Copper Canyon Press, 2013
by James Crews
I am sad to say that, perhaps like many readers, I had never heard of Tom Hennen until a poet-friend sent me a few pieces from Darkness Sticks to Everything. This volume finally collects all of Hennen’s past work, along with his new poems, into a single book. And I can say, without hesitation, that this collection is one of my favorites, easily one of the best books of 2013. It is most surprising that so few of us have heard of Tom Hennen because his exacting poems (in their own original ways) echo the work of past U.S. Poet Laureates and evoke a rich sense of place, as so few poets deign to do nowadays. In fact, in his introduction to the collection, Jim Harrison points out, “In a peculiar way I identify the geniuses of Ted Kooser and Tom Hennen with each other,” and Thomas R. Smith, in his afterword, makes the same connection between these “poets of place,” also comparing Hennen to other well-known Minnesota poets like Robert Bly and Louis Jenkins as well as the Chinese poets, Tu Fu and Han-shan. These are apt comparisons easily illustrated by a poem like “Autumn Waiting”:
Is in no hurry and stays
For a long time
On each corn stalk.
Blackbirds sit in bunches.
From a distance
They are quiet as piles of dark grain
Spilled on the road.
A Hennen poem asks us to slow down and look, and in the precise, inevitable unfolding of his lines, I find myself reminded of the work of Jane Hirshfield and the poems of another underappreciated master from Minnesota, Connie Wanek. It is also hard not to note the echoes of the Nobel Laureates, Tomas Tranströmer and Harry Martinson, especially in Hennen’s prose poems, each of which is a small miracle of patience and close observation. In “By the Creek Bank,” for instance, he writes:
There is some secret that water holds that we need to know. I edge up close to the creek and peer into it for a revelation of some kind, an explanation of the world. Some things I think I know: that the sun rises, that the darkness heals, that animals are intelligent, that rocks are aware, that the earth has a sense of humor.
The urge to compare Hennen to other masters like Kooser and Wanek stems from the timelessness and universality he achieves with each poem in this volume. Spending so much time in a single place—the prairies of western Minnesota, in this case—often allows a writer to uncover a singular clarity of vision, which is always present in the work of poets we most admire. And I believe that, at the heart of Hennen’s hard-won clarity, is really what we might call a “poetics of sincerity.” The Latin root of the word sincere is sincerus, meaning “pure, clean and untainted.” Hennen’s poetry arrives on the page free of literary ambition and the egoism that has nearly become de rigeur in the work of many poets in the 21st century. In fact, the very goal of Hennen’s work seems to be to “dissolve” the self—or at least to reduce its pull—by finding a greater consciousness in his outer world, as is evident in another prose poem, “Made Visible”:
The world is full of bodies. It’s a happy thing and they should all be loved . . . Sometimes I forget which body I’m in, like now, as I rest on my favorite log, an old aspen near Muddy Creek. The log, warm in the spring day, seems to lose more weight each year. It is dissolving as it dies. Before long it will be light enough to lift off the ground, rise past the treetops and into the sky . . .
Some will no doubt see these poems as operating in the Deep Image tradition of American poetry, in the vein of Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Denise Levertov and others. While that label may apply, Hennen’s work, to my mind, hews more closely to what Robert Bly calls “poems of twofold consciousness.” A poem of “twofold” or “shared” consciousness, as Bly explains in his now-seminal anthology, News from the Universe, looks out at the natural world and recognizes evidence of intelligence and feeling beyond the merely human. Nowadays, we would probably call this “ecopoetry,” but it seems to me that most of the poems we place in that category miss the mark, especially if the goal of environmental literature is to bring to readers a greater awareness of the natural world. Ecopoetry ought to acknowledge a consciousness beyond the world we have imposed on our surroundings. Flip through any anthology that purports to be comprehensive (especially the recently published Ecopoetry Anthology) and you will see a gathering of well-written poems that describe and sometimes engage with nature, but which often fail to take the necessary leap toward intertwining our human presence with that of the non-human, in all its inherent mysteries. What separates Hennen from many of his contemporaries is his willingness to identify with the natural world in a way that feels neither possessive nor self-serving, but simply (once again) sincere:
Lying here in the tall grass
Where it’s so soft
Is this what it is to go home?
In his afterword to Darkness Sticks to Everything, Thomas R. Smith suggests that Hennen’s unadorned and honest work will likely not “impress the urban poetry tastemakers always running with the newest, most attention-getting verbal displays.” Yet the strength of these poems is precisely what the “tastemakers” might perceive as a failure of vision—that Hennen chooses, more often than not, the natural world as his subject matter, and still manages to “make it new,” as Pound once counseled. The literary establishment’s myopic focus on the supposedly innovative (to the exclusion of work often deemed “too sentimental” because it often describes real places, people and things) is enough to make me worry that there are other poets like Tom Hennen who have single-mindedly devoted their lives to the practice of poetry—often at great sacrifice—and who may nonetheless go undiscovered. But I have to trust that truly great work (and I cannot stress enough the greatness of this book) will always find its way into print and into the hands of eager readers. And those of us who prefer a steady diet of accessible and clear work by Jim Harrison, Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek alongside the innovative work of C.D. Wright and Dean Young, owe a debt of thanks the staff at Copper Canyon Press for consistently delivering some of the best, most satisfying books in America today. I hope that a whole new generation of readers will treasure Darkness Sticks to Everything, as I do, so that we might all live closer to “where everything wild begins.”