Quickening Fields by Pattiann Rogers
Penguin, 2017; 128 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Though it is true of her earlier books, the poems in Pattiann Rogers newest collection Quickening Fields could be a “recitations of devotion,” as she says the list of skull bones or the periodic table are. Her writing manages to be precise scientifically, linguistically, morally, and lyrically simultaneously, so that I find myself rereading poems with great delight, tuned each time to a different aspect. And with each reading my sense of awe for her dazzle of language and intelligence is matched by a humble awe at the intricacies of the living world. She situates humanity in the world with remarkable scope (tele- as well as micro-) so that I imagine my place, my life in new ways.
The 53 poems in Quickening Fields are arranged into eight nearly even sections. The dedication lists seven virtues that our ancestors recognized, named, and passed on. Rather than simply organizing the book around these virtues, the book is richer for having the poems explore them throughout, so that each poem has its standout images or ideas, the whole subject, its relation to the others in that section, and how it illuminates these guiding ideas. One way she manages all this is to present images and ideas by asserting a bold and imaginative conditional. There are interesting ifs and maybes all through her work.
For example, in “Rumors of Snow, Christmas Eve,” the snow hasn’t started so she says,
Maybe the snow waits, curved perfectly
over the earth., the silent white side of night,
hovering with all the power and promise of a savior
who hasn’t yet descended.
Her devotion is not a priori, nor is it strictly religious; instead, it emerges out of the conditional and actual. Evoking evolution’s slow process that create eyes to see, she declares that “Some say / that eyes which have fashioned the six sides of themselves / will be the first to see the signs of snow.” Finally, the poem turns to prayer, Rogers asks, “wherever healing power exists…may a snowy storm / of angels come quickly, touching all those waiting naked / for such a promised savior” (9).
Whether investigating a late December storm or “Capturing a Wild Pony” or a “Death Vision,” her ideas are always embodied and her images always evoke thoughts and feelings. I had to put the book aside many times to let them work on me as I took a walk. Consider how she introduces death: “I think it’s a multiplication of sight, / like after a low hovering autumn rain…” (107).
The dominant virtue demonstrated in these poems is nobility. She asks “How could the mapping of Neptune’s / arc of moonlets or the observation / of spindles in a grasshopper cell / ever be corrupt?” (101). This ebullient celebration of the world in its multiplicity demonstrates the nobility of the universe, but also of the human capacity to know, to imagine, and be amazed.
With so much richness to the work, a micro-review can only assert: get this book and read it, give it to friends (I have), and discuss the parts that evoked the most.