A Beautiful Compression: Unifying a Fractured World
An Appreciation of Kathryn Rantala’s The Plant Waterer
by Norman Lock
Published by Ravenna Press
On Friday, rain and a man from Padua.
“Poets look at the entire world and compress
it beautifully for us,” he says.
Kathryn Rantala is a poet of small events and inconsequential moments – or so one may be tempted to observe, initially, after reading her slender collection of – what is it that she has wrought for us? Except in their length and in the manner in which they exist upon the page (a page of intimate size in a volume of modest dimensions), the fourteen more or less brief pieces that comprise The Plant Waterer do not, at first, appear to be poems. They are too modest in their formal devices and effect, striking the eye and mind rather like the prosaic musing of a naturalist on holiday. Although not rigorous, the habit of attention to plants, birds, fish, landscapes and the “ceremonies” of those inhabiting them – the flora, fauna, topography, and anthropology of a world open to inspection by anyone equipped with sensitivity – is there; so, too, is the regard for classification and analysis. But Rantala, as we who know her know, is a poet. (She is also a fine prose writer, a generous and discerning editor and publisher of contemporary alternative literature, and – to my surprise – a fabricator in this volume of charming and eccentric illustrations reminiscent of Thurber’s.)
I say that she is a poet; but in The Plant Waterer she is subtle, eschewing the characteristic poetic devices by which texts claim for themselves the status of poetry. Instead, we encounter a nicely modulated prose with lively and elastic measures reminding us of William Carlos Williams’ variable foot. (Her borrowings from prose writers like the Russian Absurdist Danill Kharms and Donald Barthelme are assimilated into the overall poetic structure by enjambed lines and patternings. And everywhere is a rich and varied internal music, achieved by assonance, half- and slant rhymes. Often her texts are divided into stanzas (for a purpose that will become clear), but her lines end often enough with unstressed words such as one finds in syllabic verse. Rantala’s pieces here are sometimes organized by syllable counts. But deliberate weakening of the poetic line may be a tactic to undermine the importance of her vision for reasons of modesty or of an acceptance of the provisional aspect of knowledge. The book’s first poem displays both aspects of the poet’s stance toward phenomena:
in a movie something suddenly was made
It had to do with the idea that forms of
speech held in common are not arbitrary.
Or are; I forget which.
As a rule, the pieces here collected also dispense with figures, tropes, or metaphors (and anything that suggests rhetoric). As in “Last Night,” they have the feel of casual observations, casually set down, whose final moments of disengagement are thrown away. Yet, they work on the attentive reader as poetry does.
How she achieves this effect – beyond her pieces’ subtle music – is the means and measure of her enterprise, at least so it seems to me. What is this enterprise? Nothing less than to reveal – by sly example – the duplication of forms, the connection between species, the congeries of the dissimilar, the harmonious chords by which life is organized, made familiar, and whole. She accomplishes her grand material synthesis (whether consciously or no) by the juxtaposition of details – samplings – taken from extreme margins of the visible world, including its literature. She does so so quietly and modestly – with none of the Miltonic burden (despite her quotation of him) or large gestures one might expect of a poet of the universal. In fact, unless the reader allows the pieces their potential to propose, amid the mundane facts of existence, the theme of integration and reconciliation, he will mistake The Plant Waterer for an endearing daybook only, distinguished by humor and lightness. I had thought to call this opinion “The Incredible Lightness of Being Rantala” – not to devalue the book but to acknowledge that lightness of matter, which I admire, achieved by radiance, comedy, or attenuation. But I soon realized that the poet’s aims were other and larger than dematerialization. She hopes, here, to unify matter and phenomena rather than to dismiss it.
“Variations of Arrangement,” in its title and content, might almost have been written by the poet to announce her book’s theme. Tri-partite in form, each unit of composition little more than a gesture – the poem attends to a world highly particularized, yet varied; within the particular and its variations, however, there exists a unity. The first part consists of two short stanzas of enjambed prose whose line lengths are governed by a syllable count (with, aptly, slight variations). The first stanza is dry botanical classification, which may have been borrowed from a text book or encyclopedia. (Rantala favors the found object and uses it occasionally to advance her theme of epistemological integration. I suspect that, in some instances, she has “assisted” a quotation to enhance its music.)
