Reading Novalis in Montana, Melissa Kwasny, Milkweed Editions
(the poems quoted here have had their original format altered)
Nature is often the starting point of Melissa Kwasny’s introspection, but it’s certainly only one of many destinations. Like the poems in her previous books, Kwasny’s new collection, Reading Novalis in Montana, is replete with a naturalist’s attention to detail and poems that are full of precise, often stark, imagery drawn from the world around us. But, Kwasny’s no scientist; what’s most impressive about her work is how much she can extrapolate about the inner life from even the smallest natural details. The result is a book full of lyric meditations, meditations that put forward questions one can’t always answer, but as readers of Reading Novalis in Montana will see, this type of inquiry is an art unto itself.
The title poem (and the first of the book), “Reading Novalis in Montana” is a good example of this:
The dirt road is frozen. I hear the geese first in my lungs.
Faint hieroglyphic against the gray sky.
Then the brutal intervention of sound.
All that we experience is a message, he wrote.
I would like to know what it means
if first one bird swims the channel
across the classic V, the line flutters and the formation dissolves.
The diction and precision here is first-rate and reminiscent of other fine writers—Robert Bly’s Silence in the Snowy Fields and Barry Lopez’s non-fiction essays come to mind. There’s no doubting the emotional authenticity of Kwasny’s observations; these are things you can feel in your chest. Just after these lines, we get the first mention of Novalis himself. Novalis, born Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg in 1772, was an early proponent of German Romanticism, which came about as a rejection of the ideals of the Enlightenment and especially its unyielding emphasis on reason, and its general disregard for the spiritual and the divine and the importance of personal, individual perception.
For Kwasny, Novalis is both a foil and a kindred spirit. She seems alternatively smitten by and skeptical of his wider worldview. However, in terms of process, she shares a good deal of with Novalis, and this becomes clear in a selection from Pollen, Novalis’s collection of aphorisms, which was published in 1798. In it, he writes:
The first step is introspection—exclusive contemplation of the self. But whoever stops there only goes halfway. The second step must be genuine observation outward—spontaneous, sober observation of the external world.
The references to Novalis in the book, therefore, make a good deal of sense as Kwasny’s work takes both of these steps. In fact, this is one aspect that makes the book worth reading as this combination is rather rare in contemporary poetry (usually writers take only one step or the other). Even so, taking both these steps doesn’t lead to many solutions or easy answers. Later in the title poem, Kwasny writes:
Novalis wrote, and died, like Keats, before he was thirty.
They have left me behind like one of their lost,
scratching at the gravel in the fields. Where are they
once the sky has enveloped them?
There is no answer to that question; instead, like in Novalis’s work (especially Hymns to the Night), there is a strange mix of beauty amid sadness. This is where Kwasny, like James Wright, is particularly perceptive—Kwasny’s work is suffused with beauty, but she seems aware that beauty is a sliding scale—what we see is often a hard kind of beauty, and the sublime is never that far away. She ends the title poem with the following:
If, as the Gnostics say, the world was a mistake
created by an evil demiurge, and I am trapped
in my body, abandoned by a god whom I long for as one of my own,
why not follow the tundra geese into their storm?
why stay while my great sails flap the ice
as if my voice were needed to call them back
in the spring, as if I were the lost dwelling place for the flocks?
Here again, the inner and outer worlds intertwine in a way that Novalis would be able to recognize and appreciate. The result is often complicated and produces more questions than answers, but readers will quickly see that the questions Kwasny asks are important, and certainly worth asking.