The Thinking Eye by Jennifer Atkinson

An Expansive, Earthbound Lyric

by Matthew DeMarco

Imagine a split screen: an LCD display divvied up into a series of six boxes. In one, a tree slowly coming unhinged at its roots in a slow-motion topple. In another, a long shot of a train meandering through a mountain pass. In a third box, an underwater camera trails a school of fish as they pivot and twist together along a swiftly moving stream. The fourth perspective looks out through the petals of an open flower angled toward the sun as bees appear and depart. The fifth is perched atop a street pole at a busy intersection in a city. The sixth box displays a quiet living room where a couple enters and greets their pet cat.

In The Thinking Eye (Parlor Press, 2016), poet Jennifer Atkinson spins keen observational talents and perceptive ecological imagination into an impressively expansive, though decidedly earthbound, lyric. Atkinson takes the book’s cover art, Gaze of Silence, from the artist and theorist Paul Klee, who also provides an epigraph: “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible.” This is twinned with the oft-recited warning from Baba Dioum, “We will save only what we love and we will love only what we know.” The book lives within the tension that animates these two statements. If these statements can be reconciled, this occurs in the lyric’s effort to render known and visible the ecological unknown through the poet’s deft imagining.

Before the book’s three sections begin, Atkinson offers the reader “At the Chernobyl Power Plant Eco-Reserve,” a poem establishing a glimpse into the biosphere beyond the reach of significant human interaction. In an author’s note published on the website of The Missouri Review, Atkinson notes that in the Exclusion Zone surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, wildlife currently thrives at levels exceeding pre-meltdown rates: “The reason is that the benefit of excluding humans from the contaminated ecosystem outweighs the negative effects of the radiation!” In the poem that begins this collection, the catalog of absent humans and thriving non-human species is tilted toward the left-hand side of a dangling if-then conditional statement. The poem concludes:

if watches tick
in unopened drawers, if swollen,
if stiff-maned Przewalsi horses
foal, if wolves, if then, if then, if

Three sections follow this introduction. The first is given often to landscapes, a vehicle through which the poet continues to examine “Cause, effect, and cause.” By the banks of an inactive cooling tower on the Connecticut River, the speaker impatiently waits for humanity’s works to be composted while noting that “flint arrowheads turn up among the plastic / picnic sporks, the glacial crags and bottom silt.” In a moment of tender ambivalence, she acknowledges love for a nearby woodchuck due to her “like-human smugness.” The section ends, however, in South Asia, where ten years after the devastating 2004 tsunami,

the coral reef is reinventing itself
by fits and starts, by hook and foot
and reef-wasn’t-built-in-a-day
                                                 steady calm.
Patience comes easy to gastropods.

Among the people, however, the markers of civil strife are clear and disastrous. A stone statue of the Buddha presides in its lasting peace outside innumerable wars. With bitter irony, the poet closes the first section noting that the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a tree still growing from a branch of the Buddha’s original Bodhi tree, is “guarded night and day at gunpoint.” What emerges in this section is an observed patience and steadily slow resilience among non-human actors in the ecosystem, and a pointedly obsessive clamor for power, dominance, and dominion among the human actors.

The second section is where the split screen comes into full force. In particular, in “Still, Again: Thirty Years After the Assault,” the poem’s second-person “you” separates from herself: “the air from your mouth material / lifting away from what you once called your / self.” Further on, “You are vanishing while she takes definite / shape on the brook edge.” In a relived trauma the self comes away from a body. This poem is tethered to the book’s previous entry “Exhalation,” in which the poet tracks oxygen from an oak leaf through wild leaps to “volcanic dust over Iceland” and “the stinging fifty-days wind over Homs.” In the end, these air molecules fracture in time, direction, and use. It is a move reminiscent of Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everything with Lungs, though from the view of quark; it is at once compact and unwieldy.

Perhaps most dazzling of the book’s second section is “The Five Seeds of the Northern Spy Apple.” In varying intervals punctuated by quarter rests (), Atkinson projects the fate of five apple seeds that happen to have been be eaten by a deer who consumed half of the fruit. Equally notable for its fine-tuned musicality, the poem’s matter-of-fact commitment to the divergent fates of these seeds becomes mesmerizing. As four seeds are incidentally destroyed before they can germinate, the reader is left with a side-eyed, oblique view of the climate’s unsteady fluctuations and the brute fact of the deer’s death on a remote highway. In one microscopic moment, when a discarded seed sifts through a bird’s abandoned nest, “Only then / does the last seed open, soften, and green / its apple way into the dirt.”

What follows in section three is a meld of observations and imaginings that, though no cheerier, seem not so cynical as the book’s first section. The book is resonant with a chaos that includes human and non-human actors, fully cognizant of each’s (in)ability to steady, and germinate, and maintain their wholeness. In the poem “On Earth as It Is,” the reader is taken through the strontium 90 nuclear fallout that litters Alaska toward a remote diner in the Arctic Circle town of Deadhorse. It seems that ultimately, for Atkinson’s book, there is a communion with the line from Czeslaw Milosz that she quotes in this poem: “There are nothing but gifts on this poor, poor Earth.”