(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Robert Morgan is a profoundly ecological poet with a vision of endless variety in the unity of nature. More than that, his vision does not assume a realm of nature and a separate sphere of the human. In his view, the made world of culture and technology (what folklorists call the “cultural landscape”) consists of scheme, strategies, and accommodations that parallel those in the natural, organic world of plants and animals.

Three previous collections—Zirconia Poems (1969), Red Owl (1972), and Land Diving (1976)—have presented people behaving and coping essentially as do plants, insects, and animals. In Red Owl, for example, a well is described as a root sunk by people to maintain a hold on the land. The well is a tree with leaves of men. In “Copse,” from Land Diving, a boundary between field and woods where plants grow crowded resembles a state line where fugitives gather for getaways in first one direction, then another.

In Groundwork, Morgan has moved further into the human realm, dealing increasingly with local characters, anecdotes, superstition, and legend in such poems as “Flying Snake,” “Mountain Bride,” “Reuben’s Cabin,” “Death Crown,” and “Devil’s Courthouse.” Yet all his work to date is groundwork because he is concerned with how all living things cope and find solutions to basic problems: getting food, keeping warm, wintering over, reseeding themselves, surviving, and, if they are lucky or do something right, prevailing. The bear in “Den Tree” and the pigeons in “Pigeon Loft” are like the worm in “Weed Above Snow” from Red Owl in that they are examples of strategies for keeping warm and secure. Reuben’s cabin resembles the bear’s den tree, the pigeon’s loft, and the worm’s bulb in the weed stalk. Reuben’s behavior is buzzard behavior. His cabin, stitched together out of odds and ends up high in a place near Buzzard Rock, is his nest. (Buzzards are known for the slapdash nests they build.) It is not irrelevant that squirrels have stolen the innards of Reuben’s couch to line their nests. Reuben, the squirrels, the pigeons, and the bear are all coping in their own way, surviving like the “Ice Worm” from Land Diving that has figured out a way to live on glaciers in Antarctica.

The mink in “Sport” that kills forty-six chickens is one in its strategy with the panther that eats the baby in “Huckleberries,” with the “Flying Snake,” and with the snakes in “Mountain Bride.” The observer-predator of “Burning the Hornet’s Nest” is behaving like the mink and like the panther. The lichens in...

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