Climbing into the Roots
Climbing into the Roots has earned for Reg Saner the Walt Whitman Award, a prize given annually to a poet who has not previously published a collection of his poetry. Sponsored by the Academy of American Poets with assistance from the Copernicus Society of America, the award is intended to discover and bring before the public deserving newcomers. On the dust jacket of the book, Reg Saner is acclaimed as a “completely new voice with no debts to prevailing modes of poetic expression: a genuine discovery.”
Such praise is somewhat hyperbolic, as it would be virtually impossible for any author to create poetry in a total cultural vacuum, oblivious of the achievements of others. And in the case of Saner, his free verse writing calls to mind the poetry of the objectivists and the earlier imagists. This is not to denigrate his accomplishment, but to locate his current poetic endeavors in the larger context of twentieth century American poetic tradition. Saner’s originality lies in his subject matter and his unique handling of it. These poems, largely variations on a single theme, are nonetheless deserving of attention.
Saner’s all-engrossing theme is nature. All but a few of the poems celebrate the magnificent landscape of the Rocky Mountain terrain in which Saner has worked as a freelance photographer and developed his skills as an accomplished mountaineer. Even a poem set in the city, “Once Before Sunrise,” takes its images and its very essence from the landscape. One of the few works in the collection which has the persona of the speaker as its ostensible subject, this poem describes a man waiting for a bus in Boulder City, remembering his excursions to the country around Bear Creek. He thinks of the deep sky and the air “leaping animals in the lungs.” Progressing from this thought, he muses on a typical theme for Saner, that of the eternal presence of nature: “The future, yes, eats the present./ Our planet’s always turning.” And the last stanza repeats the earlier metaphor as it draws his universal theme, “The light is leaping animals./ Till the bus comes I’m immortal.” Nature is an escape into all time—past, present, and future, even when nature is present only in one’s memory.
Most of the poems, however, are simple glorifications of nature experienced at firsthand. Frequently the titles of the poems tell exactly what the piece celebrates, and often name specific locales loved by the poet: “Hiking at Night,” “Camping the Divide: Indian Peaks, Colorado,” “Sod Huts on the Plains near Aurora, Colorado,” or “April Dawn Snow.” Occasionally, the title is misleading, as in “Tasting the Morning Abyss,” a metaphor for facing a new day; and very rarely, the poems deal with a completely different subject matter, as “One War Is All Wars.”
Saner’s usual poetic technique is to present images of the places he is celebrating, and at this he is a master. His visual images betray his photographer’s eye: “Nubbled trunks of Engleman/ and fir, wrist-thick, blown bald/ as potato skin in front”; “Delicate/ flurries of white and whiskery ash/ stir from a few red lumps/ as the old wind rises again”; “the branches slobber/ and weep as their clothes/ begin to steam like boughs.” The most powerful and satisfying imagery is that based upon Saner’s personal experience, such as his description of animals and plants diappearing into the distance as one climbs higher into the mountains: “bear into marmot, horses turned mice,/ redwoods sunk to lichen blots/ pebble-thick over slabe.” The short poem, “Stoning the River” accomplishes the almost impossible task of giving a fresh, new description of the most common of experiences, throwing a stone into the water and watching the water ripple and return to its original, pristine, mirror-like surface.
In these poetic reveries one is constantly aware of what nature means to the poet. It is instructive though silent: “Up where the gone/ is real I catch myself catching/ the simplest things...
(The entire section is 1655 words.)