Natural Alchemy

by Michael LaForge
PenShells
First Place, June 2011
Judged by Judith Fitzgerald


In the old growth tangle of Lighthouse Park
somewhere on the Seven Sisters Trail
near Song Bird Meadow, I am struck dumb.

There is nothing new about the nurse logs
nestled on the forest floor, roots angled skyward;
nothing about the moss, the western hemlock,

the sudden granite outcrops,
gulls and ravens, crash
of distant surf on naked rock.

Even this giant red cedar rising up before me
like a thousand years of sky-crowned history
is not unusual. Some trick of breath, perhaps,

but something in me suddenly
grows still and mighty
as that monolithic tree

and a voice comes like ferns
stirring in a downdraft:

It is just like this; just like this.


If, as Dr. Marshall McLuhan averred, modernist poets deliberately mix up the five elements of rhetoric, then "Natural Alchemy" proves his main point, namely that fractured times require fractured responses to them, despite the tightly knit three-line stanzas (save for the echoing final set, brokenbroken, broken), precisely because the speaker's "struck dumb." Although not a propagandistic screed lamenting the loss of nature in our virtually extinct environment/s, the brief yet superbly controlled lyric does indeed advocate for an ecology of mind, body, spirit, and the gratuitously sacred spaces reminiscent of the work presented in Alice Oswald's 2005 anthology, The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems for the Planet, say, especially those entries from Heaney, Whitman, Hopkins, et.al. Neither sermon, lesson, nor manifesto, "Natural Alchemy" ranges across the universe to arrive at the base of "this giant red cedar" which, in turn, tracks back to the nurse logs, both literally and figuratively, the fecund and the fallow, the essential and existential combining and recombining in that necessary stillness: Just? Justice? Sanctuary or cosmological suicide? The choice is ours. (The title throws one for a loop, so diffuse and wide-reaching, from cosmetics to Homer, Snyder, Thoreau, Pound, Anand, to . . ..) Then, of course, both Shakespeare and Wordsworth would approve; but, truly, I kept thinking of Ian Hamilton Finlay's 15-word "Estuary" included in the Oswald offering: "RUSH SEDGE COUCH MARRAM BENT / CURLEW WHIMBREL GULL LAPWING TERN / ESSO MOBIL BP EXXON SHELL"; and, yes, that historically protected beacon of light in the rapidly descending darkness, the one carrying with it the universal illumination of the final lines, of the fact it is JUST like this, "For the rain it raineth every day." — Judith Fitzgerald

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