407. (Jim Powell)

            Jim Powell, in the final section of Substrate, itself titled “Substrate,” presents us with moments of apprehending persons from the North American past. Sometimes, their sense of themselves is represented, but even then, it is always Powell’s present-day vantage, his distance from the past, that is the condition of their self-expression: the past speaks out of the Powell’s present, not transparently through it. The most difficult poems in the section exclude direct access to personhood from them—not just personality, but personhood—foregrounding instead the remains of the past, artefacts of culture and environment alike, by which we may indirectly register those forms of life erased from memory. Here is “A Painted Hemisphere,” the first poem in the “Substrate” sequence:


The Mimbres ancients buried family skeletons

prone underneath their pueblo household floors

with broad ceramic bowls inverted over skulls interred

eye sockets upward below their earthen domes,

the inner face a painted hemisphere of art


for blind eternity, a hole punched through the center

of the bowl chosen, fulfilling custom, letting

the breath escape the broken clay, the image, the design.

A lunar rabbit bends a quarter turn

round this one’s vacant middle, the winking crow perched halfway


down his backbone beaks the nearest of four pair

of ribs, their cartoon crescents all the remains

of the hare’s hindquarters, his waning orb half-eaten by the bird

pecking clean the knuckles of his spine—

the fifth moon rabbit, Hare of the May, his good eye cocked


off-center at the bottom of a punctured bowl

and grizzled whiskers quiz the solar scavenger

fastened on his shoulder blade, talons in the quick,

in his still gaze outward serenity

a bemused whisper, “…sister quail, brother fish…”


The poem does not approach allegory or insist upon an interpretation of the remains, but the form gently leads us to see how the poem enacts its meaning, when “letting” for instance hangs on the edge of the line, permissively pleading us to follow into the blank of the page, the blank of the past, and also permissively granting the soul of the dead the passage to escape into the blank beyond “the image, the design” of the poem itself, as well as the bowl. In that blank of the page, the person of the past has escaped the poem, and we are left instead within the poem, within the material archaeological record, the person who was buried inaccessible to the poet, who instead traces the mythological figures. And what he finds there is an emblem for reader and poet alike, the past having anticipated us in our attempt at recovery, “his waning orb half-eaten by the bird.” The poet’s attention is absorbed, the poem itself is absorbed, and we readers are absorbed in turn, into the “hemisphere” of the bowl, so that it becomes, for the duration of the poem, a world: a place for a person to be. The solar scavenger is the crow, but also the sun itself, which has worn the bowl away—in the ekphrasis, the figures are aware of themselves as art—and the “knuckles of his spine” recalls to us the hand that holds the bowl, the hand that supports it and serves as its spine by taking it up for examination. In the final stanza, we find that we are not only looking at it, but see that the emblems are themselves looking; they not only feast, but they recognize, and in the recognition they bestow upon one another, they become persons themselves, and the poet also, in recognizing them as personhoods is himself, indirectly, recognized too, their personhood being a creative extension of his own, and in that creative animating of the design, the poet imagines the figures on surface recognizing where they are: “off-centered at the bottom of a punctured bowl” should not need to be said, since we already know the bowl (it has already been presented to us as “this one”), but now are seeing it from the hare’s perspective, the hare having just been given its name, Hare of the May, only now, after the patience of attentiveness, becoming more fully itself.

“Quiz the solar scavenger” imputes intention, but also the stirrings of a dialogue with the bird perched on its shoulders, as well as the poet and reader (both solar scavengers, also, adhering to the solar year, associated with the sun by way of exhumation, and fastened, by means of sight, as the poem has been fastened by means of description, on his shoulder blade). “Quiz” is uncertain and riddling: it is bewildered at its own life, bewildered at our presence, but also asking us to prove ourselves with an answer. Its life evolves in the sound of the poem to “talons in the quick,” where “quick” is life itself, the flesh of the hare, but also the life of the bowl, now quickened by the poem. With the penultimate line, “in his still gaze outward serenity” something has been achieved. Sense of direction matters immensely in this poem from the start, as it proceeds by taking us through the looking glass, or down the rabbit hole, into the burial-rites of the dead; in the first five lines, we have “prone underneath…bowls inverted over skulls interred…sockets upward below…inner face a painted hemisphere.” This language is so precise as to disorient, and also precise in realigning our sense of where things sit and where we stand as the poem brings us into new relation to the object and the past.

