|Oct/Nov 2005 Book Reviews|
The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected and New
Word Works, Inc (2005) 104 pages
Judith McCombs might fairly be described as a white, middle-aged, middle-class, feminist environmentalist. Put thus bluntly, this kind of classification understandably sets off alarm bells, but it can be quite helpful in certain ways if kept within bounds. While each person is unique, that uniqueness is contained within enveloping social forces, tending powerfully—even irresistibly—toward a much more pervasive conformity. We all belong to cultures and/or sub-cultures.
There are identifiable ways in which Ms. Combs is different. In particular, she grew up the daughter of a geodetic surveyor. The profession can involve a considerable amount of travel, and for her family it did. Errantry is decidedly not middle-class. As a result, it adds something genuinely unique to her poetry.
There are also identifiable ways in which she satisfies the mores of her sub-culture—many more ways. Ms. McCombs—much to her credit—is the founding editor of the feminist journal Moving Out. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals, including such respected names as Poetry, Poetry Northwest and Prairie Schooner. She has published two books on Margaret Atwood. She has now settled down to a typical middle-class lifestyle in the Bethesda, Maryland, area, where she teaches at the local Writer's Center and arranges a poetry reading series for a local bookstore. All of this is quite laudable—especially within its milieu—and quite identifiably composes the life of a white, middle-aged, middle-class, feminist, environmentalist.
At the time Ms. McCombs published the first volume represented in The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New, she was also different in a notable way—a way, however, in which we all are different in our own time. She was young. The volume, Against Nature: Wilderness Poems, has recently been reissued, and it is not difficult to understand why. The poems selected from it display a boldness that bolsters a solid craftsmanship. The poet attacks the romanticism through which nature is generally viewed in poetry:
The mountain is there, a mountain. It is not
inside you. It has all it can do
being a mountain. It does not want
to be loved.
Like so much in nature, a mountain is cold, unconcerned. Not only is it just a mountain, but it is freighted with dangers.
...we are mammals, tramping the surface.
The warmth we have
is small and not lasting.
While the poems from Against Nature are dotted with youthful indiscretions, they are filled with a youthful determination to overthrow an idol or two.
The second collection from which poems are selected, After the Surveyor's Death, is already not a youthful work. On the positive side of the ledger, there are none of the indiscretions of the first volume, and the nature descriptions betray direct experience. Less fortunately, the boldness is no longer in evidence, and no new quality compensates the reader for the loss. The poems remain clipped prose, by and large. There can be no doubt of McCombs's attachment to her father and her genuine struggle to come to grips with his death, but there is nothing that makes the experience of the poems unique. A note in the table-of-contents indicates that the single striking poem, "Human Love Poem," first appeared in Against Nature.
The final volume represented, Territories, Here & Elsewhere, is a collection of family snap-shots. The poem "Epithet," about having been called over to the car of a flasher, is striking in its willingness to let her friend's lunchroom banter speak for the frequency of such experiences in a young girl's life and the confusion and curiosity that she felt. The unaffected honesty of the poem is worth a dozen lectures. The remaining selections from this volume are standard fare for the poet just entering into middle-age.
The section of new work begins powerfully, with the opening lines of the poem "Odds":
It is true that those who push the weak ones aside
to get to the lifeboat/the ammo/the grub—
who marooned on an island of ice
lie in their tents, nursing their grudges
threatening and filching while others provide—
may live to be rescued, beget, and die in warm beds.
But, a mere two lines further on, the reason for the uncomfortable classification engaged in at the beginning of this review begins to become clear. The counter-argument that the selfless hero has equal chances is advanced for the simple reason that McCombs can no longer bring herself to look unflinchingly at the harsh realities of life. The poem ends in the vague way that a poem will end when its author has blanched.
The better poems in this final section are those dealing solely with nature. "Pond, Late Summer," for example, is a simple concatenation of images which achieves a genuine sense of the wealth that nature brings to life even in a tainted and diminished landscape. The courage honestly to face the realities of nature is briefly recovered in the poem "Afterwards, You Learn," which describes the physical and psychological aftermath of a bear attack suffered by an acquaintance.
Perhaps there is an equally courageous honesty to the poem "Pathways," in which Judith McCombs describes the natural world of her yard and having an allergic reaction to the stings she received when a nest of yellow jackets beside her door was disturbed. Her love of nature clearly remains, but her respect for the dangers of it has become a fear. She immediately sets out to make the yard feel safe again. The mud dauber cells she subsequently removes speak as eloquently as anything in the final section. The cells are nurseries, and the parents are almost never seen after the cells have been completed, a process that generally occupies two to three weeks in mid summer. Furthermore, mud daubers virtually never sting anything larger than themselves. It is also quite difficult to provoke honeybees to bite when they are away from their nests, but the flowers beside the house have to go nonetheless. The shock of learning that death stalks even those carefully subdued landscapes within which one feels sure to live another twenty years, however—as much a matter of having become accustomed to a comfortably middle-class middle-age as having had an allergic reaction—drowns out such considerations. The poet, advertently or otherwise, reveals herself more in this poem than in any other.
Judith McCombs's The Habit of Fire is the poetic record of a woman who acquiesces, without difficulty, in the mores of her cultural group(s). Like some few such records, she began with a notable volume in which youth had not quite surrendered its prerogatives. It was not long, the record suggests, until she learned the better part of valor. It is not a choice to scoff at. But neither is it a choice that favors poetry as an outside the box experience.
There is every reason to believe that Ms. McCombs is very personable, of the mothering/nurturing type so close to all of our hearts. The cultural groups to which she belongs are the natural allies of the poetry reviewer. If a reviewer were given to reviewing such groups and their mores rather than the text at hand (and so many are), this book would receive the less mitigated praise they deserve. Soon, of course, their poets would have no effective feedback. Their readers would be ill served by reviewer and poet alike.
The poems of the second and third volumes represented in The Habit of Fire are largely personal anecdotes, snapshots. They are filled with the undeniably sacred value of all personal experience. They seek no heights, plum no troubling depths. They test no received ideas. It being among the received ideas of her group(s) that poetry is only burdened by style or intellectual content, the poems are an unrelieved landscape of normalcy.
Those of the new poems that describe nature without attempting closure or conclusion show the poet McCombs has become at her best. The descriptions are kept simple as are the emotions they infer. It is clear that she has matured. Those poems that attempt larger themes do not fare as well. The recent white, middle-aged, middle-class, feminist, environmentalist trend toward writing poems about the profound experience of the poet's two week vacation package to one place or another is unfortunately indulged. But if such volumes as The Habit of Fire are to be judged by the veracity of the portrait they paint of the poet, these poems can only be said to succeed as well as any. A review of the portrait, then, would rely heavily on the phrase "touchingly human."