Knotweed / Not-I


How Rain Records Its Alphabet, poems by John Tritica, Introduction by Stephen Ellis, La Alameda Press, distributed by The University of New Mexico Press, 1-800-249-7737 / ISBN:1-888809-09-4, 105 pages,  $12.00 pap. 1998.


I think this quote from Robert Graves is the best way to begin this review of John Tritica’s collection of poems, How Rain Records Its Alphabet. :

Mythographic statements which are perfectly reasonable to the few poets who can still think and talk in poetic shorthand seem either non-sensical or childish to nearly all literary scholars. Such statements, I mean, as: ‘Mercury invented the alphabet after watching the flight of cranes’, ....


It’s not because I have now such a low opinion of literary scholars that I think this quote so important. I know few literary scholars, and those I do know are also poets who would find Graves’ statement “perfectly reasonable.” It is this connection he makes between the writer (Mercury / Hermes, patron saint of thieves, inventor of writing), observing nature, and the alphabet, for this is what John Tritica is all about in these poems. 

An inherent tendency of writing is toward abstraction, a further and further removal from the body (Olson’s main shove to get the Breath back into the poem), away from life’s particulars, making the mind’s activity the poem’s content (hence LANGUAGE poetry). But Tritica, aware of all the post-modernisms, seems to also keep in mind Robinson Jeffer’s reminder that mind is but a small part of the poem: “A little too abstract, a little too wise, / It is time for us to kiss the earth again...” (“Return”).

Tritica’s poems are rooted in the local: his longest poem, taking up half the collection, is called “Residence in High Desert.” And his main metaphor, which is also the metaphor for the book, these poems that result, is the garden.  His central question:

How to study the work

when fermenting processes

occur, or navigate

the crash course in chaos.  (“Cold Lines”)

This is the central question when writing but also when gardening or reading; as he writes in “Approaching the Equinox”: “Reading poetry is to write the world.” Or the flip side: ask of  the poetry what you would of the ground, “Can you dig it?”

Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Reverie : “A word is a bud attempting to become a twig.  How can one not dream while writing?” One might equally ask, “Is not the dream while writing an act of perception, a way of seeing the world that inspires the poem?” I think so. I think Tritica might think so. And if so, he is closer to Thoreau than any of the nature poets I am aware of. So much nature poetry is insulting, insulting in its simple minded “appreciation,” as if nature is not the most complex encounter we make, complicated even more so since we are it; like language nature contains us in the act of our awareness of it, which is of necessity awareness of ourselves.

As Thoreau expressed it: Not I but nature in me.  Thoreau knew to look out was to look in in the very same act. Tritica puts it this way at the end of “Climate Control”: “If we are not forest, / our breath cannot buy.”  In his poetry, Tritica expresses what Thoreau could never do in his own poetry, the realization that he gives throughout his journals: A writer a man writing is the scribe of all nature —he is the corn & the grass & the atmosphere writing (September 2, 1851). Thoreau saw his role in nature as nature’s role in him, deep in him, so deep that only the solitary act of writing could reveal it: “My thoughts are driven inward, even as clouds and trees are reflected in the still, smooth water.  There is an inwardness even in the mosquitoes' hum, while I am picking blueberries in the wood” (Journals, July 14, 1854).

Tritica writes:

You in-

volve a weed

blade to open


yet another glyph.  (61)


Birds comma the slight wind.  (73)

He takes us out into the world of the poem to return us to our own interior space, the dream world of writing, where the I meets the Eye. These poems are, to speak fashionably old-fashioned, de-centered. And yet these poems are all about the poet. But this is exactly how Thoreau saw his own place in nature. The poems do not claim to be the only way to perceive. Too many environmentalists speak the old time religion of damnation, retribution, and salvation for the just. Tritica is no fundamentalist preacher disguised as a naturalist. He is poet, an important poet who Graves and Thoreau would recognize as kin. Graves would have loved Tritica’s poetic observation, and Thoreau would have understood and help him explain his essential humility while “fronting” the world:

There is no such thing as pure objective observation.  your observation, to be interesting, i.e. to be significant, must be subjective. ....It matters not where or how far you travel, -- the farther commonly the worse, —but how alive you are ( Journals, May 6, 1854). How the Rain Records Its Alphabet is a record of a poet alive to language and his local landscape, the best of what it means to write a poetry of place.