Small green or yellow units called leaflets are present in multiples. Compound leaves can be palmately arranged (attached at a central point) or pinnately (in a linear fashion.)
The second stanza examines the basic organizational principles of typography:
Typography consists of letters arranged into words and words written into text. Text can be set with left, right, or full justification, centered or freeform.
Each of the two stanzas, considered by itself, is of little interest. Taken together, however, we are initiated into a universe whose most disparate phenomena are seen to observe similar principles of construction and variation. (“Leaflet” is nicely chosen, referring both to the botanical and the typographical realms.) By extension, the poem suggests that all life’s impulses toward revelation of its invisible foundation – no matter how incongruous they are – seek form, enjoy variation, and bear relation to each other at an elemental level. With this in mind, the poem’s second part (widely, even wildly incongruous) assume a cogent place in the poem’s argument. It is a borrowing from Danill Kharms:
The crowd gets excited and for lack of another victim seizes the man of medium height and tears off his head. The torn-off head rolls along the pavement and gets stuck in the drain. . . . The crowd, having satisfied its passion, disperses.
One can be forgiven an initial bewilderment over the purpose of this stanza (created of Kharms’ original prose). But the third and final part of the poem will integrate it into the overall work, justifying an otherwise bizarre insertion into the poem:
Some common serif shapes:
The serif, of course, is a decorative element of typography: the final “stroke” applied to a letterform. Each of the four serif shapes enumerated above are variations on the basic alphabetic unit – each letter a minim of the evolved language. As such, serifs are further instances of the pressure of variation on the common. Like a leaflet, a serif is an attachment to the essential structure; like a leaflet, it can be imagined to be torn off, resulting in letterforms called san serif. The victim’s head, which can be considered a finishing stroke on the essential form of man, is likewise torn off in the poet’s sampling from Kharm’s eccentric world. The “hairline” serif may also relate to “head,” as well as the organic world of plants (roots). As already mentioned, a leaflet belongs to both botany and typography. Thus does Rantala, in a laconic, seemingly casual manner, recommend to the reader a world of diversity whose constituent parts share principles of organization and elaboration.
We see this theme of replication again treated in miniature in Rantala’s “At the Garage Sale.” Five small parts – all but the last just several sentences in length – combine to demonstrate the synthesis of the natural world, as well as the nature of poetry and of human consciousness. And they do so so effortlessly, so quietly, that we might overlook the dimensions of such an ambitious undertaking by a casual reading of the poem. (The Plant Waterer invites, as I have said, such a reading by its apparent simplicity and informality and for its unwillingness to announce the seriousness of its intention or its claim to poetry.)
On Friday, rain and a man from Padua.
“Poets look at the entire world and compress
it beautifully for us,” he says.
We can’t ever recall seeing it rain so much.
In the poem’s first part, we are treated to as conclusive a definition of poetry as any I have encountered. Rantala (who may or may not have overheard the line she attributes to a man from Padua) practices this beautiful compression throughout The Plant Waterer. For her, compression is more than the literary device of the figure of speech observed by almost every poet (but only rarely, in this book, by her): it is the conjunction of dissimilar worlds by montage or juxtaposition in order to see in them the essential likenesses, concealed and enlivened by variation, or pattern.
Later, two Canadian geese honk overhead and Wayne stands up and honks back at them. They turn and circle back to get a better look at him. He does this again with another pair.
Wayne, and the birds of the air.
In the second part of “At the Garage Sale,” a man achieves, by his repetition or enactment of their language, a connection with another species.
Saturday, an osprey flies overhead holding a
bullhead in its talons.
The rest of the afternoon, we watch our tables.
