In the '60s and '70s when poets like Gary Snyder, Robert Haas and Robert Bly began to advocate for a poetics rooted in nature, an aesthetic that considered the fundamental relationship between the human being and the world from which this strange animal sprang, it probably seemed impossible to imagine that such praise for what is wild and natural could endure forty years of exponentially increasing destruction and consumption. And yet, Kevin Goodan arrived this past year with a first book, In the Ghost House Acquainted, that situates him as a new heir to that poetic tradition.
Like Haas, Bly or Snyder, Goodan's work begins in the landscape, but he uses natural images like llamas, cracked wheat or a foaling mare to vault the reader into a transcendental state of union with all that is living and the world of what is beyond living. In poem after poem dead animals are transformed into a pervasive spiritual energy. In "August," he writes, "The lord is a place/ to dig down into," and in "The Lambs, The Fire," he describes a cremation, saying, "Not to rise up/ but smolder down/ into ember, into ash."
Goodan is not the sort of poet to celebrate the natural world blithely as he strolls through a state park on a Saturday afternoon. His speaker labors over the earth, hauling away the corpses of llamas, dragging stillborns out of horses. Because his speaker is a midwife to nature's constant dying, he cannot idealize natural beauty. At their heart, these poems are elegies and Goodan understands the elegy as a song cried out by the one left behind. In his quiet, barren landscapes a lone speaker is often the only one left alive in a world of ghosts burned down into dirt or smoked into air. He writes of this eerie sensation in the title poem:
I remember the alfalfa and stacks of hewn wood -- as I remember that world pouring into this.
Because the universe Goodan creates is so otherworldly, it is fitting that the rhythms of his poems mimic mantras or koans. With the cyclical repetition of words and sounds, and careful turning of syntax, he lures the reader into a trance where it seems possible to understand lines like
And above us no stars -- There are of course thousands even millions of stars But not now.
In "Come You White Mare, Come Striding," he draws the reader into the mythic and elemental by chanting
In the hour before birds In the naming of a few stars In a few leaves fallen In ash ember, Come --
and continues to build momentum by repeating "in the" and "come" until the reader is ready to stamp her feet and cry along with him, "Come thunder, come silent/ come peal, come sweep, come striding."
Once it seemed that loving the kingfisher, the columbine, the red maple, as Goodan clearly does, was a way to love what is everlasting, what our small, fleeting lives might be a part of. Now, when it is not only the trees being carried off our mountains, but the mountains themselves being hauled away in dump trucks, it seems loving the wild is as ephemeral and heartbreaking as loving each other. Goodan's poems envision the world as a quiet haunting, reminding us of our place as the few alive in a world overflowing with the spent energy of the dead. He posits the natural world not as an idol to be worshipped, but as an essential vehicle for spiritual survival and transcendence. Death and loss have never been so full of hope as they are in In the Ghost House Acquainted.