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Out of Body

Matthew J. Spireng is a Kingston-based writer whose poems have appeared since 1990in a variety of little magazines and literary journals. With the publication of two collections of poetry in the past year, he has begun to earn national recognition for his work. The book Out of Body, winner of the 2005 Bluestem Poetry award, demonstrates Spireng’s commitment to formal simplicity as well as his close connectedness to the natural world around him. A lifelong resident of the Hudson Valley, he writes extensively about the flora and fauna familiar to him as runner, hiker, and rural householder. “Sometimes when I run,” he confides, “I see things no one else has seen / before me: the great heron at the pond,” for instance (“Running”). The concealed or overlooked phenomena that catch his attention may prove to be unexpectedly lovely, but sometimes dangerous or even grotesque, like the eels lurking deep in the “wet bottom ooze” of Esopus Creek (“Diving for the Bottom”). A hawk’s cry as it dives toward its prey sounds “like an incoming shell— / that high-pitched whistle / before it explodes—” (“Thinking of Things That Come from Above”). Spireng manifests empathy or admiration for a broad spectrum of creatures, not excepting the often reviled skunk. Mulling over his readings about the creature’s diet and spraying capacity, he wonders why naturalists have neglected to pay homage to “the whiteness of skunks” (“Certain Reference Books”). Caught in the headlights of an approaching vehicle, “some appear almost pure / white, a plume of light,” and it is this “unapproachable beauty,” he insists—not “their / dark odor”—that causes motorists to “avoid striking / them.”

Without heavy-handedness, the poet points frequently to the ecological implications of human technology and its intrusions. when a killdeer’s nest is destroyed by a tractor, for example, he describes the female bird feigning injury, behaving exactly as she would if confronted by some natural threat: she “cried to that roar / in vain to draw it away as if it were / a predator stalking its prey” (“Killdeer after a Late Planting in Corn”). Struck by the futile desperation of her efforts, the speaker follows the bird on foot, “giving her hope, / false as it is, her birdwork is right / for this world.” These lines invite readers to ponder the

Radically diminished effectiveness of behaviors evolved in a pre-industrialized world. Of what use now is a strategy (“birdwork”) that enhanced the killdeer’s capacity to survive in an environment that no longer exists—an environment since supplanted and dominated by the inanimate “roar” of human engineering? Refraining from didactic or sentimental comment, the author maximizes the impact of the scene he describes.

Out of Body includes love poems and depictions of places the poet has visited, but Hudson Valley readers will find in this book abundant evidence of spireng’s attentive affection for the local. In his most recent book, Young Farmer, he depicts life on a small farm located on the western side of the Hudson River, near Kingston. He assumes his adoptive father’s voice, focusing on scenes from the early part of the twentieth century. In a series of twenty-six first-person poems, he offers intimate glimpses of a physically demanding everyday routine: planting, plowing, harvesting, or clearing fields slowly and tediously with the help of a draft horse, “all day prying up and rolling rocks” (“young Farmer Clears a Field”). A sow requires help with a breech birth; hens must be protected from foxes and hawks.

The primary crop is corn, supplemented by beans, potatoes, and other vegetables.

The economic well-being of the household is threatened repeatedly by vicissitudes of weather (“young Farmer waits for Rain”): a too-dry season (“the first / sprouts of corn withered”) frequently is followed by one too wet (“seeds / rotted in the ground”). Spireng provides a poignant and illustrative picture of the gradually losing struggle to sustain a working farm. In the years following World War II, a generation of small farmers in the

Hudson River Valley began selling their land, ending a way of life. All the years of hard work are not enough in a changing economy: “somehow it seemed the harder he’d tried / the less he’d gotten” (“young Farmer auctions his Farm”). The last poem in the series flatly enumerates factors leading to final defeat:

 

Too many losing seasons—whether timing or

Weather, failed crops, or a drop in the payments

For milk. Machinery broke and before that horses

Like Danny broke down...

(“Young farmer Auctions His Farm”)

 

Although the trajectory of spireng’s narrative points toward a “dreaded” conclusion, along the way readers catch glimpses of the satisfactions offered by a life lived close to the earth, in harmony with elemental forces. Resting in the haymow, enjoying “the sweet smell of dried grasses,” young Farmer finds time “for dreaming” in between “mending fence or hoeing” (“Young Farmer Dreaming”). Like Emily Dickinson, he keeps the Sabbath alone and out-of-doors rather than in a traditional place of worship: “not church,” but a “favorite place he’d go up near the spring” (“Young Farmer Observes the Sabbath”). When he experiences “a visitation” there under the oak tree, it is natural rather than supernatural—the unexpected sight of “a vixen with pups,” perhaps, “or a red elft on the moss.” an avid star-gazer, he sees a meteor one night, “a bright light arcing across / the sky,” and proceeds to interpret it from his own point of view, that of a cultivator: “imagined someone / out there near a distant star tilling / a stark soil, an odd plant blooming” (“Young Farmer Watches the Night Sky”). The voice remains convincingly that of the farmer, plain and rooted in particulars, but spireng is adept at coaxing simple diction and syntax to yield evocative metaphor. For example, when young Farmer suddenly realizes that he and his wife are approaching middle age, the riveting analogy that comes to his mind is pulled directly from his own experience: “Youth taken fast / like a fox does a hen, / another thing come without warning” (“Young Farmer Learns He Won’t Be a Father”).

Only the dust jacket names the specific location of spireng’s father’s farm as Lomontville, New York, but Hudson Valley residents will recognize on every page plant and animal life, climatic conditions, or geological features characteristic of the region. Unpretentious and accessible, these poems can be appreciated by a wide range of readers. Because they re-create a mode of living and a set of values now all but vanished, they offer historical and cultural insight as well as solid literary value.

-- Judith P. Saunder

 

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