Physical and Emotional Landscapes:
Two Perspectives of Nature in
To Look Out from by Dede Cummings
Homebound Publications, 2017
Reviewed by TIM WEED
The poems in Dede Cummings’ debut collection, To Look Out From, take as their subject innocence lost and innocence maintained. The poems are intimate and personal—one of the unifying themes is the loss of the poet’s father and the way the gaping hole of his absence has shaped her life—but as promised by the title, they also look outward, considering the ways that nature is an active force shaping and buffeting our lives. A keen and patient observer of the New England landscape, Cummings beckons us into her poems with images so transfixing that they’re impossible not to visualize. Anyone who has lived through a New England winter, for example, will recognize these images of ice-covered trees:
Suffocating crystals on brush strokes
the melting drip is slow to follow
a birch bends its silver trunk
in an agonistic arc
Or this late autumn scene:
One golden eagle flies low across a rabbit field, a red tail hawk
soars above a rusted truck, the color of dead leaves and mud.
Cummings’ vision of nature is far from static, however, and the opposite of passive. The poems in To Look Out From paint a portrait of a living force that brims with intention. Consider these images of an oncoming storm:
The wind jerks the kite and slaps it against the pole.
Frail plants curl over the turned earth.
Lines such as these can be discomfiting, communicating a side of nature that is not altogether benevolent. Elsewhere, we experience nature as a force of defiance in the face of life’s inevitable depredations, such as in these lines about a birch tree that’s been struck down by lightning:
Last time I was here it hung tall
light-hungry, grabbing fistfuls
of blue sky, not afraid of nightfall.
Such imagery doesn’t merely root us in the poem (although it accomplishes that task quite effectively); it shocks us straight into the scene in a way that is impossible to resist, triggering our imaginations to construct clear pictures that we recognize instinctually, not only in the physical perspective, but in the emotional one as well. We can’t keep the strong impression of that tree, that sky, from taking full possession of our minds. And this centeredness within the world of the poem prepares us for the lines that follow:
silence of the loss
of electric power
joy of doing nothing
for the day
Rooted equally in nature and in the spirit, this is a poetry collection to savor. While Cummings’ perspective can be discomfiting, its overall essence is one of optimism—of the redemption and transcendence that awaits us all if we simply step out the back door.
Tim Weed is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and a featured expert for National Geographic Expeditions in Cuba, Spain, and Patagonia. His fiction and essays have appeared in Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Talking Points Memo, Writer’s Chronicle, Backcountry Magazine, National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel, and elsewhere. Tim teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and in the MFA Writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Kirkus Reviews has called his debut novel, Will Poole’s Island (2014), a “riveting portrayal of early Colonial New England.” Read more at timweed.net.