For several years I’d believed that most adults edge away from poetry because of the kind of poems that were imposed upon them as children: descriptive nature poems. Which restless child cares about the drooping angle of a leaf or the exact shade of yellow in a poppy pistil? And yet, ironically, admonishingly, I later found myself celebrating poetry that is assured enough to find itself in the lilac or the ant or at ‘the edge of the wheat sea’.
Perhaps the reason for this reversal is what the Sanskrit literary theorist Kuntaka (10th century) called Vakrokti Siddhanta or Theory of Oblique Expression. Hannah Marshall’s work intuitively uses some of the six levels of vakrokti that Kuntaka identified (and that Russian formalists later recognised as ‘estrangement’). Marshall’s poems carefully — and caringly — defamiliarize the natural by tilting the lens of observation. To the child, the world is anyway strange and random, with an undiscovered rule at the bend of each day. The adult reader however, needs the artist to amplify freshness in an automated world that has lost its novelty. In these particular poems, Marshall ensures that sight is in service of insight. Towards this idea, she turns nouns into surprising verbs (‘the peonies miracle’), yokes together unexpected and yet inevitable images (‘welcoming lung and flute’) and offers the gentlest of meditative epiphanies (‘seeds / are rain in reverse’). The effect is of not just seeing nature in these poems anew, but of a rinsing of the eyes, as if the world around us is freshly born.
— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The meter attendant keys open parking meters
outside the church, bellies silver-full.
The peonies miracle. Ants crawl from bud-globes
and journey into the kitchen,
drawn by raw chicken on a Styrofoam tray. Feast
on birth, on death. The arrow of sun
splinters over sunflowers’ black mouths.
The hophornbeams grow slow
in green strips along the hill,
ripening a row of nutlets
for the Bobwhites and rabbits this fall.
The sky is scarred pink by plane trails,
the wooden bow of the horizon bends, wizened.
Hills are bodies: elbows, intestines, labia. Green
skin, skull roots. Dogs haul their owners toward home.
The elastic sweetness of hose water,
arcing over woodchip mulch.
A foot kicks brick from the garden bed,
and the ants below hurry to move their eggs
into some safer, deeper dark.
. after “ode to flute” by Ross Gay
The teeth of the tree know
the way clouds are seeds,
the way seeds
are rain in reverse. Cottonwood
kneels in river silt,
sings rings of a thousand beaver mouths.
Twigs twirl leafy hips in wind. Waft of white
June, skin-soft drift.
Cottonwood stretches, ditch-deep,
lamb’s ear, the silver pyre and purple bloom.
I enter the bark and return as root.
The edge of the wheat sea
is this one tree
this fence line and pebble bed,
jagged green shovels
welcoming lung and flute.
Behind a rundown ranch on Ward Street, two pet rabbits
are allowed to roam free. We walk by; they
are always there. Across the street,
a woman in a gray hoodie
hauls a big bag of clothes to the curb,
and a cheap folding papasan.
It’s spring clean-up week in town,
and no one seems lonely.
A man in farmers’ overalls
puts three red stools and a cushionless couch
of 90’s-era vintage at the end of his driveway.
The rednecks and white trash trade castoffs
like ragged pennies, a Wheel of Fortune spinning
prizes—scrap metal, cotton dresses, musty children’s books.
Lilacs bob their heavy heads at the loud pickups
pulling flatbed trailers stacked high
with broken washers and kids’ Walmart bikes. Odin’s raven
caws from a high branch in the empress tree,
leafless, but filling with coronas of purple and gold.
From inside this cloud-and-concrete pearl, I feel myself falling
into folds of memory, falling across the town square
with the never-wound clock, falling as water
into brimful fields, interim lakes.
My friend writes, What an awful time to have to find a job.
For the first time this week, we find the rabbits fenced
along with three rabbit kittens—white, sorcerous,
their suspicious ruby eyes
daring us toward butterweed ditches.
Hannah Marshall lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works at the city library. Marshall’s poems have been published in The Best American Poetry, New Ohio Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Four Way Review, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. Her manuscript The Shape That Good Can Take was a finalist for the 2021 St. Lawrence Book Award. She received her MFA in creative writing from Converse University.