My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Some French writer when I was a boy said that the desert went into the heart of the Jews in their wanderings and made them what they are, I cannot remember by what argument he proved them even yet the indestructible children of earth, but it may well be that the elements have their children. If we knew the Fire-Worshippers better we might find that their centuries of pious observance had been rewarded, and that the fire has given them a little of its nature; and I am certain that the water, the water of the seas and of lakes and of mist and rain, has all but made the Irish after its image. Images form themselves in our minds perpetually as if they were reflected in some pool. We gave ourselves up in old times to mythology, and saw the gods everywhere. We talked to them face to face, and the stories of that communion are so many that I think they outnumber all the like stories of all the rest of Europe. Even to-day our countrypeople speak with the dead and with some who perhaps have never died as we understand death; and even our educated people pass without great difficulty into the condition of quiet that is the condition of vision. We can make our minds so still like water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet. Did not the wise Porphyry think that all souls come to be born because of water, and that “even the generation of images in the mind is from water”?
I’m using Yeats as a touchstone because his voice—relaxed but precise, meditative, unobtrusively erudite—is much like the voice we find in Minnesota poet Tom Hennen’s Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected & New Poems. What’s more, Hennen’s is a watery book, a flood of soulful, visionary images. He is a country person (or was: he lives now in Minneapolis) and like the countrypeople Yeats mentions is sensitive to the elemental earth, its seasons and creatures, and these seem to speak through him; or better: his poems are in conversation with them. We overhear that conversation in Hennen’s poetry. He seldom speaks to us directly, and as a result his work seems utterly natural, devoid of rhetoric. Unlike so many poets winning prizes these days, his work has the fragrance of black north country soil, not the carbolic odor of academe.
The world according to Hennen is one in which the human grasp exceeds its reach: we think we are taking control, farming the land, building our homes with their 100-watt lamps to hold back the night, but our grasp is finally not firm enough, the lights aren’t strong enough. Darkness sticks to everything.
I love collected poems, especially when discovering a new poet—and Hennen is completely new to me. We find him first in poems published in the mid-1970s. They are tentative in some ways, content to open up carefully circumscribed situations:
Out of Work More Than a Year Still No One Answers My Letters of Application
I late winter
Doesn’t budge the snowbanks
That have fallen whole into the backyard.
A forecast for more cold.
On the edge of the roof
Icicles are in deep conversation.
I pretend I belong and start talking.
There’s that water! Locked up in snowbanks, slowly dropping from the eaves. But there’s more cold in the forecast. A bleak but beautiful moment.
There is also a quiet humor in Hennen’s work that makes it especially appealing in these days of hyper-clever, grad-school in-joke poetry. It’s there early on, but begins to surface more frequently on his 1983 book Looking into the Weather:
A small pond comes out of the hillside.
On its surface
Hangs a frog imitating moss.
A willow leaf
Drops on the water
And is immediately still.
Autumn air penetrates the ground.
Wind hums endlessly
To the tangled grass.
When things happen here
There is no urge to put them on TV.
Impossible to read that without smiling! And yet … the poem seems to have very modest ambitions. I wouldn’t call that a character flaw, but that modesty was part of Hennen’s early poetic character, and it limited the scope of his work.
Which may be why a decade passed before Hennen published his next collection, Love for Other Things, where we find his poetry opening outward. The landscapes are more capacious, the contexts more expansive:
Picking a World
Includes airplanes and power plants,
All the machinery that surrounds us,
The metallic odor that has entered words.
The other world waits
In the cold rain
That soaks the hours one by one
All through the night
When the woods come so close
you can hear them breathing like wet dogs.
