A Different Slant: A review of Jerome Gagnon’s Refuge for Cranes
Boston: Wildhouse Poetry, 2023. $19.99
As young as ten years of age, this poet looked at the world differently. In “Begonia Days,” he writes: “I’m not sure what’s to be seen in them, exactly,” after which he references their colors and their sparseness, then writes:
...the eel-like stems they sprout from
seem to have minds of their own,
as if they might slither out of their pots
and along the dark wooden planks
back to the sea.”
The reader can never look at a begonia the same way again.
And that is the heart of this collection. It offers the reader different ways of looking at a world that shifts into the extraordinary from the ordinary elements of every day.
On the surface, it would be easy to read these poems as accessible descriptions of the world of ordinary things, to enjoy the beauty the poet highlights from the garden or the woods or the land and creatures around him. But let each poem linger in the mind and their subtle complexity emerges.
In “Things Are Opening Up Here, Again,” the poet describes the world easing out of the pandemic, noting “the parking lot,” “a boarded-up savings and loan,” and “dozens of fallen cones.” The poet guesses that the grounds “hadn’t been tended in over a year,” a familiar view of how our lives were upended during that time and how we let things go. But the poet doesn’t let go. The cones “were an unexpected sight” and “waiting...to split open and be tossed here and there.” He takes us back millions of years to pinecones that opened “slowly” when submerged in water, the time frame and the adverb “slowly” so important because they lead to this unexpected slant:
What I saw scattered at my feet
was the patience I’ve dreamed of, the thing
that will outlive us if we let it, past the pandemic,
the rising waters and all the rest,
and I think so often it comes down to this —
recognition of the possible
and the wisdom to leave things where they fall.
What is also important is the humble approach of the poet, who includes himself with ‘us’ by referring to “the patience I’ve dreamed of.” His impatience, his fallibility, and ours are one and the same, but unlike many who might see those cones, he recognizes “the possible.” The “wisdom to leave things where they fall” is incumbent on us all.
In “When I Let Go,” he speaks of letting go “of the idea of getting it unalterably right, / the way things ought to be, / or of putting it all back together again.” He reflects on memory, observation, and listening, and asks: “what more could I want?” He honors this idea throughout his collection, but he doesn’t let go of what he sees. He reflects on his observations and takes the reader to new visions of what they might mean. The sections and poems that follow “When I Let Go” all hark back to the idea in that poem, that we sublimate our desire to “get it right” according to our own vision, that we pay attention to our observations as they come to us, and that we reflect on those observations to seek a deeper understanding of their meaning.
The poet has chosen “Refuge for Cranes,” as the title for his collection, the subtitle being “Praise Poems from the Anthropocene,” the time when human activities have impacted the environment enough to constitute a distinct geological change.
The title poem, “Refuge for Cranes,” reflects the poet’s keen observation of cranes. They “descend on the flooded field / in waves with a clapping of wings / and a chain of trumpet calls.” With the sight and sound of the cranes in our consciousness, the poet likens the cranes to “saplings with wings,” and closes the first section of the poem with “To see them is to see parts of them, the pieced / carapace of their one life,” bringing the poet from the distant view of a sedge of cranes to the “parts” of them that make up the whole.
In the second part of the poem, the cranes “stand in the shallows” “contemplating stillness and any movement in stillness, / their wings wrapped to their core.” The contrast brings the reader close to the crane physically, their only movement being to capture prey and eat.
Part three begins with “We won’t see the likes of them again...” The phrase haunts as we have been brought close to the crane in the previous parts and now feel loss. The poet reminds the reader of the crane “skimming the surface of the water” and how “their enormous wings” comb the air. He closes by reminding us of birth and death, a child that “could be carried by them” and “an old soul” that could “be transported to the moon.” We last hear the crane’s “piercing notes” as “our doubts” are “dissolved in their lurching climb.”
The final poem, “We, cranes,” closes the collection by circling back to the idea in that first poem. If we pay attention, we connect to the world. The cranes are presented in a way that is truthful, not embellished or romanticized. The cranes have “gone gray” and “rise up / like stink from a sandbar,” but they “call to the everything and the one...scratching [their] message to this passing world.”
At the back of the collection, “Saving Cranes,” is a one-page essay on organizations attempting to save cranes and some of the key accomplishments in that effort.
These are poems with a different slant on the world. We are called to listen.
Aline Soules’ work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Houston Literary Review, Poetry Midwest, The Galway Review, and others. Her book reviews appear in Tupelo Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, and Matter Monthly. She earned her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles in both poetry and fiction. Online: https://alinesoules.com.