Elizabeth Arnold’s Life is a collection of light, bold, contemporary paeans to natural cycles and incidents involved with living. Arnold’s scope for and definition of “natural” in no way limits that word to being only “of the earth.” Instead, it expands out so that all observations, all happenings, from natural disasters to the use of DDT and from the effects of ice storms to that of a fourteen-wheeler’s on the highway fit within the natural world.
In the poem “Like Water Flowing,” Arnold works through geologic time across space and continents and makes the text both universally expansive and personal. In one section, she notes,
You stood in your village as you spoke, ...
I stood in America.
With this small allowance, an observation of fact, we are placed in the continuum that modern day communication allows for while the poem’s speaker is physically grounded and geographically located. The poem goes on to mention “whale fall,” a word combination that catches me each time I read it, and as it does, I am taken through the evolution of a land mammal turning toward the sea:
moving out of that
over a period
of a hundred million years
into the environment of water.
In the poem “Trees,” Arnold looks at the aftermath of a blizzard as seen through trees affected by it. She starts with the intriguing line “Trees know which way’s up,” and returns to this notion in later stanzas with:
That they know
vertigo from the inside, feel
the heave and spin of the globe […]
In these lines, unsentimentally, Arnold imagines into the trees showing us the churn of life renewing and replenishing itself. With simplicity and beautifully spare language Arnold highlights moments where the drive to live continues on even when that means re-building from scratch.
In terms of manmade disasters, Arnold’s soft touch and lack of judgment allows a poem entitled “DDT” to come off less as a Rachel Carson re-write and more as a first person tracing of the use and original purpose of this chemical through the ages. Factually, she writes, “Ridding the South of mosquito-borne diseases in the sixties.” From there, the poem is more and more personal and through its intricacies, Arnold spins a semblance of hope. In a longing for elsewhere, the first person narrator traces the Nile river and various locales and animals that surround it including the vivid line: “slick hippos with their comically small ears.”
The poem “Going” is more related to human than geologic scales of time, and defies expectations in positive ways. Detailing a late-night drive with impudent headlights and deer beside the highway, Arnold sets us up for road kill or an animal/machine interaction that does not end well. Instead, the turning point in the poem is “...out of nowhere came / the blessed tail-lights of a semi, the red dots growing.” In the second to last line the speaker is “being ferried” by the lights of the semi, and I picture Charon guiding souls across the river Styx—not my usual association with semis on late night highways.
I live in the mountains and generally feel quite settled and eased by them so I had an immediate affinity with Arnold’s poem, “The Mountain.” One of my favorite poems in the collection, it is broken into sections over eighteen pages.
It’s said that standing on the mountain
during an eruption
is like standing on a living being
with circulating blood, blood that could tip
the planet over.
These lines clinch so much of what Arnold is up to in fully linking human lives to the forces around them. The mountain in this section is the volcanic Mount Etna, and the “circulating blood” the hot lava—a startling image and extended simile. The next stanza describes a phenomenon I love about living in the mountains:
The sun hits the peak first
so that it stays night for a while
in the towns and fields below.
As if the mountain were
the one eye, us blind.
Light can be so focused in the mountains. They receive, hold and block sunlight, directing it in specific ways. As Arnold has it, the morning sun hits the “towns and fields below” extending “night for a while.” The phenomenon is known as alpenglow. It is equally prevalent in the evening when the sun sets in valleys and “towns and fields below” but still radiates out from behind the mountains. Such daily happenings are truly awe-inspiring, and Arnold’s description is a perfect reminder.
In this same poem, Arnold also notes “Nothing lasts.” The phrase is on a line all its own and ends one of the sections. It comes across as the constant in the life force that Arnold weaves through the entire book. Instead of being about “lasting,” life is about continuing on and re-building when things, inevitably and continually, fall apart.
The next section is another striking move in its focus on the sonic attributes of rocks and mountains:
Next thing you know it’s singing
in a low harmonious tremor of
kilometers-long infrasonic waves
heard only by dogs,
the lava flowing
Knowing dogs that hear sirens at great distances long before their humans do, I love this allusion, and the basic imagining of what rocks melting into flowing magma might sound like. These sections have me thinking of epic land-based orchestral works by the composer John Luther Adams. His symphonic pieces “Become Ocean” and “Become River” are right in line with Arnold’s work so much so that “The Mountain” could be titled “Become Mountain.” The poem goes on:
Every volcano has its own voice.
Some are operatic.
no singing talent whatsoever.
The metaphor of the volcano as opera singer spewing lava (at the top of its lungs even) is completely apt. Arnold’s skill lies in directing readers simultaneously toward that vision while also stating that though each “volcano has its own voice,” some have “no singing talent whatsoever.” It is amplifying rather than narrow or stultifying anthropomorphosis.
The poem on the ninety-ninth page of Life presents an understanding of how Arnold does what she does with language—how through her singular perspective she creates unsentimental paeans, startling metaphors and anthropomorphizes without being trite. There Is An is a lyric addressing the notion of the “lyric I” and an overall understanding of “self.” Tucked in the back of this collection, this poem startles as so much else in the book does by being a surprise I knew was coming.
First Arnold acknowledges, “there is an I,” getting that out of the way, and that this “I” feels “alive / in the organism / of a living world.” This line says as much about this “I” as about its take on the world. The “I” feels and sees “a” living world, which is importantly “a” and not “the,” as a full organism unto itself. Thinking back to other poems in the text and even my first description of Arnold’s understanding of the natural world, the “organism / of a living world” demonstrates so much. From her perspective, a truck and a lava flow are not wholly different and separate things, but are a part of the larger “organism” of a world.
As Arnold proceeds through this poem the “I” self-deprecates (the speaker “so un-/fortunately met,” this “I”) and then questions whether what the “I” feels is feeling at all. These lines quickly encapsulate the psychotherapeutic project. What makes anyone’s “particular brand of / I” is the central question introspection delves into. Arnold’s phrasing is perfectly idiosyncratic, of this moment, and connected to the meta-question, is what any “I” feels truly capital “F” feeling? She’s correct, of course, that despite continuous progress in gathering metrics about anything that can be measured, beyond rudimentary scales for pain, we have no way to measure feelings. So this is an endlessly unanswerable question, which (clearly) Arnold knows. The poem continues:
A minus turning
into a plus now,
Knowing we have no ability to truly comprehend what feelings are, Arnold returns, as she does throughout her work, to what can be proven, to the basics and the real. She knows “Only that / [she] can” feel. This poem could easily devolve into nihilism here, but Arnold skirts it and instead sheds positive light on something that could be thought of as negative. She pans out to the larger “organism of a living world” noting how little is left to “reliably be known” within it. This is a semblance of a conclusion, but also a throwback into Arnold’s text. There may not be much that is “reliably known,” but through her singular perspective and distinct use of language, she has filled these pages with things that can be.
In Life, Arnold shows us the basics of stark observation and the realness of presence. Spend time with this book, and be reminded of what you are a part of and all that you can see.
Susan Scarlata has lived among the skyscrapers of Hong Kong and the mountains in Wyoming. Along the way, she has been writing and teaching poetry and creative nonfiction for many years. Scarlata’s book, It Might Turn Out We Are Real, is available from Horseless Press. Scarlata holds degrees from Brown and the University of Denver and is the Editor and Publisher of the independent literary press Lost Roads. Scarlata’s recent work can be found in the Van Gogh Gogh anthology, on the PEN America website and is forthcoming on Tupelo Quarterly and the anthology Certain Stars Shoot Madly. She lives in Jackson, Wyoming with her wife and many wild animals.