The Untameable Wilderness: A Review of Cecily Parks’s O’Nights

Willie VerSteeg

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2015. 100 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In Cecily Parks’ second book of poetry the title, as well as much of the text within, is borrowed from Henry David Thoreau, and, like Thoreau, this collection is rife with pastoral fascination (or “wilderness,” to use Parks’ term, one she seems most invested in exploring). Still, the relationship between the speaker of these poems and the wilderness Parks seeks is not a harmonious one—there will be no Snow White with songbirds here. The speaker’s disposition toward wilderness and the romance sought therein can quickly shift from a quiet awe (“Overhead, darkness circuited through // its diamond guides”) to a tenacious and dogged pursuit (“The tree began to weep. / I licked what it wept. / I would own the forest.”). The collection explores the demands placed upon wilderness and the fallacy of taming that which is by definition untamed. But the focus here is on language—on poetry—and so in its own way this is a deeply ecolinguistic conversation: even an attempt to rend nature into language is a demand and a transgression against its essential wilderness. How wild, really, is something that can be packaged in our fungible language of poetry?

By starting with Thoreau, Parks sends up a flare in the long tradition of the pastoral. In her own journey into the wilderness, the speaker endeavors to find the same return-to-nature ecstasy chronicled by Thoreau and other predominantly male forebears of the genre. In “When I Was Thoreau at Night,” the collection’s most deliberate gesture, the speaker is thus disappointed to find “disheveled spruces” and that her “fields were ill.” Following that, an even more painful revelation: “They weren’t my fields. // My trees were being killed. They weren’t my trees.” In her covered-head disguise, the speaker admits that she is  “a woman // pretending to be the man,” and later concludes, in one of the book’s more candid moments, that she looks like a “weird nun in the night garden.”

Everything that catches the speaker’s eye is described through its relation to something else. This ecological sensibility is pleasantly germane in a book concerned with the natural world. Consider the sentence-making in “Aubade with a Bicycle”:

down the wet black street past the yellow house the purple house
the Christmas lights fruiting in the bushes

past the playground with its crowd
of leaves around the merry-go-round.

It is dizzying, and it is a prepositionally-stacked maneuver that Parks returns to with frequency: “There is an entry / in an index on a page frail enough // for light to crawl into it.” While many of these moments of syntactical play are enjoyable or even impressive, with such a move comes risks, and with such a proclivity for drawn-out sentences comes dramatic and hulking misses, such as this passage from the first poem, “Hurricane Song”:

The meadow
sweeps me up in its arms so that I lose track of east
and feel that little kidnapped thrill that comes with such drastic
weather.

Or later, from “Twelve-Wired Bird-of-Paradise”: “A bird named does not exist for us in its name, just as we don’t know what the seed is if we don’t know if it will let itself be pressed in our palm’s deepest crease and warmed there.” Moments like these turn up sporadically in the poems, seeming to fall somewhere on the spectrum from failed experiments (“Introspective Vocabulary”: “Of all of them, the first is the most, / written without hindsight.”) to falling asleep at the wheel (“Fieldfare”: “Field wing. Field sky. / Field fall. Field flung. // Field seed. Field sung”) and so on.

For a collection inclined toward heeding its place within tradition, O’Nights has a surprising tendency to slip into cliché. At one point early on, the speaker has a completely unironic conversation with the moon. Birds populate the pages as seemingly inexhaustible emblems of whatever:

I could sour my mouth
eating its jagged leaves, suck

the meat off sparrow bones
if I knew how to trap a bird
and open it.

Perhaps the most egregious, though, is “The Ornithology Lab at Night,” in which the speaker can’t help herself from breaking into the lab, perhaps simply because the poet fails to imagine a singular place containing more dead birds. The book is poised to engage in a complex discussion of gender, inherent to the critique of the return-to-nature conquest and its literary tradition as a masculine enterprise. While that complexity is playing on high in poems like “When I Was Thoreau at Night,” in this poem, the discussion slips into a simple binary:

I’ve been told
she is a lake
the size of a barrette, but duller than

her brother. All
the females are,
I whisper.

Moments like this give the book a certain Jekyll/Hyde quality. In one mode, it can seem to critique the familiar trodden path of nature poetry—consider, for instance, the poem “Postpastoral,” and how it parades the trope of the hermit woodsman: “I would build a house // to be lonely in.”; “I swung the axe / to split a birch. / I only nicked it.”; “I would own the forest.”  But in another breath it can seem like it is skipping joyfully down that very well-worn path, like in the opening lines of “The Ornithology Lab at Night”: “An indigo ex-goddess / to roost in my ribs / and warn my heart of waylaying.” The line that distinguishes an earnest pastoral infatuation from a sharp critique nested in irony is a fine one here, leaving the reader to wonder just how deeply Parks has her tongue lodged in her cheek. After indulging in that infatuation, what do we make of a moment that seems almost like a fairy tale parody? From “I Have Set Fire to the Forest”:

My dress snatches at my armpits
like a baby squirrel I might take back

to my cabin to nurse and coax
into companioning me.

That said, there are places in which the verse rises beautifully above the chattering split personalities (“This crooked morning / indexes every gray / in its quiver”). As the book progresses, there is a general movement back into society and domestic scenes, including two poems whose presence in the collection is at least a little mysterious (“Alice James” being the first—a kiss blown to the press?—and “Girls Ride Shotgun in the Ice Cream Truck” immediately following, which reads as out-of-place as it sounds).

But the strongest and most sincere moments of the book arrive in said domestic scenes, where the sights shift from the natural world to romantic love. A lover known simply as “the doctor” inhabits some of the best pieces of the book, and even the somewhat awkward moments have a certain charm in their frankness:

He blows me a kiss

and I want to rush back into the house
up two flights of stairs and into his arms our bed

but this is the time of day we leave each other.

This culminates in the penultimate poem, “Blue Oat Grass Epithalamium.” Though the lovers are literally lying in a meadow and gazing at the “ebullient clouds,” it’s easy to forgive the familiar scene at this juncture of the book. After grappling with an uncooperative landscape for nearly ninety pages, the fight in the speaker has waned:

Because we didn’t look for each other,

the stones crept up out of the dry phantom
of a river to bury us. We were
tired. We let them.

The speaker finally yields, and having stopped trying to exert her control over it, finds the landscape acting in kind: “With the strength we’d saved for / eternity, we turned to face each other. Blue oat grass lay down between us to let us look.” With the return-to-nature movement leaving both speaker and reader disappointed, how appropriate to end with the beloved entering the focus, and the wilderness returning to the periphery.

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