Rounding the Human by Linda Hogan
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2008)
Rounding the Human demonstrates just why Linda Hogan is considered a major American writer. Its visionary imagery and lyrical language are only part of the reason Jim Harrison calls her “a significant figure in our literature,” and William Kittredge in his introduction calls her “one of those singular poets,” saying she offers us “Solace come through apprehending the material and holy world precisely as it is.”
Past winner of the American Book Award, Colorado Book Award, and Spirit of the West Literary Achievement Award, as well as a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Hogan is a Chickasaw poet, novelist and essayist, but she is also a dedicated volunteer and consultant for wildlife rehabilitation and endangered species programs. As such she writes often with the naturalist’s eye, the way she does in “The Heron” about her efforts to rescue an injured heron, which ends with:
“You could kill me or help me.
I know you and I have no choice
but to give myself up
and in whatever supremacy of this moment,
hold your human hand
with my bent claws.
In “Moving the Woodpile,” which could be her manifesto, she begins with “Never am I careless,/ yet when I lift the wood/ …the bark falls from the log…” as she tells of dislodging a wasps’ nest full of pupas and being unable to restore it to the disturbed wasp parents circling just out of reach, no matter how she tries.
“Maybe our sin is not enough
of us get on our knees and ever see
how everything small and nearly gone
is precious, the paper wasp nest,
made by the moment-by-moment creation of care.
… I’ve always wished
to hold the truly stolen, broken world together
but my every move is to break
by degrees, acres, even the smallest atom.”
That sensibility of the naturalist and consultant on endangered species is also apparent in “The Night Constant,” where she writes of the lion that circles around and walks near her house at night.
...and we don’t even know
the animals that walk outside our sleep
yet we have traveled there so often
there are not so many of them now
where light falls across the hunting ground
we call a world that’s small
because we’ve matched it to ourselves.”
Though Rounding the Human is suffused with this love and concern for the natural wild world and breathtakingly precise descriptions of it, the book lives up to its title in its constant concern with what it is to be truly human, what humans have given up of themselves in the process of damaging the world as they have, and how we can learn to be truly human, yet truly at home in and at one with the natural world around us. The second poem in the book and first in the section titled “Unlayering the Human,” “The Way In” is a small jewel of a poem that will, I think, be one of those rare poems that live on through the generations, the kind that takes your breath away with its music and its truth. “Sometimes the way to milk and honey is through the body,” it begins, before listing other ways and continuing with “…there are three ways in the world: dangerous, wounding,/ and beauty…” Then she speaks of transformation: stone by water, hard earth by unfolding plant, dry fuel by fire. When she ends with “To enter life, be food,” the truth and pain of those words that humans have fought against and been a part of since their first appearance on this planet reverberates deep within the reader.
Yet Hogan always offers hope. “I know fear has come down to us/ from the first universe/ where the beginnings of stars are never tame,” she tells her granddaughter when asked if she is afraid, but she reminds the reader, “Paradise has always been just out of sight,” and “It may be, it may one day be/ this is a world haunted by happiness…/ …remember there is always something/ besides our own misery.” She urges us again and again to learn from and make our peace with the mysteries of the body, because “…the body remembers the fine animal/ that was lost/ some place in time.”
Sexuality is one of the key ways she highlights our pathway to this wholeness through the body. In “Mysteries of the Bed,” she points out that “Even in the coldest heart,/ we are mostly tender here…” The holy places of the body, she says, “…are the ones with the power/ of gentling the human.” Drawing on her Native American heritage, she encourages us to “…remember the forgotten language wild,/can you still call it?” Hogan can, and she is generous enough to share it with the rest of us, calling to us to join her in her intoxication with the beauty and power of the natural world. Still, she never makes this offer from some superior position, but from the humble place of one who has had to learn these truths in painful ways but counts them worth the cost. Instead she tells us, “I am still a beginner in this world/ without a hold, without money or love or tools./ I am down on my knees./ Maybe now I can begin to learn something.”
Totally accessible as these poems are, this is a book that repays repeated rereading, in fact, almost demands it, because there are new treasures to be found in each poem every time you come to them. It is a major work by a major American writer.
Vice-president of the Latino Writers Collective, Linda Rodriguez has published poetry and fiction in numerous journals and anthologies. She has also published a chapbook, Skin Hunger, and numerous articles for general and scholarly publications, most recently three articles in the Encyclopedia of Hispanic Literature. Her cookbook, The “I Don’t Know How to Cook” Book: Mexican (Adams Media) was just published. Her book of poetry, Heart’s Migration, will be published by Tia Chucha Press in April 2009.