Friday, May 17, 2013


Darkness Sticks to Everything

During the past month I read Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems by Tom Hennen (published 2013 by Copper Canyon Press). I very much like the book. I took my time reading it, a few poems at a time, going through at a quiet pace, letting the poems speak to me in their own time.

I first read poems by Tom Hennen in his first book, The Heron With No Business Sense, which was published in 1974 by Minnesota Writers' Publishing House (and is included in Darkness Sticks to Everything). Hennen lived for many years in the area of Morris, Minnesota, and has written many poems growing out of his living and working on farms and in nature areas. Poems of quiet observation of the details of nature, rabbit tracks, grass touched by breeze, mouse burrows, the way leaves cling to tree branches and then fall, the way ice forms and thaws on a stream, the change in the light as the seasons move. The earth is always a living presence in Tom Hennen's poems.

From the poem "Minneapolis" (all quoted passages here are taken from Darkness Sticks to Everything):

The swamp has become a supermarket overnight.
A heron with no business sense

The hungry man from the woods
Feeds on loose change
Like a parking meter.

At night
The smokestacks sink into the ground.
Underground the soot changes hands.
The night shift moves slowly
Emitting a dim light from their mole eyes.

Many of Hennen's poems are brief, almost tiny, quick glimpses of a scene or a moment. And always with a tactile, kinetic quality, catching image and motion at once.

Cold water
Soaks the fur of wild things.
A smell of wet lumber is everywhere.
The night sways slightly
Tied to the dock.

(From the poem "Night near the Lake.")

"The night sways slightly / Tied to the dock." How many times I've stood by a lake at night and felt that same kind of movement. Remarkable.

Tom Hennen has a patient and gentle humor that surfaces from time to time in his poems, the way a friend will make an offhand amusing comment in a conversation. On the prairie, much of the life goes on beneath the ground, or in the area just a few inches above the ground. From the poem "Independent Existence":

A willow leaf
Drops on the water
And is immediately still.
Autumn air penetrates the ground.
Wind hums endlessly
To the tangled grass.
When things happen here
There is no urge to put them on TV.

Amid the daily storm and clatter of corporate news media panic, the constant wolf-crying of CNN "breaking news," Tom Hennen's poems are a warm remedy.

In his poems Tom Hennen is always sooner or later acting with the natural world, always approaching closer, one way or another seeking a meeting place of human beings and the earth we live on, listening for the uncounted languages that move constantly around us and through us.

A lone goose call drifted down
Lightly as a feather falling.
I jumped the fence
To fetch the cows for evening milking.
On the hill above the still pond I sang,
Ka Bas, Ka Bas.
The only Latin my father taught me
As I learned the dreamy habits of animals.
They came, as always, past the pond
As if truly happy to hear my voice.
The bristly hair on their backs
Lit golden by the sun
Just when dark mist began to rise
Around their cold hooves.

(From the poem "Country Latin.")

Darkness Sticks to Everything includes poems from perhaps forty years or more of Tom Hennen's life. The more recent sections of the book include many prose poems, with the looser longer-moving rhythms that prose poems can allow, though still with the careful patient detailed observation that infuses his earlier poems. Sometimes I'm just astonished at the things he sees. From the prose poem "Outdoor Photos":

Find a quiet rain. Then a green spruce tree. You will notice that nearly every needle has been decorated with a tiny raindrop ornament. Look closely inside the drop and there you are. In color. Upside down. The raindrop has no instructions to flup us right-side up. People, dogs, muskrats, woods, and hill, whatever fits, heads down like quail from a hunter's belt. Raindrops have been collecting snapshots since objects and people were placed, to their surprise, here and there on earth.

The book includes an enthusiastic Introduction by poet Jim Harrison, and an insightful Afterword by poet Thomas R. Smith which gives more information about Hennen's life and how his poems have come into the world. I also love the the cover art, a painting by Susan Bennerstrom of grain silos in a green field under dark turbulent clouds. The weather is a constant companion and force of life with anyone who lives in the vast land of plains that reaches across the inland of North America.

During July on the prairie
The pine tree stands alone on the main street
Of a disintegrating country town.
Its needles pump all day,
Still it cannot turn all the passing carbon monoxide
Into anything useful. [...]
[...] The island in the lake drifts even farther from shore.
Heat increases.
The afternoon begins its insect hum.
We can tell a storm is coming
By looking into each other's lies.

(From the poem "Clouds Rise Like Fish.")

I don't know how I missed your review of Hennen's book, Lyle. It's a fine one! What's interesting is that everyone who writes about it cites different poems to make similar points. It's one reason I love a collected poems: the work has a chance to speak to the broadest possible audience. I think of Stafford's New & Collected Stories that Could Be True—a landmark book! Hennen's is of that caliber. Stafford was 63 at the time; I'm guessing Hennen may be a bit older than that now. But hopefully he, like Stafford, has lots of poetry ahead of him!
Yes, great poems and poet! Thanks, Lyle!
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