“Struck from flint / of fleeting time”

Arranging Nature, Paul Naylor Chax Press (2006)

Hank Lazer

Paul Naylor’s Arranging Nature begins,

Mother of delight,

sweet wheeling sign,

rouse sea and

all we breathe

and begotten rise to light (11)

allowing us to enter a written space with a somewhat romantic, archaic tone, a poetry that, like Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS, feels like an erasure, a condensation, a reduction. In his concluding note, Naylor tells us, “I began Arranging Nature while reading Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things as a way of thinking through the question of what it might mean to approach nature in poetry in the 21st century.” I would suggest that the following series of issues and concerns, if not in perfect rhyme, are related, kindred, in parallel: how then to treat and make use of a text or nature? How then to admit reverence and joy without embarrassment; how then to “use” text or nature without exploitation, to use while allowing the otherness of text and nature to persist and to avoid arrangement and composition; how to appreciate and note the prior and other composition, of text or nature, while somehow moving into relationship with it in “one’s own” writing? These seem to me to be the kinds of questions that underlie Arranging Nature.

There is a shapely, romantic beauty, particularly in the first and third sections, to Naylor’s meditations:

Why too bloom in spring, ripen in summer,

or pour forth its urging of autumn,

unless each thing

in time reveals

which earth will bear

so tender is light

from nothing once sprung

out of all haphazard. (13)

There is a density of sound and syllable in Naylor’s arrangements: “solid/ tight-packed parts” (18). In moments of joy, it is “most wondrous to be loved/ for godlike song/ in verse/ not born of human stock” (20), though this arranging of nature also must run dead into the realization as well that “It cannot be composed” (19).

Over the course of the five sections (each with 14 poems) of Arranging Nature, Naylor’s writing varies considerably, from the Lucretius-based first and third sections to the sentence-based, more documentary second and fourth sections, to the Zukofsky-like spare final section. Overall, the book constitutes a wide-ranging exploration of ways of arranging nature. One way of situating a relationship to nature is autobiographical: where I am, where I was, what I see. For Naylor, there is a specific geography – the mountains of Utah where he grew up:

I grew up surrounded by granite. Mountains made of it. Temples and banks built of it. Schools and stores named after it.

God’s Word lies locked in a granite vault up Little Cottonwood Canyon,

southeast of Salt Lake City. At twelve, I thought that might be true. (30)

While he does permit the autobiographical to become one arrangement of nature, Naylor typically deflates its importance. At times, as in his chart of events, beginning 4.6 Billion Years Ago with “Earth Formed,” the deflation is quite humorous. That chart ends with these entries (29):

Years Ago Event

4 Million First Humans

1.6 Million Ice Age Begins

10,000 Ice Age Ends

9,873 Writing Invented

Today Wrote This

I admire Naylor’s willingness both to admit the autobiographical and to deprecate its importance. The dialectic that Naylor presents moves between the inevitability of “Look out from where I am” (40) juxtaposed with a sense of personal erasure and insignificance where, oddly, “What doesn’t care brings comfort. Irrelevance brought to close focus” (39). The fundamental location for Naylor’s exploration is southern Utah, a terrain subject to dramatic erosion and exposure: “Saw in southern Utah petroglyphs two thousand years old etched by tribes whose ancestors arrived twelve thousand years before Brigham Young said this is the place” (33). That landscape invites Naylor into a descent to “where history draws a blank. Crawled in caves toward an uncertain source they wrote” (34). Though “I” is the one who sees and writes now, that personal “I” and the me-centered story of nature (which, let’s face it, remains the dominant nature story of contemporary poetry where nature becomes the staging place for my epiphany or my emotional intensity) receives Naylor’s concise scorn: “The Virgin River cut through 2000 feet of pink and white sandstone, leaving Zion Canyon in its wake as more than a place for me to take center stage” (39).

More appropriately, the dynamic of place is not a personal dynamic but a fundamental give and take, the making and being made of an entire people:

Known to us as their adversaries knew them, as Ancestral Enemies or Anasazi,

in Navajo. Known to their descendants, the Hopi, as Hisatsinom or The Old Ones.

What they made of nature—a basket woven from windblown reed, an

arrowhead chipped from obsidian.

And what nature made of them—antelope hunter, root seeker, water monger

wandering seep to seep.

Been and gone by the time Columbus came. Lithic scatter in tamarisk

grove. Mute ruins carved in alcoves facing south. Low doorway leads where?



