Pattiann Rogers is most often seen as the literary heir to such American poets as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens. She weaves together a scientific and theological vocabulary and writes about subjects variously informed by botany, zoology, geology, astronomy, and physics. One of the main concerns of her poetry is to use observations of nature to arrive at religious conclusions. Many poems give examples of phenomena that seem to signal a divine order beyond what is obvious. As well as using traditional images from natural history, Rogers also uses modern discoveries such as the motion of electrons around atoms. Whether they are frightening as a thunderstorm or comforting as a still sky full of stars, the objects of nature are presented with a discerning eye and as the key to another world beyond the physical.
In Rogers’s Legendary Performance, a group of children play and interact in some undefined country place. Their conversation in the poem “After Dinner” centers on their different conceptions of natural phenomena, from weaver ants to the exploding supernova. The poems follow the group of children, who are sometimes joined by an Indian boy, Kioka, who may or may not be real, in their real or imagined adventures. The poems are tied together by the children and by recurring themes such as the color violet and the boys riding naked on ponies. The children are joined briefly by other relatives, such as Felicia’s old, sick uncle and Cecil’s second cousin, who has a handicap. The tone is conversational and processional, in the style of reflective prose. One of the most moving poems in the collection is “A Seasonal Tradition,” describing a concert that Felicia’s music teacher gives every year for Sonia, Cecil, Albert, Gordon, Felicia, and her insane uncle. The music teacher traditionally ends the concert with a piece on her violin in a register so high that no one can hear the music; instead, each child imagines a different melody, theme, or unspoken speech. Significantly, the unheard melody is the one most discussed afterward at tea.
Spitting and Binding
Two years after Legendary Performance, the collection Spitting and Binding appeared, containing poems that more directly relate to Rogers’s religious sensibility. The theme here is death, starting with the opening poem, “The Next Story,” in which Rogers describes how she spent the whole morning watching a group of five jays darting and screaming over one of their dead that has been killed by a cat. She sees the pattern of their noisy distress matching the broken body of the dead bird. From this, she requests a denial of death, but will only accept a denial that is more convincing than the five wheeling jays she watches in their perfect lament. These poems of death are interspersed with poems of prayer, from “The Answering of Prayers,” concerning the prayers of a field of iris, to...
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