In the penultimate line, though, as we approach the word “serenity,” the movement of our sight across the sight-lines and forms of the bowl’s surface, dizzying till now, itself becomes serene and still. The word “in” opens up the interior of the hare’s gaze, a consummation of the imputed inwardness that carried in a line from “a punctured bowl” to “quiz”; but at the same time, the word “outward” keeps us upon the surface; we recognize depths to the gaze, but we cannot enter or even see into them. The figure’s equilibrium of inner and outer, of surface and depth, is wholly at one with the line’s balance of ambiguities: the word “outward” (“in his still gaze outward serenity”) might refer either to a serenity that is only outward, opposed to another, distinct, inward experience, or else it might refer to the direction of the gaze, looking “outward.” And it should be both, because by looking outward, recognizing the poet and reader recognizing it, the serenity of the figure projects outward, comes to live on the surface of the bowl; the figures of the design were always still, but not are come to rest in the stilled attention of the poet; and so the poem is brought to a close—almost. From the serenity, from that gaze, the poet is granted permission to hear a bemused whisper, the hare speaking, having the final words: “…sister quail, brother fish…” itself a fragment that might be addressed to the interiors of the fragmentary hemisphere of what was once a fully inhabited world commensurate with the one we know, now accessible only to the imagination; but also a fragment that emanates out, becomes an element of our world, in the imagination of the poem, directed somehow, though he too must feel bemusement at the possibility, at the poet or reader, who has become a person apart from who he was at the poem’s start.

            In the second poem of the sequence, “Alluvion,” persons are present in the order and of the landscape, so that the poem’s techniques and design are at one with the cultivation of the land by the indigenous population, which goes unnamed. It is a North American Georgic, in miniature:


Tide pool abalone habitat,

clam beach and mussel rock, reed bed, canebrake,

the terrain tended comprehends a mosaic of


inland valley oak-and-grassland, foothill chaparral,


sugar pine on the west slope, high, pinon,

over the passes eastward thinning out

down desert washes into yucca and agave,

mesquite grove, palm oasis

each niche a unique interface of common elements


variously configured in pocket climates

from surf to playa hot spring, a four-day walk—

orientation to the sun, proximity

to coastal fog, wind, rainfall,

elevation. Beneficial plants are propagated


in circumjacent drainages to ripen

for harvest in succession. Each favored species

commands a specialist who oversees its use,

conducts its rituals,

chooses a successor—a grandchild, often—and transmits


its store of observation and technique.

Along the edges of wet meadows rushes

for mats and thatching, basket sedges and arrow cane

are spot-burned in three-year cycles.

Pine needles are fired yearly to return their nutrients


to earth and nurse the nut crop. Rocks aligned

in staggered rows oblique to the streambed

when the rare storm issues in freshets at the mouths

of the arroyos slow

and disperse the inundation across alluvial fans to soak,


precipitating plumes of silt downstream

behind them in the shadow of the current.

As the flood recedes these wedges of fresh soil

are broadcast with grass seed

and interplanted with medicinal herbs and salad greens.

This is a poem that takes care with the care of cultivation that preserves and conserves the being of things, disrupting but not destroying or expropriating them. It is as impersonal a poem as can be imagined; but being devoid of personality, it is not barren of persons. In the first stanza, “habitat” gives us the modern term, the perspective of the poet, taking in the design of the landscape; and “microenvironments,” like “interface” in the stanza that followings, pushes the poem further into the register of the modern scientific understanding of the world. Powell does not pretend to be beyond or above that; but he wants to start there, to move from what it allows us to see and describe, to appreciate modes of cultivation that are not his own.

The crucial line of the first stanza is the third: “the terrain tended comprehends a mosaic of” That line establishes the framework for the entire poem: it is a “terrain” not a “landscape,” more of the earth, more fundamentally geological and ineluctably formed, than a “landscape,” might be, and it is nonetheless “tended,” with this single word bringing into focus that the enumerations of microenvironments, and the entire range of the poem’s reference, is the terrain that is tended. “Tended” looks beautifully towards the gradual, the probably, the habitual, and the natural of “tends to do something”, while also implying care, nurture, and tenderness of “tending to someone or something”; in it, we realize that here “tending to the land” is in harmony with what the land tends to do, with tending to do things in a particular way. It is a wonderful word to contemplate. And it is without a subject; this is what has been done to the land, except that “done to” suggests more violence and force. The line is not “The tended terrain comprehends” because this says something else: “the terrain tended” implies that the entire terrain has been tended, whereas “tended terrain” suggests only some of it has been; but also “the terrain tended” makes “tended” intimate with “comprehends,” as if to say “the terrain when tended comprehends”—but we must reject that possibility since the terrain comprehends all of these elements whether tended or not, and instead we are drawn to another possibility, that the terrain being tended comprehends, both in the obvious primary sense of “holds within its extent,” but also in the second sense, “understands,” as if the terrain itself were made understanding by being tended (it has become a person), even as tending it is inseparable from an understanding of what it is; finally,  “terrain tended comprehends” somehow involves the poem in the tending and comprehending, since it is the poet’s modern nomenclature that understands. “Mosaic” suggests even further the artistry of the poem and design of the landscape, as well as being a visual of its uniformity composed out of disparate parts, and this formal principle is taken up in the word “of,” which turns the line-unit itself into a mosaic fragment, evidently incomplete, made a certain size, and made to conform to the design of the whole, so that the poem is a mosaic of lines comprehending the mosaic of microenvironments.

