(Poets and Poetry in America)

Chase Twichell’s announcement of her poetics in Ploughshares is her effort to reconcile her belief that the relationship between human beings and nature has undergone a deep and fatal change in the last decades, a change that heralds the death of nature in any traditional sense, along with her desire to express that belief in poetry. Clearly, if such poetry is to have impact, it must address the crisis directly, and so in The Ghost of Eden the poems repeat her concern directly and often: Human beings are killing the planet. Typically, the message is tied to a narrative that exemplifies the issue in Twichell’s own clear, direct language, her short lines and brief stanzas.

The Ghost of Eden

In The Ghost of Eden, the pictures of the animal world are sharp and vivid; often they are pictures of animals suffering because of the actions of human beings. “Animal Graves” provides a good example. It begins when the speaker has hit a baby garter snake with the lawn mower. The snake is badly wounded but still alive, so she must hit it again and again with the mower. As she does, she recalls the graves she made for animals when she was a child. She buried house pets and wild animals alike and marked the animal graveyard with the skull of a deer she found in the forest.

Now the dying snake coils itself upward to hiss at the mower, an instinctive gesture, which Twichell calls “dancing in the roar/ and shadow of its death.” She imagines its grave in the same childhood pet cemetery where the deer skull was finally carried off by neighborhood dogs “to bury/ in the larger graveyard of the world.” In that world everything will finally be buried; nevertheless, she implies, fortunate creatures will meet a worthier death than the little snake sacrificed to a tidy lawn.

In “The Devil I Don’t Know” the vegetarian speaker pushes her cart through the grocery store, looking with revulsion at the contents of the meat case, where the packages “look like body parts to me/ since I stopped eating them.” The slaughtered animals, the animals stuffed with steroids, the package of chops that looks “like a litter of stillborn puppies”—all this evidence of human beings’ unnatural treatment of animals make the speaker desire to make an elegy, a prayer in their honor. She cannot do so, however, because the death of these creatures seems to her like the death of God; what has died is “the holy thing itself.” She must turn away from the devil she knows, the devil that eats these animals. Popular wisdom says this devil is safer than the one that is unknown, but Twichell disagrees. She longs for a new object of worship, a devil she does not know, but she fears that with the death of nature all worship is dead, too. The poem ends with the image of a swordfish, “gutted, garnished, laid out on ice.”

Much of the imagery of “The Aisle of Dogs” recalls that of “The Devil I Don’t Know.” In this poem the speaker has gone to an animal shelter for kittens; as she walks the aisles, she sees dozens of dogs that have been brutalized by human beings. The worst is a pit bull that still lives, although someone has skinned it. It is being kept alive as evidence for the courts; when the case is finished the dog will be put down. Twichell’s sympathies often lie with predatory animals, as here, where she seems drawn to the pit bull and “its incurable hatred/ of my species.”

Some critics have considered Twichell’s tone of The Ghost of Eden to be unnecessarily shrill in poems like “The Aisle of Dogs” or “The Devil I Don’t Know.” “The Smell of Snow” demonstrates Twichell’s strongest voice in addressing her themes of the holiness of nature without relying on human brutality as a backdrop.

The poem begins with a night hike through an early winter forest, a dangerous time because the hunting season is open. The speaker and her companion hike without flashlights, since “only in the dark does the spectral magic/ survive”; she names the fox, raccoon, bear, and deer they see.

Suddenly a fisher, a larger cousin of mink and...

(The entire section is 1701 words.)