Winter Nests: Sunday Rising by Patricia Clark
Art by Philip Govedare
Sunday Rising, by Patricia Clark, is both elegiac and rebellious in tone. It mourns our losses, whether in our individual narratives or on our shared earth, and accepts what must be while saying no to what mustn’t. For instance, we cannot defile our earth and still expect to live on it, and some of these poems bravely resist and rebel, rejecting the “dead, denuded world / that we created with our waste, our greed.”
But these are the final lines of an ekphrastic poem, not the slogans of any trendy green cause. The poem is “After Franz Marc’s The Red Deer (1912),” and it begins, “The apocalyptic future the artist saw long ago / shudders behind the headlines in summer 2010,” suggesting that the inconvenient truth has been intuited and predicted long before—that we were warned, and by art!
In taking pleasure in the natural, undefiled beauty of the earth, Clark has had to rebel against some of what she was taught as a child. In the title poem “Sunday Rising,” she rejects the “one-note story” the nuns taught her about pleasure being sin, embracing instead “the wide open / church-of-the-fragrant earth” that she strives now to save—with words. In “Botanical Beliefs,” she says, “I am letting a sweet autumn clematis stand / for everything I believe in.” And in “Winter Nests,” she notes the sturdiness and resilience of nests exposed in the leafless winter branches, reminding us that nature knows how to take care of itself.
We’re the ones, we humans, messing it up.
On the other hand, we humans build barriers between one another to protect our vulnerable selves from psychological coldness, or imagined, expected danger or harm. In “Anti-Love Poem,” she suggests the beauty and difficulty of letting down our defenses even when it is good to do so, when it shows us to be fully engaged as human beings, not just going through the motions and rituals of being human.
Sometimes you want to love the person across
the room, the one glancing up from his book
with a faraway gaze, saying “if I hadn’t met X,
if he hadn’t written a letter for me, then you
and I wouldn’t be here.” Part of me refuses
to bite, won’t hitch myself to his sweet misty-eyed
mood. Someone today needs to haul up a box
from the basement, start lifting each ornament
off the Christmas tree. Before the holiday,
he lay ill with a cold—if I hadn’t decorated the tree
we wouldn’t have to removed fragile balls or lights.
If he weren’t sitting across the room, I wouldn’t
need to soften my heart, look up to find his glance.
I could live in a fortress, behind stout walls.
How else to be human? How else to be saved?
[reprinted with permission; first published in Sunday Rising (Michigan State University Press, 2013)]
In “Olentangy Elegy,” she traces the history of her family of origin while following the course of the Olentangy River, showing how mistakes can be made and human defenses come to be built. Despite good intentions, the river was given the wrong name: “olentangy” means “river of the red face paint” instead of “stone for your knife stream,” the Indian name for it, due to its shale banks, perfect for knife sharpening. (Whetstone Creek, a tributary, retains that meaning in its English name.) But the red face paint may be apt, describing the rage of a mother “on the warpath” and the knife-sharpening still present, though put to the wrong use.
Such longing here, heightened by irony, the dark humor of the readymade phrase:
If we could live in peace
bury the hatchet
sharpen knives and then
slice bread and not each other
If the spell could send
the wicked witch into the forest
About this river, about our mistakes in word or deed, about damage to the earth or in human connections, comes this challenge and its hint of hope: “Begin a new legend, if you can—”
Writing, or reading, a book of poems is a good start.