A walking proposition
On Pam Rehm’s 'The Larger Nature'
Pam Rehm is a poet whose work consistently abounds with a quiet intensity. The nature of this intensity might best be described, as in her opening poem, “Another Dimension,” as an “evident immersion / in another dimension” (4), a “diligent seclusion” being the necessary beginning to such an immersion. This other “dimension,” a way of being, thinking, and observing, is a space imagined by Rehm where words fail, or at least present limitations, for “Stepping among the primary questions / the body is altered attention” (1).
Rehm’s newest book of poems, The Larger Nature, formally continues the spare lyricism that has marked her previous books from Flood Editions. Rehm’s poems courageously employ an unadorned sparseness recognizing limitation rather than deprivation; their manner is austere, negotiating sight, the eye, with a spiritual diffusion: “Your vision will alight / the fire to create // a continual source / of sustenance” (13). Indeed, it is the prospect of vision that impels the lived life of Rehm’s poems for a reader, at least this reader. It is a vision whose desire is a necessary and difficult cultivation. The poems emerge from a genuine and searching rigor, like a monk’s hermeneutic: “It is the road to ardor / wrought through uncertainty” (19). In another way, the poems’ austere manner and searching register reflect an unspoken vow towards poverty. The austerity of spirit and observance seems a value the poet cultivates from the depths of the questions and inquiries that surface into a form of attention. And it is in this kind of rare attention that Rehm is that speaker, unafraid of considering the provenance of the human soul and the heart.
In the poem “I Followed, I Found, I Went Down,” the speaker makes silence an object of attention: “I uncover his trail / what is really there // Searching and waiting / I keep close to him —” (17). If silence is a stranger, it is also a stranger, for Rehm, who might provoke her heart to some kind of transfiguration. After all, as Rehm catalogues silence’s status and objecthood, he is a presence to be pursued: “He is the hawk / He is the ten-mile walk / and I follow his fear // He is alone / He is the insatiable eye / the sky flows out of / to keep the birds near” (17). Rehm cultivates the very possibility that silence is a kind of altar by which one listens; it is a necessary condition to uphold and cultivate as a meditational space.
Rehm’s lyricism borders on being awestruck by the eye’s ear. In sight there exists a quiet listening; Rehm listens to her earth in solitude, in an almost religious ecstasy, and wanders the fields of her geography, all the while open to being woven by the strands of her immersions into the natural world. In a retreat to nature, there is freedom that cannot be replicated by our immersion in society: “I wend down the street / take a detour through leaves / to emulate freedom / from traffic, crowds” (67). Here, recognizing that nature is a site of opportunity, a place to immerse oneself, the speaker posits that the act of retreat into the natural world might equal the silence of the “land’s mercy” (66). It is as much a perception as a striving to actively dwell in the house of nature with its comings and goings. In this dwelling there is intimacy. There is a retreat into the natural landscape, as well as a retreat into the mind’s cavernous spaces.
Just as in the natural world, or just as Rehm’s local environment demonstrates metamorphosis and flux, we are beings whose identity constantly experiences shifts and changes. But in our private space of housing a body, flux is arbitrary. In her poem “Identity,” she writes: “Thinking between / the apartment and the street // how easy it is // to change / one’s mind” (7). And the poem that follows, “Continuity,” reads in its entirety:
What survives scatter
insists upon the power to rise
Seeds dropped from mouths
or spit a distance
remnants that become
Something other than
In Rehm’s use of a seed as a metaphor for transformation, we are able to see how her thinking asks the reader to consider that the ways in which we exist in the world are amorphous rather than stable. There is also the quality of chance embedded in transformation because there’s no underlying promise that a particular object or way of thinking will continue to thrive in its physical or mental environment. Rehm proposes, though, that those traces of the seed that do “survive scatter” are wholly opposed to becoming calcified by permanence. They continue in an uninterrupted process of new connections being temporarily fused.