This is not just a moment, but the portrait of a condition—physical and spiritual, personal and national. It’s also, I imagine, a sly riposte to William Carlos Williams’ dictum of 1944 (in his preface to his collection The Wedge) that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” No, Hennen says, quietly but firmly, a poem is not a machine, and the idea that it is has sullied our very language with a “metallic odor.” Real poems come from “the other world,” the non-human world where nature (“the woods”) comes close full of shivering affection, like a wet dog. This kind of complexity appears in Hennen’s early work only fragmentarily, in flashes, and it isn’t until his 1997 volume Crawling Out the Window that Hennen breaks out formally by embracing the prose poem form.
Wisconsin poet and editor Thomas R. Smith, whose most recent editorial effort is the amazing Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, states in his Afterword to Hennen’s book that “Crawling Out the Window is one of the greatest prose poem collections written by an American,” and I think his assessment is indisputable. When we arrive at Hennen’s prose poems we see the poet fully come what Yeats called “the condition of vision. “ There is a new kind of layering, a new imagistic dimensionality, a fresh music that his lined poems simply couldn’t accommodate. Prose seems to have released Hennen in some way, giving him access to the full scope of his emotional, intellectual, and spiritual impulses. The title poem is a good example:
Crawling Out the Window
When water starts to run, winds come to the sky carrying parts of Canada, and the house is filled with the scent of dead grass thawing. When spring comes on the Continental Divide, the snowbanks are broken in two and half fall south and half fall north. It’s the Gulf of Mexico or Hudson Bay, one or the other for the snow, the dirt, the grass, the animals, and me. The Minnesota prairie has never heard of free will. It asks you, quietly at first, to accept and even love your fate. You find out that if you fall south, life will be easy as warm rain. You wake up with an outgoing personality and a knack for business. The river carries you. You float easily and are a good swimmer. But if you fall north while daydreaming, you never quite get your footing back again. You will spend most of your time looking toward yourself and see nothing but holes. There will be gaps in your memory and you won’t be able to earn a living. You always point north like a compass. You always have to travel on foot against the wind. You always think things might get better. You watch the geese and are sure you can fly.
It’s incredibly exhilarating to watch Hennen achieve mastery in these poems and in those gathered here in the “New Poems” section, where the work ranges from small but luminous lined poems like this one, worthy of Bashō:
An Autumn Gift
Red maple leaves
Like just so
In the tall faded grass.
Happy to do it.
To this one, my favorite of all his many water poems:
It seems nature has many clocks, all running at once, set to different times. Some are as big as Wyoming, some the size of a nameless creek. If you listened closely, the minnows were black seconds ticking, and it’s hard, but I caught one. In the palm of my hand it jumped and tickled and nibbled my skin so I was amused and a bit scared because I was sure that seconds must not be kept from ticking. And anyhow, it had already escaped back into the icy creek. The day was warm and thick as violets. I wondered if I should tell someone what I had been bitten by time and it wasn’t so bad.
Notice the shift from present to past in this meditation on time, the purposeful narrowing of the view from landscape to creek, the minnow’s escape that happens while the poet is distracted by his own thinking. and then the enlarging of the view to encompass the whole day, and the final observation about what it means to be “bitten by time.” There is no way of knowing, of course, but I imagine that the early Tom Hennen, the young poet of the ‘60s and ‘70s, would have begun this poem with the third sentence and ended it with the minnow’s escape. What he has learned in his years of mindful practice—not through theory, not in the classroom—is to give his poems the space they need to breathe as the world breathes: deeply, joyfully, intimately.
Jim Harrison, one of the few living masters of both poetry and prose fiction, in his introduction to Darkness Sticks to Everything compares Hennen with Ted Kooser. Both poets, he observes, “are amazingly modest men who early accepted poetry as a calling in ancient terms and never let up despite being ignored early on. They return to the readers a thousand fold for their attentions.” Poetry as a calling, not an occupation; poetry as vision, not machine. These are the “ancient terms” Harrison praises, and rightly so. We need more poets like Tom Hennen, though in truth they are probably all around us. I’m hopeful that this powerful collection will inspire them to keep that ancient faith and inspire readers to seek them out and support them in their work.