In its third part, the poem may seem to disassociate the terrestrial world of men from the aerial of birds (and by accident, fish) by the apparent refusal of the people at their sale tables to look up and observe the osprey. But the gravitational force of juxtaposed worlds, which we have witnessed already in The Plant Waterer, is too strong in my opinion and insists that osprey, its bullhead captive, and human kind occupy the same weft of relation, the same plane of existence.
During a lull the man with the cashbox
rocks and rocks on the edge of his chair; as
if on the water, as if in the wind.
The fourth part unites man and the elements of water and wind by the action of rocking, which weakens the earth’s attraction, allowing us to enter, for a moment, the alien worlds of sea and air. This simile is one of the few exceptions to Rantala’s abstention, in The Plant Waterer, from figurative language.
The fifth and final part lists four foreign words or sentences (German, Dutch, and Danish), discovered by chance in Berlitz glossaries on one of the garage-sale tables. The sentences have the effect of the accidental or aleatory, as if overheard in a restaurant. They are followed by a fifth – this from someone browsing among the books on the table: “A fellow asks: Have you any books on human / consciousness?” The force of this question suggests – to me – that the particulars of “At the Garage Sale” that have preceded it must be considered aspects of human consciousness, no matter how disparate or casual. In other words, consciousness, for Rantala, embraces everything because everything is connected – no matter how circumstantially or circuitously – to the human observer. And it is the poem – that most beautifully compressed habit of observation – that recognizes and celebrates this synthesis.
My consideration of Rantala’s poetry as an instrument for the integration of a fractured world concludes with “Alaska Day Tours” – the most ambitious and wide-ranging poem in The Plant Waterer. The poem – the longest in the collection – consists of ten entries, or travel notes, purportedly of a trip through Alaska (although the physical impressions of landscape are largely missing). Each obeys the compositional impulses already remarked on: casual, highly objective notations of experience (characterized by the absence of a perceiving self – i.e. the poet), line lengths based loosely on a syllabic measure, the pressure of enjambment, an internal music, a spare deployment of imagery, and the juxtaposition or montage that enlarges the meaning of the parts into a poetic and ontological synthesis.
The first seven entries are devoted to observations concerning a memorial carving (“Pointing Figure”) made by brothers of the Raven Bone House of the Raven Clan, indigenous Alaskans at the end of the nineteenth century. It is related to another, earlier Pointing Figure – this one erected on Cat Island by ancestors of the brothers. The carved pole is surmounted by the totemic Raven on whose breast are the three children of the sun whom Raven visited after the Deluge. The Raven’s wings are decorated with eyes that are themselves inscribed with faces, symbolizing joints and the power of metamorphosis. Of the original, which is called Spirit of the Hazy Island, only the man, “weathered to soft silver,” carved at the base of the pole has survived.
[The carving] tells that mis-
fortune comes to the frivolous, that from
such people the spirit withdraws its
protections. Their hair arches in wind and
across the eyes; water stops reflecting
them; the sky hides in the trees and the
clouds come right down to the ground.
Then such people are in danger of losing
The entries continue their objective description of Spirit of the Hazy Island. We learn that – true to the native tradition of representation of inanimate objects – the head has neither eyebrows nor ears. The image of the man is further adorned with flicker-wing feathers and weasel skins (Day 5). The totem – we see – combines the terrestrial and the aerial realms, just as it aspires – as a vertical pole – to the cosmology of the sun. The pole is now understood as a connection between the phenomenological and numinous, earth and myth. It joins animal, bird, planet, and man in a fluid scale of being – with the possibility (the faces inscribed in the eyes of the children of the sun) of transformation from one to the other. In Day 5, Rantala begins to widen the context and meaning of her poem with this elegant statement/stanza:
In December the sun arcs above the
horizon like the long portion of a skipped
We have left the mythology represented by the carving (art) for the natural order – one with the principal features embodied by the carving: sun and earth (the horizon). Like the pole, the skipped rock aspires to escape gravity, and does, if only momentarily.