Rehm’s poems don’t begin with a concrete realization; rather, they carefully grope towards a way of existing in the world. While much might be made of our daily, modern clatter, our rich and cacophonous human activities and their attendant language acts, Rehm’s poems seem concerned with crafting and proposing an inquiry of what may very well confound our immediate understanding; that is, Rehm lingers over and invites her reader into an activity that necessitates the act of listening, as if poetry, and its ancient calling, demanded anything less. Her poetry begins with an inherent skepticism in language, in words, that they can make their mark. She acknowledges that “The imagination struggles // Words intensely aware of / distance bowing to distance” (35).
Throughout The Larger Nature, the act of walking is offered as an activity where one might exist and think with the evidence of things we live among, both animate and inanimate; it is also a practice, an activity as old as the poem, where we might dwell. In perhaps a revealing line from the “Depths of the World,” we read: “Faith is underfoot” (54). And in the same poem, Rehm announces that “I have become one / possessed / to walk the earth” (55). Walking is a form of movement; the act of walking is almost as individual as its walker. From “Another Dimension,” we read: “Walking on all fours / it is bold to reach an animal capacity” (2). And further on in the same poem: “A lane, a journey / every footstep” (2). For Rehm, the foot in motion, treading the earth, opens a space for something to happen. It is an act deeply rooted in traversing distances, physical, emotional, and psychical, to be in pursuit of a depth realized within one’s capacity for reflection and from one’s attendant relationship to the materials outside one’s consciousness. Rehm’s serial poem “The World’s Welter” begins: “Perhaps there are many ways / to be at home in the world // I know this is the torture / of the imagination” (34). Then, further on in the poem, Rehm writes that “Out of the turbulence / of this world’s welter / I’d feel better // walking” (38). For Rehm, walking is almost akin to a monastic retreat; it provides the space for reflection, where “For as long as possible / our lives plumb the depths // the whole fragile edifice” (38).
As in her previous books, Rehm continues to bring the reader into even sparer territory; a territory affixed to thinking’s joy, terror, confusion, and uncertainty. She mines a metaphysical depth, which meditatively unpacks the distance between the phenomenal world and individuality. In the poem “Grace,” Rehm asks: “What / would we be without // gravity and the silence / of a single needle on a // pine tree; each one, an / entire emblem for the whole” (32). With characteristic attention to those larger questions, Rehm pursues the vitality of living just off the grid. Her poems restlessly confront the imagination’s power to both make and unmake a world, a space to inhabit, while also negotiating the tenuous reaches of perception.
Whether in the taut, quickly descending lines down the page, or the white space surrounding her words and lines, she proposes new insights into being in the world as perceiver, crossing a risky boundary between spirit and matter. How many poets can get away with declaring, “The earth connects to the soul” (3) or “I can imagine the body / embroidered to the soul” (5)? If Rehm is a poet of deep abstraction, her poems ask us to reacquaint ourselves with such a word as soul, which almost seems passé to our modern sensibilities. At the heart of Rehm’s poems, a longing sense for a navigable homeland carries an abiding wager to her work. This wager is altogether a vital sign that poems matter, that poetry still has a job to do in making our dwelling-place in the world legible.
“To bind the mind / to the ocular” (68) is perhaps one of the undergirding, ecumenical statements that serves as a coda to Rehm’s The Larger Nature. In poem after poem, Rehm alights on the distance between sight and perception, how we attempt to bridge that gap. For all of Rehm’s exhilarating and probing engagement with abstraction, she is also the committed observer of the natural landscape, the walker that declares “I shall read the Earth // I will clasp it // I will put on / the image of form” (52). Earlier on in the same poem, “The Depths Of The World,” she admits: “Now I write / with the perception of walking // a wanderer losing / the trail” (48). Rehm’s terse phrasings, her formal spareness, sound the depths of walking through this world in the hopes of finding some refuge, some labyrinth that can be measured.