Art of inner eye. (32)

Our living here, as their living here, then, is a scraping, a rubbing,

a making of a mark, a shadowing and a foreshadowing, a writing, while we are also being worn away, erased, shadowed, occluded, and turned into a vanished thing for the contemplation of a subsequent inner eye.

In the fourth section, Naylor’s move back to San Diego becomes the focal point. The riff on abrade/adumbrate gives may to the music of guise, guile, and guilt, and Naylor’s humor becomes part of a strategy for inhabiting the contemporary real estate development and its particular arranging of nature that he will live within: “None of these poems should end on a bleak note, so let’s agree that hydrangeas remind us all of Hostess Snowballs and call it a day” (61). This habitation of nature is intensely practical: “September 5. So here we are, happy to be back in this seaside desert where winter happens on a Wednesday.// Hope we can qualify for the jumbo loan” (61). But that genial evasive humor creeps forward into time and collides with September 11. The entire entry for that day consists of “There will never be enough flowers” (66).

In Arranging Nature, Naylor asks us to consider, what would truth be, and how might we be truthful, in writing, to the nature of our life in, of, by, and through this place? How might we tell of this life in nature? Are we capable of writing this place – what we designate as “nature” – without us? To what extent is our presence part of the telling of place? The fifth and final section of the book blends the earlier archaic sounding Lucretius-writing with an equally romantic but more finely chiseled, Zukofsky-like writing. The result is often a compressed, sonically rich writing:

But song struck from flint

of fleeting time

inflames each word secure

in mind’s ripe eye,

attuned to heartsharp ear. (78)

The world (I had mis-typed word) of give and take that Naylor leads us to is finally a gorgeous hymn, a concluding song for the cycles of doing and undoing that lie at the heart of the matter (88):


earth verse

vexed of forever,

fashioned of matter

both body and soul means

to end in unmeasured death;

recompose us as embryonic

starroot, severed from

every beginning not

seized by gravity is

saved by life’s


It is a perfectly balanced end-poem: six lines of entanglement and incorporation, six of recomposition and recirculation. Are the body and soul our means to entry into an unmeasured death, or is that what they mean to do in spite of us and our life-long resistance to that destiny? The final six lines arrange a moebius strip along which we can read into an endless process of beginning and ending.

The director Godfrey Reggio, whose major film Koyaanisqatsi, like Naylor’s Arranging Nature, begins with an image of the Hopi petroglyphs, suggests that the fundamental change in contemporary human life is so basic and prevalent that it goes unnoticed. In an interview about Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio asserts that our lives have gone from being housed and lived in nature to a new technological home. Such a shift means that our relationship to nature becomes something fundamentally different. No longer the ground of our being nor an ultimate pedagogical and philosophical locale, nature becomes a place we get away to, a denominated “wilderness” space, or a “saved” area (a kind of buffer zone or green space) that borders and enhances the value of a real estate development. Nature becomes a vacation or a recreation site. Such fundamental changes energize and unsettle the questioning and exploration of Arranging Nature.

Paul Naylor has surreptitiously begun to publish an important poetry. Arranging Nature follows quickly upon Playing Well with Others (Singing Horse Press, 2004 – a book that was one of the last that Gil Ott had committed to publish), and adds to the impressive chapbook Book of Changes (Quarry Press, 1999). In Playing Well with Others, Naylor plays with, puts into play, converses with, re-forms and de-forms materials from Deleuze, Wittgenstein, Keats, Michael Palmer and Michael Davidson, Lewis Carroll, and Plato, with an admirable humor and depth of engagement. Paul has deliberately chosen a place for himself outside of the literary hustle, rarely giving readings and not making appearances at conferences. But he is also now a publisher – Singing Horse Press, and previously, the journal Facture – and he continues his reading of philosophy (in conversation in San Diego with friends such David Antin and Michael Davidson) and his engagement with Buddhism and a range of other Eastern disciplines. The result is the development of a poetry informed by philosophy and spiritual practice, and by a commitment to innovation, combined with a commendably stubborn unwillingness to stay away from poetry’s traditionally most compelling topics. It is a pleasure to see the unfolding of this humorous, ambitious, skeptical and serious poetry. I am eager to see what’s next.