The second and third stanzas possess remarkable momentum, in part because the list proceeds more or less by an internal principle of pairs, so that there is not only one thing after another, but an oscillation within the items on the list, and because the poet neither pretends nor presumes to disappear; the trained judgment of the eye is felt in “each niche a unique interface,” the abstraction and register of technology a reminder of other techniques, other practices, other ways of seeing that are foreign to the landscape, imposed upon it, so that the poem is both intimately absorbed into what is seen, and then suddenly detached; like a footstep on the earth, the phrase “a four-day walk” makes this a record of the ecologist’s trek, and these phrases, along with “variously configured in pocket climates” are exuberant in their objective focus, their urgency of recording what is seen.

It is a past way of life but it remains in the present: “Beneficial plants are propagated.” Beneficial to whom? Propagated by whom? A way of life inheres in the terrain, but independently of those who sustain it, until the ripening of the poem into the fourth stanza:

in circumjacent drainages to ripen

for harvest in succession. Each favored species

commands a specialist who oversees its use,

conducts its rituals,

chooses a successor—a grandchild, often—and transmits

The favored species “commands a specialist,” so that for a species to be favored is for it to be granted a power over human life, the “specialist who oversees its use” being a specialist who would not, it is likely, speak of “microenvironments.” What strikes me most, though, is the ambiguity in the verbs, so that it is of course the “specialist” who conducts its rituals” and “chooses a successor,” but where it might also be the “favored species” that is the subject of all of these actions, conducting its rituals and even choosing a successor (notice “a grandchild” is without a possessive pronoun, which would have removed some of the ambiguous force); and the ambiguity follows across the stanza break, “transmits” making the leap across the stanzas as the “stores of observation and technique” make a leap across generations.  “Its” has the same effect of the “a” before “grandchild,” but even more forcefully insisting we preserve the ambiguity: the specialist might be an “it,” but the species obviously is, and whereas “observations and technique” would seem to refer to the former, the pronoun asks that we attach them to the latter, to the species itself. We are invited to read, in other words, that the specialist transmits his/her store of observations and technique (about the species) to the grandchild or successor, that the favored species transmits its store of observations and technique to the successor, or, as a final possibility, that the favored species itself transmits its store of observation and technique to its own descendent, the notion being that the species has learned to do certain things, has come to tend to live in certain ways by virtue of being tended, and that this is transmitted; the notion of personhood is profoundly scuttled.

The technological aura of “transmits” is picked up in the final stanza’s “broadcast,” referring to the casting of seeds over the breadth of the alluvial deposits, but also once again to an act of modern telecommunications that we are to see presaged or reflected in the cultivation of this terrain, in techniques and practices that are typically opposed to modernity; “broadcast” acknowledges that they seek to be seen, to be recognized, and that they too serve to inform and be comprehended. “Salad greens” closes the poem, an acknowledgment of the mundane growth that arises from the confluence of so many natural events and patterns, making us see the “salad greens” as more consequential than we might; but the effect depends on what Powell’s readers are prone to make of “salad greens,” associating them with the sterility of the produce section and with the menu description. As a label for the species, it is alien and estranged, the ending note of the poem a different sort of distance and detachment from that of the start, returning us to very different conditions of living.

            I’d wanted to approach these poems through a sense of “self,” to see how far that could take me. For some reason, it didn’t take me far; personhood did. Being a person often involves a strongly defined sense of self, and is perhaps always inseparable from what we call self-consciousness, but persons live in places, among other persons, with responsibilities to others, to states, to institutions; the legalistic, social, environmental implications of the word, the material reality of personhood, is essential if we are to recognize both where the persons in it figure, and why persons are so indirect a presence in the early poems of “Substrate.” It is a collection of poems and experiences of personhood across time, made a whole by taking seriously the thought that personhood, as various as it might be in a place, may nonetheless comprehend and be comprehended what it is for a region to constitute a place at all.


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