugh, you notice.
You cannot remember what your body does
but you believe your body’s not a tree, a tree not a body.
Shake with cold like you shake with cold.
Now we have more knowledge of the trees than the Self, but the trees still laugh like the Self. The separation between the trees and the Self is soon reduced to the level of mere belief, a belief which is immediately undercut even further: the trees and the body are kindred in their shaking with cold. The final couplet only complicates the (dis)connection further:
they shake their leaves like walls in the wind.
From the bare assertion of the trees-as-trees, we move into a bizarre metaphor without precedent in the poem. The trees have been like bodies, but they’ve never been like walls. And what would it mean for a wall to shake in the wind? The metaphor doesn’t quite cohere—and that’s the point. We get the notion of “walls,” implying separation between the Self and the trees—but the walls are only metaphorical walls, and it’s a shaky metaphor at that. Where does this leave us? Are the trees Other, or are they like us, part of the shared suffering of cold? To the poem’s credit, it doesn’t try to force an answer; rather, it shows us the complicated interaction between Self, thought, and world.
Though not all of the poems in Thought That Nature are as successful—there is, for example, a sequence of poems based on language from The Lewis and Clark Journals that is conceptually interesting but lacks the emotional poignancy of these meditations—there’s no question that this is a wonderful book. Its blend of intelligence, urgency, and deeply-felt emotion is irresistible. These are poems that matter.