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A review of Fossil Sky from Jonathan Skinner in Ecopoetics


The CircaËte, or Snake Eagle, endemic to the CÈvennes, subsists entirely on snakes, especially the grass snake (according to A reader of David Hinton’s Fossil Sky will learn this in the notes glossing the name of a bird, whose cries of “pkeer pkeer” punctuate the poem. The “jacket” blurb tells us that the poem, which “distills a year of walks taken near the poet’s home,” was written “during a period of time he spent in southern France.”

The poem comes folded up exactly like a map, spreads across a huge “page” measuring roughly four feet square, and is bounded by a thin blue circle (radius of about 26 inches). The myriad “lines” squiggle across it like ant trials or the cracks in a heated tortoise shell. (The author appears to have made use of the “Bezier paths” tool in layout software.) At first glance, the reader might think s/he is looking at a “map” of the poet’s walks near his home in the CÈvennes. (Did the poet trace his lines over the trails marked on his topographical map?) There is no clear indication where the poem “starts” and where it “finishes.” At what appears to be roughly the center of the blue circle, we begin to read, “Tracing spring’s return for weeks before hearing an old friend far away died in late winter.” This “trail” continues for three more winding phrases of similar length, separated by triple spaces—reflections on familiarity and “earth’s elemental indifference.” It crosses three other trails, including the head of another trail that begins “A thin scree of light pollen hisses on the clear glacial lake . . . ”

While it might be tempting to think this “center” of the sphere represents the location of the poet’s home, since three other trails issue from that spot, there are many other such centers on the map, constituted by three or four emerging lines, appearing to gravitate together like chromosomes under a microscope. This pattern of centers and wandering peripheries gives the whole a pleasantly random yet harmonious aspect. Furthermore, isolated phrases—“The no beckons,” “wings shimmering,” “a roof,” “hear waves”—and words—“oxygen,” “carbon,” “laughing,” an onomatopoetic “pKeeerr”—spray off the ends of lines in a way that indicates, in some respects at least, the mimesis and expressivity of a calligramme rather than cartographic projection.

One also wonders about the compositional method, in relation to walking: were the lines and stanzas for this poem culled from notes kept while walking? Or just after walks? Did the poet plot his lines while contemplating a map of his walks? Or were they otherwise “recollected in tranquility”? Were the lines composed with an aleatoric procedure such as Richard Tuttle’s wire release sculptures?

Is the poem “projective,” in the Olsonian sense, a work of “open” form or “composition by field”? Does it, at all points, “go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares”? There is a feeling of tracery, as if the poem might have been composed beforehand and then each section “set” into a long bezier curve, with extra spaces for the line breaks, and capital letters indicating new stanzas, as in the following:

We’re more sky than anything else
more sights and sounds forgotten and lost
but light forgets it all perfectly:

Frost-glazed grasses shimmer
shuddering under faint breezes
slowly turning meltwater dark

Frost heavier down along the shoreline
promising the wordless
ink-dark clarities snow brings to lake-water

It’s cold and frost-melt wet
and I’ll soon remember nothing about this routine walk

Perhaps I should have stayed home:
a roof
a fire
a family

But there are other forms of shelter:
Boundless sky
cocoon light
whisper snow

Is it more than an arrangement, to have this set along a squiggling, intermittent line? Either way, it does seem that the exploitation of new typesetting technology, to draw out, bend and pluck stanzas (as when the six short phrases in the last two “stanzas“ fly off in different directions like sparks, birds or droplets), and the layering of these drawn-out stanzas, within the poem’s blue horizon, to create something like a simultaneous network, rather than linear “message,” initiates an entirely different experience for the reader.

The large format is both overwhelming and accessible in one glance. The intermittent spaces (that I have interpreted as “stanza” breaks) allow one to pick up, or drop, the reading of any given line at multiple points. And sometimes the line, like a mineral seam, disappears for quite a ways, to get picked up only later by the carefully tracking eye. Sometimes a line splits into several branches, or several lines combine into one. And, occasionally, lines loop back as if to swallow their tails, or cross back over themselves, as if to delimit a “closed area”—reinforcing that uncertain “weren’t we here before?” feeling. Finally, on one occasion, at least (when “You might pile such ruins up into a borie and light a candle” intersects with “A mourning candle burns down into shallows”) two different lines share the same word (“candle”) so that the reader suddenly is faced with a fork in the “track.” (“Borie,” according to an author’s note, is a dome-shaped shelter built without mortar from stones gathered in the fields, traditional to the farmlands of Provence since the neolithic.) At the word “candle” two tracks suddenly become four—an experience familiar to anyone who’s hiked goat trails. As in such a maze, or hive, there’s seemingly an infinite number of tracks to follow, poems to read.

The further the walker gets from home the more s/he is asked to reflect on “other forms of shelter,” on what it might mean to be “sheltered” by sky, light, snow; similarly, we might ask what shelters the poem, once removed from the book? Where Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems“contains” its infinitude within the closed form of the sonnet, Hinton chooses to bound his forking composition with the simple, yet hermeneutically loaded, gesture of a blue circle. (Hommage to Richard Long?) The careful yet seemingly random distribution of the lines, the visual element of the composition that aims to please the unifying glance as much as the particulate examination, “extends” the “content” of Hinton’s meditations on nature, transience, home, mortality and the “long view” of old age (“early crickets pitched too high for aging ears”):

We cannot say the lake cares, cannot say it doesn’t
Yes, the particular is meaningless

. . .

long-legged, skitterish, sunning
motionless on the warm stone ruins, a cricket
startles away

. . .

The long view is a mirror . . .
sight leaving earth’s every instance perfectly itself

Fossil Sky calls into question the supposed “nonlinearity” of projectivist compositions (in, say, works by Olson, Eigner, Howe), which, compared to this work, still seem ruled by a left-to-right and top-to-bottom reading grid. Its large format also exceeds the measures of most digital work. And what a spin on proprioception: the poem’s snaking lines curve “upside down” so that you have to twist your head around to keep reading—or, as a blurb on the cover-fold suggests, put the poem on the floor, get down on your hands and knees and crawl around it.

The poem is full of transcendental observations (“Lit gold lining the parched whorl of broom’s empty seedpods”) yet it is not romantic:

Exhausted after three days tending a sick family
I set out to gather fresh rose-hips among mountains forgetting them
selves in turn now
and too tired even for a lazy walk through this afternoon’s weave of all
that was or ever will be here
I meet mountain peaks on their own terms
sentinels of indifference deep in their vast histories

Literary-philosophical sources for the discipline of “forgetting” this poem seems to urge, and for its nominalism of particulars, will no doubt be found in the works of the Chinese mountain poets Hinton is an accomplished translator of, or in Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. But the openings of the form can lead to “extra-literary” uses: keep it on your wall, pick out a line at random and zoom in for a moment’s thought or bit of advice. (In this sense it does work like the Chinese diviner’s heated tortoise shell.) Furthermore, the recurrent CircaËte and the never-ending form almost serve to turn the reader into a “Snake hawk”: is this the hawk’s eye view of the poet’s walks?

The long view is also a mirror: watch out —when you begin to take the poem in, like the CircaËte you may find yourself digesting the head of your prey while you are still swallowing the tail.

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