News from the Glacier

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

News from the Glacier: Selected Poems, 1960-1980 unites under one cover works from the five major collections of one of America’s true visionary poets. From seemingly intractable materials—the Alaskan wilderness, the inhuman oblivion of snow and ice, and the brute mission of survival—John Haines has carved, in his spare and mysterious poems, a work of great beauty and dignity. An Alaskan homesteader for some ten years, he is one of a handful of contemporary poets to have confronted the physical frontier of the North American continent as a pioneer. This fact alone would lend his work a documentary interest, but his harsh landscapes, where men who would come to terms with nature must ultimately come to terms with themselves, have much more to offer.

That life under extreme environmental conditions must remain marginal is a central fact of the wilderness of the Northwest. It follows that the language used to describe the experience should likewise be pared to its essentials. Highly stylized poetry would be rendered pitifully ironic next to the severity of such subject matter. Haines’s spare, plainspoken poems, in giving voice to animal and ice, mountain and wind, neither sensationalize nor humanize their subjects. These things are what they are, not commentaries on the poet’s psyche. By writing about nature in such a way as one might imagine nature would speak for itself, Haines suggests man’s true relationship to the natural world: the transcendent, inhuman, “not-me.”

The first section of the collection, “Winter News,” contains some of Haines’ best-known poems and sets forth many of his salient themes (the struggle for survival, the strangely beautiful antipathy of the natural world, and the increasing displacement of this world by man). In “If the Owl Calls Again,” the poet wishes to join the bird, whose adjustments to the harsh reality of his life are complete: “We’ll sit/ in the shadowy spruce and/ pick the bones/ of careless mice.” In order for the poet’s adjustments to be equivalent to the owl’s, he will have to accept and develop for himself a similar severe will that will enable his life to be “fulfilled, floating homeward”—a choice that is not given to “careless mice.”

If such a world renders forgiveness (a human emotion) pointless, then its beauty will be represented by the natural hunter, the owl (“preserver of whiteness”) and the lynx (“whose yellow eyes/ are certain of what they seek”). Within this harsh aesthetic, Haines examines the relationship between hunter and hunted, a relationship that involves all creatures in the frozen environment he explores. In “The Moosehead,” he establishes the sanctity of animals who, their lives on Earth done, must submit to “the green marrow of Death.” That the marrow is green itself suggests that death possesses a utility, that it oddly but actually enables life to continue. The individual animals who feed this marrow are given a value quite apart from their value as creatures. Thus, the moosehead, picked clean and sinking into earth, once enclosed a brain that “floated/ like a ruddy captain,” an image that simultaneously smiles on and devalues such destiny as an individual moose might have.

The introduction of men into the balanced wilderness presents a quite different case from the instance of solitary individuals. The latter must become part of their surroundings—they have no other prerogative; the former can resort to domination. In “Dream of the Lynx,” this exquisitely predatory animal is replaced by a man who, “hidden in a thicket of alders, nostrils quivering,” superimposes his cunning on the natural world by laying a trap in which the lynx struggles, dying. Instead of exemplifying the predator whose necessary act is subsumed in the balance of nature, the hunter ruptures the balance. His ability to do so creates “an ever deepening track” on the face of the wilderness.

The second section, “The Stone Harp,” represents something of a falling-off from the severe vision of the previous section. These poems, some heavily politicized, turn from the concerns of the individual in nature to express the guilt and moral outrage of a consciousness informed by the upheavals of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Visions of pursuit, of storm troopers, of armored cars, of a disintegrating America, while they testify to the anxiety and pessimism of those years, frequently fail to rise above their occasions. In “Guevara,” for example, the Cuban revolutionary—whose very name has been inflated into a metonymy for political action—is mysteriously transubstantiated into the poet’s heart (“Somewhere inside me/ . . .there is a country named/ Guevara.”). Even so, coming so late to a political consciousness, Haines admits, “I still don’t know/ what I suffered.” The coincidence of “correct” political thinking with vague admissions of guilt typifies one of this section’s chief limitations. Elsewhere, in “The Lemmings,” Haines tries to revive a stale symbol of conformity by injecting a psychological twist: “No one is pleased with himself/ or with others.” The oversimplification that this notion represents, when superimposed on a cliché, prevents the poem from achieving any effect other than a dubious...

(The entire section is 2172 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Library Journal. CVII, July 1982, p. 1328.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 31, 1982, p. 12.