Cecily Parks’s newest collection, O’Nights, begins in the exhilaration before a storm. In the opening poem, “Hurricane Song,” the speaker joins “the pines dizzying for a hurricane” in flirtatiously charged anticipation, and “the wind / so hotly twirls their skirts and underskirts, / unnerves their pinecones, ratchets up and up / their branches into needle-spangled, needle-spraying / plumes.” The speaker, swept up and blown around like the trees, relishes “that little kidnapped thrill that comes with drastic / weather,” reluctant to remove herself from its immediacy and take shelter.
Though the speaker in the first part of O’Nights is usually wearing a dress, she does not hesitate to muddy her feet or her hem, to dip her face in the pond or run through “the ankle-scraping scrub-shrub.” Indeed, she approaches the natural world in a physical, sensual way that is rare for poets these days, refusing to encounter it on solely philosophical terms or to simply stroll through and then reflect from a distance.
Take the poem “Amphibious,” for example, which begins with a red salamander in the leaf muck. The speaker wades in after:
and in a few hours
I wade again
my skin collected
when I was wetted
before. I’m forgetting
how to be a woman.
I look for other bodies.
The poem, like many in this collection, conveys a deep desire for engagement, a desire to shed the modern restraints that keep our human bodies separate from nature, a desire to shed even the body itself and merge with the “other bodies” of the landscape.
Parks writes out of an age beyond Transcendentalism, beyond Romanticism, and certainly “postpastoral” (the title of another poem). None of these older modes would be comfortable for the modern poet, who cannot use nature as a vehicle for transcendence, being all too aware of how humans have used nature—and destroyed it—for all manner of less-than-sublime purposes. When the speaker of “Amphibious” does seem to escape her human body, the image echoes the violence of this troubled relationship, the setting shifting to a roadside ditch:
I leave my hand
in a ditch beside
lays purple-backed grass
The hand, detached from the body, seems still to leave its mark of guilt, though grasses cover it, perhaps even to forgive it.
Though engagement is problematic, Parks seeks it anyway, and on a deeply intimate level. The impulse is akin, perhaps, to that of wilderness writer Terry Tempest Williams, whose sensual exploration of the landscape reaches a climax (quite literally) in her Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape. Similarly, in Parks’s “The Forest for the Trees,” the speaker believes her “panting / leaves wet blossoms / on the branches of this one tree” and wills her “mouth to press against elm / and ironwood.” But it is never so easy as that, and the speaker’s passion and desire to merge with a battered wilderness frequently meets resistance.
Herein lies the dialectical complexity of the first section of poems from O’Nights, inspired in part by the journal of Henry David Thoreau, from which the book takes its epigraph and strange title. In the epigraph, Thoreau recounts a friend’s observation that Emerson looks young, “but,” he says to Thoreau, “he has not been out o’nights as much as you have.” Night, for Parks too, is fertile in these poems, as is rain and loneliness—which sounds bleak but isn’t. The speaker (often out in the elements in the frequently mentioned dress) becomes a feminine Thoreau with a “modern thirst,” seeking a “wild original” that may no longer exist. “If I were lonely, I loved loneliness. / If I were hungry, I ate battered apples,” she writes in a language that seems to yearn for the past with its subjunctive grammar. She envies the wanderer, personified in Peregrine, the first English child born in the New World, “crying into/ the wilderness.” But the stars that the modern wanderer asks to jewel her instead show her loss: “My fields were ill. They weren’t my fields. // My trees were being killed. They weren’t my trees.” Even so, the speaker is not exactly left bereft, as the seeking itself is part of the wild exhilaration that she is after.
It would be easy to stay with the poems that make up the first third of the book. They are seductive, somehow both earthy and ephemeral. Parks’s language feels wholly her own, fresh and surprising and delicious to the tongue, especially in poems like “Bell,” where she tips toward ecstasy with the “silversmithing wind” and the “smithereening spring”: “I belly up to my queendom of nimblewill and bicycle chains.” This kind of language might be Parks’s signature—a sort of whimsy in the sounds and images that can make the world feel new and alive.
Happily, we don’t leave such seduction behind in the poems that follow, but new variables are introduced: in particular, in opposition to loneliness, love. (And, it’s notable, the dress comes off now, the speaker dressed in a nightgown or “little more than underwear,” or simply “dressless”). Even as the speaker wanders a derelict garden alone, the beloved enters her thoughts: “I think my love of lonesomeness / bewilders my love.”
The poems now oscillate between inner and outer worlds, between the domestic and the wild. The speaker is situated between the two, as in “Aubade with Foxes,” in which she stands outdoors half dressed, as the beloved, a doctor, drives off to work. On one side is the house, “with two flights of stairs to climb”; on the other is the woods and the dens of foxes. “Which version of heaven will feed me / until my love comes home?” she asks herself. Similarly, in “Skylight,” she juxtaposes the eye of a pond and the eye of a skylight, telling the skylight, “I know the hunger—your hunger— / to have the sky inside you.” Instead of her panting making blossoms on a tree, “glass is what my panting blooms against.” Caught between outside and inside again, she wonders, “How can I love weather and a window too?”
However, lest it appear that love only tames and domesticates, the love poems of O’Nights—some of the best poems in the book—have their own wildness:
Sheet of mist on the unmade bed.
The sky begins at my mouth: star, moon, meteoric truck.
I find the wind. You find my west.
Paradise, that Edenic wilderness, becomes a post-Eden paradise, not abandoned but discovered anew, the lovers’ desire for each other blended with the desire to be embedded in the landscape: “It begins with the wish to be small enough to fit in each other’s mouths, to be the taste of wind that leaps off the river, to be the taste of two currents braiding.”
There is a “we” now in the wandering, and belonging now to that “we,” the speaker seems to feel less desperation to merge entirely with “this wilderness / that we trespass, burning like berries in the juniper.” Still taken and tumbled by wonder, she knows nonetheless, “the field can be / a companion / but not my daughter.” The penultimate poem of the book, “Blue Oat Grass Epithalamium” is a love poem set within the eternity of the earth; the lovers give up that eternity for the love that makes them mortal.
Shot through with desire and unabashed wonder, O’Nights is ultimately a multi-layered love poem both to a person and to the earth—and to what brings them all together.
HANNAH FRIES’S writing has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Massachusetts Review, and other journals. Her first collection of poems, Little Terrarium, will be published by Hedgerow Books in November 2016.
O’Nights, by Cecily Parks. Alice James Books, 2015.