Lichen sticking to the grooves of tree bark. Pine needles surrounding a house embedded in the woods. A pale, yellow flower grazing the finger of a young man leaving for war. Imagining life as a tardigrade, or “little water bear.” Bramble-scrawled oak trees. Burial mounds so natural they seem part of the landscape.
Nature and geography offer a wealth of images and metaphors for poetry, and poet Michelle Menting drinks deeply from that source in her new collection, Leaves Surface Like Skin. The 46 poems of the collection are filled with nature’s images, but filled in a distinct way. Menting uses nature, geography, landscape, and the seasons to probe and push against the human condition. This is not so much nature poetry as it is nature poetry in the service of understanding yourself and the people surrounding you.
Consider the sharing of a simple photograph. A brother and sister are framed by rocks and mountains. The photograph is being shared because the sister wants her friend to see the brother who has left for war. The poem is filled with images of landscape—rocks, boulders, mountains, foothills, prairie, sky. But one particular image leaves an indelible impression, an indelible memory.
I haven’t met him, not yet, not soon,
but you showed me that picture,
the two of you in the mountains, the rocks
in the background all cragged like a snapshot
of a shudder as if chills could be caught
on the face of stones. If only you with your gaze,
that half-sober smile—drunk from nostalgia
and bonding over beers—could buffer that landscape,
could blanket those sharp edges, place everything
in soft focus. But the focal point, the real one
if I could pick it, was that pale yellow ﬂower,
the one your brother grazed with his left index ﬁnger.
Its stem, bent and leaning, bowed across the space
between the two of you. In the background,
just a glimpse of sky. And all those rocks and boulders
stuck in that photograph, with you with your brother,
will remain in that western land, will be there in autumn
when we drive out to watch the prairie grass copper,
when we look out across the crevices of rock,
when we climb the foothills and wait.
What lingers is that image of the pale, yellow flower, the fragile piece of beauty in a landscape of jagged lines and edges. You can see the brother’s left index finger touching that flower; you can understand how much the brother is like that flower, a fragile piece of life in a harsh world.
This is typical for the poems in Menting’s collection.
Menting has published two poetry chapbooks, Myth of Solitude (2013) and Residence Time (2016). Her poetry has been published in numerous literary journals; she has served and serves as editor for a number of poetry and literary publications; and she is becoming poet-in-residence at the National Park Service’s Isle Royale National Park. She received a B.A. degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, M.F.A. and M.A. degrees from Northern Michigan University, and a Ph.D. degree from the University of Nebraska.
Leaves Surface Like Skin is a fine, striking example of how poets can use the imagery of nature to move far beyond the image and strike the mind, and the heart.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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