Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Adventures in the Lost Interiors of America

20 Jun

WWCover2William Waltz’s Adventures in the Lost Interiors of America (Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2013) opens with an epigraph excerpted from a letter that Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian geographer and naturalist, wrote to a friend in 1799. It reads:

I shall collect plants and fossils and make astronomic observations. But that’s not the main purpose of my exploration—I shall try to find out how the forces of nature interact upon one another…In other words, I must find out about the unity of nature.

Framing his collection as such, Waltz leads readers to believe that his second full-length collection of poetry, which won last year’s Open Book Competition for CSU’s Poetry Center, will focus on the natural world in order to discover or make sense of the “unity of nature” and how different natural elements “interact” with one another. In words, the collection will tell us something both of the natural world surrounding us and our relationship to it.

But, in the prefatory poem “Before We Begin,” Waltz appears to undercut this project when he writes:

Let us praise the unknown
source lurking below, let’s
appreciate how little we know,
how little what we know
matters (3)

How does championing “the unknown,” acknowledging our own ignorance, and discrediting the knowledge we do possess enable us to learn anything? Moreover, if what we do discover proves fruitless, what is the point of acquiring it in the first place?

This, of course, is a bit of a rhetorical dodge by the poet. In all actuality, Lost Interiors seeks out the inexplicable and the unknown in order to praise the mysteries of the world as an end, not as a means of acquiring knowledge or empirical enlightenment. Take, for instance, the concluding lines of the poem “Natural Science.” The poem’s speaker stands upon the shore of Green Lake, looks outward, and notes:

Although I couldn’t see
beyond the dark spot bobbing
in the morning mist,
I knew the sun shone somewhere
and the far shore brandished
a stand of shining white birch.
There was nothing left
to do but dive in
before the smell of black
coffee and blueberry pie
reminded me how beautiful
and incomplete
my communion was
and would be until
it was no longer. (10)

The speaker can’t see the sun or white birch while morning mist obscures them both. But he worries not. Instead, he dives into the lake and remembers “how beautiful / and incomplete” our “communion” with the natural world happens to be. Indeed, the “incomplete” is not understood as lack or as failure of comprehension; rather, the speaker understands the “incomplete” to be a beatific engagement with nature.

Waltz forwards a similar argument in the prose poem “Letter to an Incomplete Stranger,” in which he writes:

I feel certain we can again, coexist, I mean. You may not remember, but our eyes meet once in a cool, wide pool of plate glass. I knew then I would never understand you completely, nor would I betray you by thinking I did. (14)

The speaker of the poem and the addressee will “never understand” one another “completely,” nor will they pretend that they do. But the two of them can “coexist” in this incomplete understanding. Moreover, acknowledging the incompleteness of their relationship leads to an honesty wherein they will not “betray” the unknown that divides them like the “cool, wide pool of plate glass.” Yes, they can see one another; but, no, they will never comprehend.

To this extent, then, Waltz’s book asks us to cast aside our desire for empirical pursuits championed by men of science and revel in the poetic possibilities of the incomplete and the unknown. Adventures in the Lost Interiors of America would rather have us traverse the linguistic landscapes and waterways of Cape Cod, Resurrection Bay, Pike Island, Lake Superior, Medicine Rock, Serpent Mound, Big Sur, Kilauea, the Everglades, the Mississippi River, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Ohio, losing ourselves in their expanse. In doing so, we let them enter us, as in the prose poem “Birds, Still”:

The woods walked through us and left a trail. We followed, down a street, over a hill, across a stream and a field, and then through a wood where we came upon a thicket rich with cricketsong and morning thorn. We peeled back the pricks and moved like herons through the reeds until an opening and then the prairie and across we saw a flock of silhouettes in a colossal crown. We climbed the wild tree and never came down. (25)

Yes, let the natural world walk through us so we can follow it, watch it, listen to it, and never come down from its wild trees.

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One Response to “Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Adventures in the Lost Interiors of America”

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  1. Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Forty-One Jane Doe’s | Vouched Books - June 26, 2013

    […] week, I wrote a review of William Waltz’s Adventures in the Lost Interiors of America, which focused on the differences between a naturalist’s and a poet’s use of nature. In the […]

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