October 13, 2011KR OnlineReview

On Kevin Goodan’s Winter Tenor

Alice James Books: Farmington, ME, 2009. 80 pages. $15.95.

Winter TenorKevin Goodan’s second book of poems, Winter Tenor, presents a series of evocative meditations on what it is to live close to the earth, with wonder and humility, amidst the violent practicalities of farm life. None of the poems inWinter Tenor are titled, blurring the boundaries between them and allowing pastoral landscapes to bleed into one another. This structure creates an intimate narrative from what could be, in different hands, emotionally distant observations; pieces without a clear speaker are juxtaposed with intense accounts of spiritual or bodily awakening, loss, and renewal. In these poems, telescoping between interior and exterior spaces provides an epistemological and ontological pose toward living in the world—Goodan sees the self in nature and vice versa.

Much of this book is fueled by Goodan’s Catholic sensibilities, which inform his litanies and refrains of flora, of fauna, of fire. This spiritual exploration is marked by what can be seen, and conversely, by what is hidden or unknowable, by the speaker’s acceptance of our inability to know anything completely:

There are roads not to take
Though the flood has passed
And heat comes on,
When to see any limited form
Is to not see—
Two notes that can always be heard—
Swallows above mud-slake,
No-see-ems in the heart,

The perspective of this poem moves both outward and inward simultaneously, embodying the sting of the biting midge as an emotional and spiritual pull on the speaker, while the unreliability of sight alters the speaker’s physical experience of the natural world. As happens often throughout Winter Tenor, the recurrence of fire manifests the divine.

The threat of death haunts many of these poems, and Goodan carefully balances this reality with a pragmatic assurance that only living begets art:

To have watched the dandelion
Open its mane to sun, walked the river-shore
Its herons like witching sticks on dark water,
And sat as the groundchuck perused
Pigweed and cheetgrass in the pasture
Is to know death is a place
And each thing lives there.

Goodan’s subjects continually twist between violence and co-existence, between human presence in the natural world and our inevitable passing from it, making his thoughtful negotiation between presence and absence especially poignant:

The ivy didn’t
Survive the last hard cold spell.
Some things believed to be hardy
Are not so. And if there is danger,
If no world lasts
Who’s to say we were even here at all.

Strikingly, Goodan’s poems evoke calm in the face of obscurity, rather than despair; humanity toward the world and its brutalities, rather than alienation. This polyvalence is especially evident in the ways Goodan renders necessary acts of violence. Although the speaker’s hands seem often to be holding knives for gelding or butchering, they can also be gentle: “I cup my hands, realizing I / have become what it was I wanted to be. The body beside me breathing / on. The two of us.” The same speaker who slits the throat of an ewe wonders, “Will you go as gently to the knives?”, a question that drives the speaker’s deep-seated awareness of mortality to the very last stanza.

In a 2008 interview conducted for Rain Taxi, Goodan commented on the connection between poetry and “the ineffable”: “The poem works towards trying to catch that unsayable thing. . . . So the poem is a movement outward or inward to the idea or realization of other weathers, that there are other things out there that we can’t see. Even though we can’t see it or codify it, it dominates our lives.” Arguably the dominant presence in Winter Tenor is the unstoppable energy of the natural world, its ebbs and flows, its violent, unexpected turns and its stark beauty: “For what is the earth but a thing / To make time visible / And what is there, finally, to hold— / The ewe gone hoarse from bleating, / The lamb in me not singing to be saved.” There are as many “unsayable things” captured in the precision of Goodan’s writing as there are “unseeable” ones—the violence many of us are privileged to elude, the unflinching faith of a speaker on fire for living.

Kristen Evans teaches and studies writing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her poems have appeared in recent issues of Jellyfish and GLITTERPONY, and she serves as assistant managing editor of jubilat.