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Earth in Earth: On Sasha Steensen's Gatherest.

"The dualism of Nature/Society--is complicit in the violence of
modernity at its core."

--Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life

Water, the sentence, fire: in Sasha Steensen's fourth and most ambitious book to date, Gatherest, Steensen asks us to consider the relations between these three terms. We are used to considering fire and water together, of course. Biblical verses and narratives aside (though these are relevant here), recent ecological disasters bring these elements, and their destructive power, close to, if not into, our homes.

But "the sentence," and even more, the sentence diagram whose history Steensen discusses at length, seems at first to belong to a different realm. Written language, though itself elemental to everything we do and are, might seem incongruously placed between water and fire, where life could be said to begin.

William Carlos Williams' great book Paterson pressed up against this preconception as well. Book III of Paterson begins in a library, moves to a fire, and ends in a flood. For Williams, the fire (a devastating real-life event from 1902) offers a necessary cleansing: "the pathetic library...must go down," he writes (123). Similarly, the flood produces a swamp, fertile ground for new (literary) growth: "how to begin to find a shape--to begin to begin again" (140). In Williams, then, the relationship between the natural elementals and human language is largely metaphoric. We "burn" the old and dead. We search the wet muck of the present for the new.

Steensen's book resists metaphorizing destructive or life-giving elements. Instead, by placing language as a theme directly between water and fire, she suggests that human life--which includes sentence-making, story-telling, poem-writing, and digital searching--is always embroiled and embedded within the natural world.

Steensen's first section, titled "Waters," was written for the forty days of Lent. The poems here are sparse, careful, perhaps quiet, but filled with the charged language of spiritual and bodily longing:
when women
open their mouths
and ask

for timely babies
warmth warms
them (24)

And then a bit later: "I put my left ear on the desk / & ask for a poem / nothing arrives" (30).

The "waters" of the title are importantly not external to the body and its longings; rather, water is us, is within us, and surrounds us: "I reach out / my hand / & inside your mouth / thirsty" (7), and:
I get on my knees
a stalk in still water
seems to breathe
seems borne of something
genitals cast upon the sea. (41)

In both of these passages, we are recalled to water's bodily belonging, to our home in and of it. "And the place / was water," writes Lorine Niedecker, a clear precedent for Steensen, "in the leaves and on water / My mother and I / born" (Niedecker, "Paean to Place" 261).

Indeed, the penultimate poem in Steensen's sequence describes birthing, that moment when the human emerges from its first fluid world, when the separation between self and other is not yet complete:
the birthyell
to me
both mine
and somebody else's. (54)

That separation, as this poem makes evident, like the separation of the natural and human worlds, is in fact a myth, and a dangerous one. Steensen won't let us have it, to our or her salvation. As she says later in the book, "I want all wildlife inside me" (91).

The book's middle section, "I Couldn't Stop Watching," is an essay, or more, a series of interwoven essays. Also watery, this section refuses to stabilize, but instead, like a river, transforms as it moves. Perhaps, the better model for this writing is the one that Steensen herself offers: the constellation. "Mole or Twin," the sequence's opening piece, references the tenth-century Arabic book, The Book of Fixed Stars, by Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (happily Steensen reproduces one of the book's illustrations--that of Gemini). "For a long time, nothing came between the poems on water the poems on fire," Steensen begins. And then, "There were poems I thought to write. I returned again and again to The Book of Fixed Stars '(59). Here Steensen narrates the practice of writing: perhaps she believed stars, or space, or astrology the apt addition to a book on water and fire, but that's not what happened. Instead, she tells us a couple of pages later, "with the children in their bunk beds, I think of writing a poem on sentence diagramming" (62). This description of the creative process, whereby one idea shifts mysteriously to another, is central to Gatherest's overall thrust: we are not in control of our mind's desires, we are not in control of our body's. We can only witness and record the "wildlife" inside and outside of us.

And yet, though Steensen does not write about stars, the constellation turns out to be an apt metaphor for the sentence (as well as for the section as a whole). Steensen shows us that sentences are not really, as we imagine them, linear strings of words; rather, they are gatherings. Words signify not in a straight and logical line, but in all directions at once. Steensen visually exposes this multi-directionality of meaning-making by offering us several sentence diagrams, all of which emphasize the free-play of syntax and sound.

Similarly, "I Couldn't Stop Watching" invites us to consider each piece individually while refusing to allow any one piece to stand alone. While sentence diagramming forms the ostensible topic of 10 of the 16 mini-essays (none are more than a page and a half), by way of this discussion, we are introduced to several sub-topics: Gertrude Stein, death, weeping, the little-known 19th Century American poet Jones Very, incest, insanity, Hamlet, Whitman, Olmstead, mothering, sex. These subjects are, however, always in service of the sentences that describe them and always also in service of the section as a whole. Thus while we might seem to drift from the section's main theme, we never really do. Steensen allows us to feel the work of "the sentence" as a way to engage the world's motion and its variety. Through her interwoven themes, we are reminded that the energy that charges through fire is also charging through us and our language, making our minds move in surprising, and often wild ways.

The book's final section, then, "Aflame, it itself made," in some sense chronicles the High Park Fire in Colorado, which took Steensen's parents' home, along with over fifty others. But in fact, the poem only obliquely mentions this event. Rather, it takes "fire" as an overriding theme, exploring its energy and place in the natural/human world:
I stand

in the burning field
look back and see grief

where wheat
won't grow

writes Steensen in one of the poem's most direct references to the aftermath of disaster (97). In other moments, fire is treated as pure force, referred to simply as "it":
it takes the waters
as reins

it follows waves
it holds its own breastplate

it breathes
it sees its

feet stepping forward (102)

In these lines and others we sense Steensen's great respect for fire, how despite its ravages, "it cannot be anything other than / beauty" (103).

As the poem nears its end, words begin to break apart, while the conditional opens but never closes:
if ash
en it rains

a little
on the tinder

if tend
er larval (114)

We get the sense, reading these broken couplets, of cinders falling lightly, of questioning in the aftermath of flame. As in "Waters," we are reminded of desire, or as this poem has it, "long/ing," that state that can only arise out of uncertainty, the place of wonder, of unknowing (115). The poem's (and the book's) final word is, achingly, "serve":
perhaps we'll learn

from this very word

to sing
what we serve (118)

Here Steensen harkens back to one of her epigraphs, the fourteenth-century Middle English poem "Earth Took of Earth" (here in Jorie Graham's translation):
Earth took of earth earth with ill; Earth other earth gave earth a will.
Earth laid earth on the earth stock-still; The earth in earth had of
earth its fill.

This poem, like Steensen's book throughout, reminds us that we are earth--our bodies, our minds, nothing but the earth of which they are made. Floods and fires, sentences and bodies: these are not distinct or opposed forces. Rather, they are parts of a whole, like stars in a constellation. The violence we do to our earth is the violence we do to ourselves; harming one another, we harm our home. And likewise, singing the earth, as Steensen does so beautifully, so unforgettably, we sing of and to one another.

Works Cited

Moore, Jason W. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (NY: Verso, 2015)

Niedecker, Lorine. Collected Works, Jenny Penberty Ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)

Steensen, Sasha. Gatherest (Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2017)

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson (New York: New Directions, 1992;1995)
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Author:Carr, Julie
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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