To the Green Man

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Mark Jarman's eighth collection entitled To the Green Man continues his spiritual exploration of the physical world. Many of these works could be considered nature poems, but as in Mary Oliver's work, nature is inhabited by the transcendent. In Jarman's richly surfaced poetry, nature is the locus of the mystery, and it contains messages that are both vibrant and obscure. Jarman works to decipher the messages, but there remains always a core of mystery that inhabits the poems and makes them translucent with wonder—a rare quality in contemporary poetry, and one which is reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“Called or not called, God is present,” is the epigraph which begins “As Close as Breathing”—one of the finest poems in the collection, and one which looks through nature to a hidden God who has to be read from particulars. The speaker approaches God tentatively, finds his presence in hummingbirds, swifts, even spiders. There are plenty of people in the poems too—the grandfather, who is a fierce obsessed mystic, and the father, who believes in reason. The traces and icons of Christianity mark the pages like footprints. An especially memorable sequence is “Five Psalms,” which brings the voice of the Psalmist to sing of the contemporary world.

Jarman is often identified as a New Formalist. In this collection he uses various traditional patterns as well as invented ones, and he uses form with flexibility and deftness to define his metaphysical search and the delights and disappointments encountered by the committed seeker. The poems are less formal than much of his earlier work, and often the formal structures are almost unnoticeable although they control the work.

These are not consoling poems although they are in part about the need for consolation. But they are shot through with the wonder, their openhearted search providing a renewed and renewing vision.