by Sean Prentiss
University of New Mexico Press, 2020
In a time when human communities have become more divorced than ever from the natural world, Sean Prentiss’ debut collection of poems, Crosscut, celebrates the binding and clarifying effects of intense intimacy with the forests and rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
This memoir in poems follows Prentiss as he leads a group of at-risk youth: Strings, Sirius, Red, Stacey, Boone, and Shilo, as they enter the wilderness leaving behind their dope, heroin, meth, and alcohol.
Prentiss is tasked to steer these young people toward the completion of building “trails from what others / consider mere dirt.” This is both metaphor and literal. Our poet fills in the gaps between the dam of society’s stream to catch these “delinquents” that often drift into the current of oblivion. So much of trail building is about saving the precious path you carve from the pull of erosion. These youths are precious. Through the weeks of intimate contact—hiking, working, and sharing the warmth a fire can bring—the group cries together, complains together, worries the handles of the tools they wield together, and realizes that as a collective, as a crew, they may “become you & you & you / & me.”
Just like all humans who enter the more-than-human-world, they also must leave behind a language. In the poem “Stripping,” Prentiss asks “What use for the word sink? When might we utter / closet or phone or bank account? These words unneeded / as a third thumb.” The grammar of their shared lives is one Prentiss embodies. He embraces the jargon of a trail crew, the technical names for tools and actions that shape the paths over mountains and along streams. In the poem “Museum of Hand Tools,” after a litany of counting the equipment (tool count), an action taken each day “ensuring / we’ve abandoned none in the brush,” Prentiss confesses that “these tools are nothing without / us, & we are even less without them.”
The reader would also be less without these specific words. In the back of the collection, a glossary of terms is provided for those of us unfamiliar with a bastard file, Pulaski, or hog hoe. Yet Prentiss teaches us how to read the world he writes, a world most readers likely enter with no previous knowledge.
Where we pause at the specificity of a hitch or McLeod, the poem instructs the meaning: “hex nuts, & clutch cover become organs, blood lungs, / joints, mechanical skin. Dogs, we purr, awed by the sharp, / biting pivots. Our round files pause on the one element / that rips apart these forests” (“Dismemberment of a Stihl Chainsaw”).
Prentiss identifies these trails he and the crew laid across Washington and Oregon as “a ribbon leading us deeper” (“Hitch”). Prentiss understands the importance of wildness and wilderness, both of which he has had intimate experience with. While a casual first reading might dismiss this as the worn language of the parallel discovery of the self and the unbroken natural world, a more well-versed reader would be able to find that the inverse of this adventure is also present. This collection not only upholds the traditional narrative of entering the wilderness to seek after spiritual insight, but pushes it further by never fully disconnecting from the human world. Its comforts. Its relationships.
While on the trail, Prentiss falls out of a romantic relationship, an anchor with a severed rope stretching over 2,000 miles. In the poem “Love Song” the pain is heightened by months of living in a tent “without showers or shaving, days without changing hickory / shirt or boxers, clothes faded to rags, stained of earth. / Everything is conceived of rock & dirt anyway.”
But there is still work to do on the trail. As there is always work to do no matter where life is taking place. And after the work of the day is finished, the absence returns, undeterred by how far up the trail one has hiked: “that sleeping bag that no matter how tightly it sheaths / this body never feels like arms, like thin hips” (“Love Song”).
The crew as a whole knows this time in the woods is finite, that eventually they will have to return to the world where they use the words road and mall. From the poem “Enough,” the crew dozes away an evening on the edge of their return to the space of TVs and the constant call of capitalism which can sell all “Except for the peace of dusk, of dawn; they cannot sell us that. That / can only be bought in sweat, in love.”
Some readers might critique Prentiss for not trimming this collection to the most necessary of poems. In the present moment of poetry, the expectation for “all killer, no filler” books often leaves the reader on a single note of intensity. Prentiss’ collection is plump in the best way. The diversity of high-stakes poems, along with more quiet, observational lines mirror a day of trail work. The pain of working a crosscut saw, the rhythm of digging, the long walk back to camp, the sharpening of blades. Each of these actions bring with it a moment that Prentiss is obligated to sing. An elegy in the most complete way, Crosscut is an ode to the death of this time in the woods, and Prentiss doesn’t sacrifice space for compressing its narrative.
The most evident expression of this desire to celebrate the daily and mundane moments of the excursion come in the short, Zen-like poems placed throughout the collection. Obviously influenced by classical Chinese wilderness poets, Prentiss allows the images to stand on their own. The power heightened by their sparseness:
Another Kind of Light
During dawn’s first gasp, I search
toward where I should
glimpse ragged Cascades.
All I see are skeletal figures breaking
from dark earth, returning
the sun its initial light.
Oh, to be a willow beating back
the bruise of night.
While many poets use the “I” loosely—as a form of oneself, a highlighted trait, or their own character—Prentiss, an award-winning memoirist whose first book Finding Abbey won the National Outdoor Book Award, depicts himself in the most vulnerable way. These poems are not poems for the sake of poetry, but for the sake of the people and place that created a joined love in Prentiss. Poems are the medium through which he chose to tell this story, one formed in a world jagged with line breaks.
As a known nonfiction writer, Prentiss is devoted to the art of story, and like any good storyteller, he is discovering new ways to form plot, setting, and tension. Crosscut is a collection bound by narrative. Not individual poems functioning as separate pillars, but each poem helping to complete the whole. Every poem built upon the one before and lifting up the next.
Crosscut will teach you how your favorite wooded paths came to be. What tools were used to carve the steps up the incline, the primitive bridge over the stream. Prentiss will give you the small history of his crew, the people who we hope are still swinging Pulaskis, cutting new trails for us to walk, like the lines of these poems.