The Bookshelf: Mark DeCarteret and the Nature Poem

Sep 3, 2018

On a recent morning, in the hazy heat, poet Mark DeCarteret opened up Water Street Books in Exeter, where he works, as what he calls "book clerk extraordinare."

"Alice who works here has got quite the skill with the sign-making," he says, pointing to a sandwich board on which someone has drawn a bird. "So she came up with that for the book launch."

The board advertises DeCarteret's newest collection of poetry, For Lack of a Calling. It's set to launch here on Thursday, September 6th. The sign is fitting, given the many birds that appear in these poems, including the poem that gave the book its name.

DeCarteret has been working in bookstores on and off for many years. Since he began seriously writing poetry in his 20s, he's published in well-regarded literary magazines and assembled several collections.

DeCarteret says he takes a "grab bag" approach to collecting poems for a book. "I stuff 'em in a gym bag and take the next flight," he says.

In this case, the metaphorical plane tickets came from a publisher in Allston, Massachusetts, who was ready to publish a new book - on a theme. For this gym bag, he looked through his recent work... and that's how he came to focus on nature. 

Scroll to the bottom to read Mark DeCarteret's reading recommendations.

MD: When I say "nature poems" I put "nature" in quotations because a lot of what the book, I think, looks at is living in a time and place where it's almost run its course in some way. It's hard to write about nature sometimes without it being some sort of I guess what I would call...these poems are kind of "eco-laments" in some way. They're not protest poems. They're somewhat witness poems. But in some ways I almost feel like nature has been paid too much attention. It's been tapped into, not only in reality in the fact that it's just like, just leave us alone at this point! But in some ways, with poetry as well, it just seems like I'm not saying the nature poem has come and gone, but I feel like we have to approach it in a different way. We have to look at the abuse we've put upon it.

PB: To write a nature poem is not to go out and say, "Oh how beautiful! How enormous! How small it makes me feel!" Which is kind of the tradition. But also to acknowledge that there's a human element. We're encroaching on nature.

That's it exactly. As a poet, in some ways, all you can do is give a sense of what it's like to live as an individual in these times, and in some ways, that's all that's left to us, because so much has been done at this point.

Is there a poem in your new book, For Lack of a Calling, that you think embodies what you're trying to do with that question of how to approach the nature poem today?

I don't think there's one that stands out. I felt like, in a lot of ways, my girlfriend Kathleen Clancy helped me edit the book. And at first I said, "You know, boy, there's almost too much overlap with these poems." I realized at one point that I had Tupperware in three poems. I was like, "Well, I gotta take one of these Tupperwares out of here." And Kathleen said to me, she said, "No, I like the fact that these poems seem like a cycle." I've always been intrigued by the idea of a series, so they're not a series, but fortunately they all have a lot in common. 

So you're launching For Lack of a Calling on Thursday, September 6th. What do you hope people get out of your book?

You know the people who are going to read it. Your peers are one thing. You know you have their respect and it's rewarding on one level. Then there's the whole aspect of having it fall into hands of people you wouldn't expect. I was told that a young gentlemen came [into the bookstore] who was a student at the Academy and, I don't know why, but he came right to my book and hardly looked at anything else in the store and ended up buying it. And to think that, all of a sudden, my book was being packed away in some luggage and brought to Japan was a nice feeling.

Mark DeCarteret's Top Five (Plus Two!) Reading Recommendations

1.   Donald Hall has gone through more versions than Microsoft Word—ageless griever and sage, versifier and guide, fire-lighter and reviver (Death to the death of poetry…)--and has carried them out near perfectly. Now, with A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, we can add micro-chronicler, liker/dis-liker, cusser, mad-diviner, and ancient ________ (select your moniker of choice…). Hall has traded in his oracle for newly fashioned insight and hearsay and come out the other side as cool (with cover design to match...) as ever. I am a sounder poet (and person) because of his words. Once again world, we’re called upon to pick up the slack.

2.   The work in Michael Brosnan’s The Sovereignty of the Accidental holds things dear. Consequential and not-so. And they case out ideas as well. Imagine that. They’re serious-minded. And clearly composed. Quietly seeking out. But they’re not opposed to laughter. To levitating and sitting still concurrently. They can be a little tricky. Reading into not on. With a classically trained eye and turned ear. As well as heart. Lots of it.

3.   The soulful and intellectual tell-alls in Baron Wormser’s Legends of the Slow Explosion not only clue us in on what made his lit-clients so cool but look to stay true to their interior lives and get at something essential and lasting, let us even risk, sacred—what’s consistently uncalled for by the world. There’s an art to this divining. To taking great care to clear certain things up, getting uncertain things right. And to letting it all have enough reach. Searching out some of the same fire as the forerunners they give out these roars. And Wormser does it in a most stellar, fist-raising fashion.

4.   Like to-do lists left out on the path of the pilgrim the poems in Ewa Chrusciel’s Of Annunciations are filled with starting points and stilled-time, rest stops and made-to-order dreams--a sort of story after a sort of story that lights a psychic lantern on our collective past—all the flawed and the half-felt, what’s been fled from and mightily dealt, as well as these personal totems that are not only self-animated but stumped for, lent to mythologies of a different nature altogether, and function as metaphysical staples and check-points, stymieing the imagination with their near-mystical conceits.  One moment, impish and language-fond, the next, solemn and definitively meant, these missives are continuously infused with those songs long-thought-gone in which we are implored to share the earth’s gifts with those seeking to lend it their own indispensable notes.

5.   This is Susan Hankla’s Clinch River. Nowhere near anywhere. Un-census-ed country. The outskirts of that. Where its dwellers can’t stick to one story. Or one set of test scores. Everything under the sun. Getting less settled-on with each telling. Getting re-cast and enacted. Roused out of its den. This is Clinch River. The only locale where one can never be cheated. One’s account never discounted. Where instead it’s told. Again and again. Scared up soulfully. Near-incantatory. Un-stuck from the center. Not holding still for anyone.

6.   The “Floating Tales” in Jeff Friedman’s latest collection have flown a great distance to get to us. And they’ve tried their hand at most everything. A high fabulist diet of bible notables and beasts, old men and drones, PowerPoint and, yes, puppets, that’s as omnivorous as a dumpster-diving bear. That so trades in on both the standards and newly updated in so selfsame a manner the brand gets re-branded mid-gesture. Postmodern, you might say? Not so slow, Charlie! These prime movers are so… over… time. Here, they’re at it again. Game for anything, mutating. Tying an “other” on. There, finding themselves. In a different state altogether. Amounting to not only more than its parts but its stock options. You’ll find it all on this playbill—the mini-sitcom and mockumentary, the multi-tiered send-up and one-minute tour of Purgatorio, the un-sampled and mass-produced, the skit and not-so-routine. They not only stir up, resist. Righting themselves, as much as humanly possible, steering free of the tyrannical line. And sing with an immigrant’s tongue. With a vaudevillian swagger fully lived and not staged. But ceremoniously fret like the cast of a Becket play. Existentially staking out their turf. Not just for the next nose dive, fall. Whether high art or prat. But for the after party, laughs.

7.   Ever-versed in the way of dreams, often doubling up on the input of our bodies, deepest memories, the poetry in Jessica Purdy’s Starland alternate between the atmospheric and the spot-on, the nearly phantasmal and the continually topped-off. Yes, the kind of poetry not made to order. Or droned into being. It demonstrates a full command of language and just enough of the stuff, matter(s)—all of it carried out with remarkable skill and care-- that makes/made it necessary. Demanding we not only sit still. But listen. Really. Listen.