In this long flower war
María Meléndez’s mestizo landscapes
Another borrowed book whose call I ignored for too long is María Meléndez’s How Long She’ll Last in This World (U of Arizona, 2006). And how helpless I became, in its pages. I cannot resist poetry that speaks to me of “the morning sparkle of cows’/ dewy slobber all over the pasture,” or of dropping “a Troxler down a vertically sunk/ PVC pipe, [measuring] soil moisture as shifts/ in the tool’s resonant frequency.” On one level, this is poetry for the pack, inspirational to field science, informative to poets. (Meléndez writes out of her work as a wildlife biology field assistant.) The phenomena referenced quicken to shared contact, to the cast of a certain landscape, a “co-pathy/ with this particular coastal prairie herd,/ because we’ve been under the same saffron spell/ of a hill of bush lupine in bloom.” Meléndez’s poetry speaks the “co-pathy” of landscapes west of the Divide, Carolinas too.
Yet so much more. The collection includes “Buckrail,” an elegy to Matthew Shepard that remembers the slaughter of 1100 Yellowstone bison, “as they plodded down a plowed road/ out of the park, noses tuned to the pitch/ of grass-scent further west.” (Such slaughter, i.e. “herd management”—230 killed in the past winter, 6,895 since 1985—is due to a fear of a disease that the Yellowstone bison herd may carry, brucellosis, a disease they may transfer to cattle herds—even though no actual transmission of brucellosis from a wild bison to cattle has ever been documented: Meléndez calls it “a rumor of contagious/ bison disease.”) Shepard’s spirit fuses with the bison’s, as the poet trades epiphanic balm for “drifting, chest-deep fear.” The book also is about the fears and joys of difference.
Backcountry, Emigrant Gap
I thought we fell asleep
austere and isolated—
two frogs calling across Rock Lake.
By morning, deer prints
in the black ground between our tents—
more lives move beside us
than we know
Here is a poem of superimpositions (a characteristic Meléndez move), Lorine Niedecker on Gary Snyder, human on nonhuman, perceived on unperceived, without conflation. Of migrations. I also love the poem titled “Collections of Nearly Unlovable Spaces.”
Wells, pipes, wires get “shrubbed up”—architect’s slang for hidden.
Codes for not resisting red penstemon blooms got shrubbed up in the hands of my son.
How Long She’ll Last in This World includes two of the best wolf poems I have ever read. “Remedio” offers
A remedy for when you’ve lost your sense
of Spirit in the world,
a simple spell for home lycanthropy:
Smell the new season,
acrid, tensed to grow
in budding wolf willow,
and feel the heat recede
from a moose’s corpse—then
recuerda esta loba.
“Aullido” pictures a wolf’s “spirit as sculptor/ of the moose, the cottonwoods,/ even the willows”—an entirely solid perception, from an ecological standpoint, given the big predators’ “keystone” role in the trophic cascades of these landscapes.
There is a grappling physicality to the work (including a very strong birth poem, in a strong middle section on motherhood), a no-nonsense attention to (wild)life, whose pauses recall for me the English of my native southwest.
This is the mestizo landscape of “Seven Gates to Aztlan (for Mixedbloods)”: “place of poets, crows, berries, and California grizzlies,” where, “Herons shock picky home-seekers by staying locked into their place,/ ’tlán being ‘place of’ and ‘tooth,’ as in ‘rooted.’ ” (The poet’s seen “Great Blues/ raise twenty broods in a cottonwood next to a railroad.”) Here eco poetics stakes an almost nomadic claim, rooting words across languages, “in poetatlán, cuervotlán, fresatlán, osotlán.” Locking into (one’s) changing place:
“This is a long flower war, and the theater/ between valley oaks is budding with goatgrass and star thistle, what’s next?”
The central poem of the book, “Controlled Burn,” challenges even as its narrator participates in landscape management, “Cleansing the prairie of invasive exotics, plants that don’t belong. Insects around here need native flowers . . .” Disagreeing with the Reserve Manager, she asks, “How can I say what is this place and what isn’t? Maybe the mountains are a temporary spasm of the prairie and what’s beyond them is also the prairie.”
“Controlled Burn” is also a poem about the bombing of Kosovo, and prairie shrimp, surviving in dried lake beds. And it is a gentle riposte to Snyder’s nostalgia, in his classic poem “Control Burn” (Turtle Island), for land “when it belonged to the Indians,” to the hygienic longing for “a burn, a hot clean/ burn.”
Meléndez clearly is a close reader of Snyder, as well as of landscape. She carries forward the interdependence of manzanita and fire (that Snyder acknowledges in “Control Burn”), in the last, extremely powerful poem of the book, “Has it been whispered all along?” an elegy for a husband drowned in the Poudre River. (Eerily, I was looking at the falls where this accident is said to have occurred only last month, picnicking with a friend, and marveling at the very dangerous looking strength of the river, channeling the runoff of record-breaking snowfall.) We too are ephemeral, in this “long flower war,” where we stake our ground, here then gone, in the between spaces.
A tree knows the whole story—
manzanita, red and gray wood
intertwined, alive and dead
. . .
Maybe death is the wildest movement of all
and in this arid range we inhabit
there is moisture to be found at the boundary
between the two woods.
Maybe you can follow the orange-waisted ants
into the tiny space left
between living and dead;
maybe what looks like a line of demarcation
is actually an alcove,
a feast of hidden droplets—