Reviewed by Poetry Northwest Associate Editor Brandon Krieg
Few young poets have their eye trained so intently and convincingly on the human relationship to the other-than-human as Brooklyn Copeland in Siphon, Harbor (Shearsman, 2012). Eschewing naïve sublimity or dread; the mere atmospheric arrangement of scientific or naturalistic jargon; or hyperreal animal fetishism, Copeland gives us striking perception of the “natural” other, and of how we must construct it in language in our attempt to relate to it and be changed by it.
The poems in Siphon, Harbor alternately absorb us into their precisely rendered landscapes and remind us of their construction as text. Most are longer poems made up of short sections, which, in themselves, often evoke intense experiences of being-through-language. The coordination of these sections into the longer poems accretes to something like the sense of a particular place or time intensified by memory’s careful selection.
In the following section of the poem “Marina,” Copeland transforms an experience of the presence of natural objects into an experience of language prickling with charge:
Anonymous stinking fishes
mutable sequins glittering in the mud.
To this day, to me all
silver smells red.
Thick with alliteration, assonance, consonance, slant rhyme; torqued by enjambment and the choreography of long and short lines cascading down the page, this section stuns with seduction and death, making us experience a common phrase—“fishes / belly up”—as something uncommon through strange synaesthesia: “all / silver smells red.”
“Sequins” are human and perhaps, therefore, an unexpected likeness for a natural object in a certain type of nature poem, though Copeland convinces us that such images fit here and elsewhere in her book. After all, these facets of our world are probably at least as strange as dead fish, and, from a certain distance, perhaps as natural. Human nature (as constructed as that idea is) we should admit is drawn to make and partake of gaudiness and destruction. The speaker’s recognition is to see the relationship of these two desires in one synesthetic image, the gaudy silver of the sequins becomes associated with destruction in the red smell—the smell of blood.
But gaudiness and destruction are not the primary reasons we turn to the natural other, certainly not our professed reasons. Since the Romantics, at least, poets have turned to nature for the seemingly contradictory purpose of feeling their smallness and being expanded.
The final section of “Bindweed” betrays a longing for a nature humans can still turn to in order to be expanded, even as it doubts whether that nature is ever anything more than a human projection:
invisible in the wind.
and branches bend.
rain. Despite it
And beyond it
The contradictions in this section seem at first irreconcilable—nature’s “faithfulness” to us is only apparent in “natural light,” which we must assume becomes “human light” as soon as we perceive it. Yet, we can catch glimpses of this ideal “natural light” in our own minds’ simultaneous perception of word and thing—when “blades / and branches bend” in the wind (which is also a speaker) associated with the “immeasurable” light.
It is significant that “blade” gets its own line here—it makes the dead metaphor apparent—bendable grass is likened to an unbendable human tool. Only in the flashes of recognition of how language creates our perception of the non-human do we see things by “natural light”—natural because we are creatures of language.
Beyond the speeches of the wind (which speaks rain, yet whose speech doesn’t alter the rain), are the “abandoned barns,” that, surprisingly, defend “abandoned men.” How does the wind speak rain and not alter it? If the barns are abandoned, how do they defend? The poem seems to be confessing an anxiety that human speech does nothing to the other-than-human, it only does things to us—it determines whether we will feel we can dwell in the things we have created, or whether we will feel abandoned in them. Can we construct a natural that convinces us that it is both immeasurable and inhabitable, that even though we are apart from its vastness, we are a part of its vastness?
Copeland shows a remarkable talent in Siphon, Harbor for charging language with meaning—by precise image, word-play and neologism, unusual phrasing, subtle tonal effects and “the sound of sense” (to use Frost’s term for aestheticized speech), her lapidary poems open large worlds. However, the most exciting aspect of the poems to me is their unusual music, a function not only of word-sounds, but of surprising enjambments and arrangements of lines on the page. Even though these poems are heady, they consistently sound the heart.