The final five entries of “Alaska Day Tours” do effect an escape from earth and its “grave” concerns (the carving is – one recalls – a memorial to a dead relative). Exploiting her now familiar technique of juxtaposed stanzas, the poem becomes a naturalist’s description of a celestial event – perhaps the most brilliant, elusive, and poetic available to landbound men with the unaided eye:
The electrons that create auroras start in
the outer layers of the magnetic field
which is compressed by solar wind.
(One cannot help but notice the word compression, invoking the man from Padua’s definition of poetry [“The Garage Sale”]!)
In Day 7, Rantala’s poem achieves a magnificent synthesis – uniting the heavens (sacred or secular, mythic or scientific) with the earth: the wolf and the bear with corona, band, or curtain – three types of Borealis. In Day 8, the imaginative enlargement of the poem’s universe (and, by implication, that which the poet claims for poetry) continues – now integrating Roman mythology, linguistics, the kingdoms of fish and animals, man, and the beliefs of the native Alaskans:
Aurora was the Roman goddess of the
dawn. Boreal is a Latin word meaning
The second figure on the pole is a
drowned man who has become a land
otter. He holds onto two logs to use as
canoes and two live minks as paddles.
Anyone who speaks to a land otter or on
whom it breathes becomes one too.
The devil-fish at the bottom was carved to
suggest a boulder-strewn, cave-dotted
(One cannot help receiving the suggestion of arboreal contained in “boreal,” which connects the artifact/art of the carved pole with its original source: a tree – product of the earth.)
Marvelously, the ninth and tenth entries restore the Aurora Borealis and its complex nexus of connections to the brain – the mind – of man.
Some insist they can hear the Aurora; a
swish or crackle similar to static on the
radio. But others suggest that such sound may
actually be produced inside the head like
a phantom limb.
Not only does Rantala insinuate the possibility that the electromagnetic phenomenon (and the mythology that seeks to explain it) may be situated in the imagination, but she relates it (in another exceptional use of metaphor) to a technological device. Just so, does she compress the spiritual and physical realms, the ancient and the modern worlds. Like the totem or memorial pole, which is a transmitting device, the radio connects by an invisible medium disparate areas of experience and synthesizes them. In this and in this alone, the radio is a poem. The “phantom limb,” which is a vestige or revenant of a former self reminds us of the memorial pole and the tree of its origin. (“Use of the leg as a primary design feature [in the totemic carving] / is very unusual” (Day 6). So does Rantala return, in her poem, from the space of the actual and mythological Aurora to Day 1, the factual description of the memorial carving. And so does the pole ascend from earth and death to the upper atmosphere and dawn.
An easy way to test whether one can hear
the Aurora Borealis would be to close your
eyes during one and see if the sound goes
[Day 10: final line]
She is too canny a poet (or too unassuming a person) to leave us with a definitive statement of how the world is. Knowledge for her – as we saw in the book’s first poem, “Last Night” – is uncertain and provisional. There is room – she seems to tell us – for groping in the dark (or a darkened movie theater) among the intimations of wholeness and integrity, which everywhere she perceives. The space for this – for her – is that of the poem where:
The cars just swarm onto the deck of a
ferry as if they know where they fit best.
Poems are written not only by poets but also by readers. There exists between them a compact of the imagination, which creates – by the visible and invisible medium of words spirited consciously and unconsciously onto the page – an object transcending them both. An object like the Pointing Figure, capable of transmitting messages from the dead to the living, from the living to the dead, between worlds and realms only seemingly separate. In “the same constricted, stage- / like space,” the artist “maneuvers the figures” of his art (“The Engraver”) – aware of “The dramatic pattern of interlocked / stone and timber” (“Vedute di Roma: Views of Rome”). Rantala’s achievement is all the more significant given the limited space in which she chooses to work and the casual gestures she employs in accomplishing the beautiful compression – the interlocking of the materials of her artistic vision. One remembers that the complete title of her deceptively simple volume is The Plant Waterer and Other Things in Common. For this poet in this poem, commonality is everything. We are the richer for it.
–– Norman Lock
“A Beautiful Compression” appeared originally at elimae.