Blogging is a highly narcissistic activity, so I have no qualms about using this post, which is ostensibly about the visual imagery in the poems of John Haines, to talk about myself.
I used to take a lot of pictures. Now, though, I am an amateur photographer. The primary difference between these two categories is that now I feel bad when my photos turn out ugly. If John Haines were still alive, maybe I’d send him a letter berating him for increasing my level of photography-related self-flagellation. That jerk – he managed to take better photos with his words than I do with my camera.
The melancholy beauty of his descriptions, the contrast between the pulsing life of the animals and people he describes with the decay that pervades the natural world, leaps out from so many of his poems. “Moving in a restless exhaustion/humps of earth that rise/covered with dead hair./There is no sound from the wind/blowing the tattered velvet/of their antlers,” he writes in The Field of the Caribou. The motion – moving, rise, blowing – contrasts sharply with the entropy – dead, no sound, tattered.
I was trying for that in this photo, I really was.
His poem Wolves contains the same contradiction: “They are death’s snowbound sailors;/they know only a continual/drifting between moonlit islands,/their tongues licking the stars./But they sing as good seamen should,/and tomorrow the sun will find them,/yawning and blinking/the snow from their eyelashes.” Again, the life of the licking, singing, sun and yawning contradict the death, snowbound, drifting.
I’m not even going to post the last photo I got of a wolf. It’s frankly embarrassing.
In The Tundra, this is echoed again: “The tundra is a living/ body, warm in the grassy/ autumn sun; it gives off/ the odor of crushed/ blueberries and gunsmoke./In the tangled lakes/of its eyes a mirror of ice/is forming, where/frozen gut-piles shine/with a dull, rosy light.” We start with the warm living body under the sun…
But then the death creeps in, like termination dust, like the first hard freeze: mirror of ice, frozen gut-piles.
This is the natural world, though. This is what it means to get your dinner with your gun or your net, to walk in a world where layers of decay and growth crackle underfoot rather than sanitary concrete. This is a photo of both a dead rodent and a vibrantly alive fox, who lives in a world of both new shoots and of fallen trees.
(All the photos in this post are my own, and all the poetry quotations come from the textbook.)