“Its human summary

if nothing else”

On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay

Robert Creeley University of California Press (2006)

The poems in On Earth are from Robert Creeley’s black reading folder on his desk when he died on March 30, 2005, during a residency in Marfa, Texas. Creeley’s widow, Penelope, has preserved the contents of the folder pretty much as she found it. The first two poems begin “When I think…” and “To think oneself again...” But what hits me as a simple observation, and one that has been forming as I’ve read through and savored Creeley’s two previous books of poetry, Life & Death (1998) and If I were writing this (2003), is something so totally obvious that it had not yet congealed for me: Creeley, for the past ten years or so, unabashedly explored (and embraced) the realm of what we’d usually think of as pure sentimentality. Earlier in his career, there were plenty of readers who found Creeley’s poetry to be cool, aloof, overly abstract, overly intellectual – a misconception made possible only if the movement and grace of finely lineated thinking is deemed to be without emotion. I suppose I had glimmerings of this simple insight about the importance of sentiment and sentimentality to Creeley’s later poetry when I heard reports of his talk at a Zukofsky conference at Buffalo a few years back – April 1997 – when, apparently, Creeley recited a great deal of Keats’s poetry, bringing himself and his audience to tears.

Over the last years of his life, Creeley would frequently tell stories about his childhood, about how poetry – particularly popular, sentimental rhymed poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century – was part of his family’s oral, performed, recited, shared culture. Bob recited portions of these poems with great joy, with a big smile, without derision or dismissal.

On Earth begins,

When I think of where I’ve come from

or even try to measure as any kind of

distance those places, all the various

people, and all the ways in which I re-

member them, so that even the skin I

touched or was myself fact of, inside,

could see through like a hole in the wall

or listen to, it must have been, to what

was going on in there, even if I was still

too dumb to know anything –

with a sinuous tracking that is characteristic of Creeley’s thinking and writing, but not in as chiseled a manner as the early writing. Here, the poem opens up with a more cascading quality, more relaxed in its saying, though with the Creeley-signature phrase “myself fact of.” I would like someday to dwell on that “fact of,” a New Englander’s precise love of fact and of facticity that links Creeley to Thoreau. The opening poem, “When I think of,” ends,

When I try to think of

things, of what’s happened, of what a life is

and was, my life, when I wonder what it meant,

the sad days passing, the continuing, echoing deaths,

all the painful, belligerent news, and the dog still

waiting to be fed, the closeness of you sleeping, voices,

presences, of children, of our own grown children,

the shining, bright sun, the smell of the air just now,

each physical moment, passing, passing, it’s what

it always is or ever was, just then, just there.

Creeley, in his personal and family life, reached a point of gratitude, and he was not ashamed to show it, having come a long circuitous way to that phase of appreciation, balance, and happiness. Never having lost his fervor for collaboration, for exploration, for new learning, Creeley embraced as well and as fully a time of simple happiness, and a poetry of emotional directness:

I’m feeling ok still in some small way.

I’ve come too far to just go away.

I wish I could stay here some way. (6)

But his was not always such a harmonious, lucid, unconflicted consciousness, as Creeley acknowledges in a poem for Paul Blackburn, where he wonders, “Why did I fight such/ surrogate battles of existence with such/ a specific friend as he was for sure?” (10). In his last years, the poet’s wish is not for more heated argument. Instead,

I wish

he were here now, we could go on talking,

I’d have the company of my own age in this

drab burned out trashed dump we call the

phenomenal world where we once walked

the wondrous earth and knew its pleasures. (10-11)

The more concise and implacable truths of On Earth are that

I am going now

and you can’t come with me . . . (26)


But now it’s just a sad walk

to an empty park,

to sit down and wait, wait to get out. (28)

Creeley accepts the task of writing what we might expect of the elderly – a summarizing wisdom poetry:

The only wisdom I have is what someone must have told me,

neither to take nor to give more than can be simply managed.

A full cup carried from the well. (47-48)

Indeed, a very full cup, and one from which we will continue to drink, though perhaps savoring more the still fresh playful taste of Creeley’s hip rather than sentimental rhetoric:

You got a song, man, sing it.

You got a bell, man, ring it. (49)

On Earth concludes with an essay, “Whitman in Age,” which Creeley wrote over Christmas 2004. It begins with a kind of nuanced precise personal generalization in a manner that typifies Creeley’s thinking throughout his writing life:

In age one is oneself reflective, both of what it has been to live and of what that act has become as a resonance (I’d almost written a residence) in memory—what it all meant, so to speak, what it had felt like. It is very hard for me to believe that what William Carlos Williams calls “the descent” (to the ending of life, one must presume) can ever be more than the accumulation a literal life must be fact of, the substance of a body, the history of such body in a particular time and place, the manifest of that locating “thing” in the myriad ways in which it has engaged and been engaged by the world surrounding. (59)

These two very rich sentences point us toward a phenomenology of aging, toward a specifically contoured feeling of that process as reflection and retrospective definition. The unfolding of the sentences and of the thinking is, so to speak, vintage Creeley, with the characteristically palpable sense of a life as “fact of.” But what is more remarkable about the essay is Creeley’s openness to the sentimental richness of Whitman’s final poetry, Creeley’s pleasure in and embrace of lines such as these from Whitman’s 1888 poem “Old Age’s Lambent Peaks,”

The touch of flame—the illuminating fire—the loftiest look at last,

O’er city, passion, sea—o’er prairie, mountain, wood—the earth itself;

The airy, different, changing hues of all, in falling twilight,

Objects and groups, bearings, faces, reminiscences;

The calmer sight—the golden setting, clear and broad.

There is not an ounce of condescension or irony in Creeley’s loving attention to Whitman’s late poetry, which, Creeley acknowledges, is often approached through the judgment that “the common sense is that Whitman’s poems faded as he grew older” (62). Perhaps, as Creeley suggests in passing, the essay is rooted in a rather horrifyingly honest conversation that he recalls took place in a Women’s Studies class in Warsaw, where Creeley asked the students about their sense of old age:

“They don’t smell good,” one answered. “They ramble on.” “They can’t take care of themselves. No one understands what they’re talking about, and they look awful.” I wanted to insist, “But you will all grow old, at least if you have any luck. To be human has growing old at its end…” (60-61)

In his own final poetry, I believe that Creeley tries to make this consciousness – the particular thinking and reflecting of old age – palpable and of interest. He shows it to us, as with his finest earlier work, as having its own specific quirky grace. Perhaps the most specific and compelling “fact of” that state is the gradual entry into the undifferentiated and the unlocatable, as Creeley notes about Whitman’s preoccupation with the sea:

In age the sea becomes more and more present as source and as that to which one returns, metaphorically perhaps but also quite literally, losing signifying name and function, entering the utterly common fate of all beyond any differentiation or exception. There is no longer a locating ground. (73-74)

As we age and as the death of friends becomes a more common part of experience – I have had two colleagues die in the past week – we must reckon with how to note these disappearances. Creeley offers a suggestion:

Some bright person, writing of the old, remarked that their insistent rehearsal of who has died would be better understood if one thinks of old age as a neighborhood in which almost daily a house burns down. Who would not be affected by that, one wonders. (77)

Poetry fulfills a specific need. As in the work of Robert Duncan, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson noted in Creeley’s essay, Creeley’s own poetry, as fact and as specifically beautiful idiosyncratic instance, makes a place that speaks to a rather urgent need:

“One needs something wherewith to make place for whatever a life has been, its human summary if nothing else” (80-81).

If there is a predecessor who shared Creeley’s lifelong commitment to the innovative necessity and who made a similar late life turn toward a greater emotional directness, into a poetry no longer fearful of the possible excesses of sentimentality, it would be William Carlos Williams, particularly in the poetry of The Desert Music, Journey to Love, and Pictures from Brueghel, and most especially in poems such as “The Yellow Flower,” “The Mental Hospital Garden,” and “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” The power and excellence of these later poems – by Creeley and by Williams – make me want to live for another twenty years and more if only to see if among the innovators who are my contemporaries, poets such as Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Harryette Mullen, some might make a similar turn. I have the sense that in the case of poets such as Creeley and Williams perhaps some of the power of this final writing comes from both an earlier scrupulous resistance to such rhetoric and to such an identifiably dramatic “poetic” speaking voice for so many years, in collision with the confident courage and circumstantial necessity that require a return to this once seemingly forbidden poetic territory, how what was once bad faith becomes an inviting and compelling prospect. Or perhaps Creeley’s lifelong commitment to an honest precise phenomenology, to the fact and quirky movement of consciousness as Creeley’s primary focal points in the poetry, make this final phase of his poetry more of a continuity than a break, even if the rhyme and rhetoric send us back, with affection, to affinities with a range of nineteenth and early twentieth-century popular American poetry.