Seeking Natural Beauty in a Man Made World

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Songs From The Back Woods of the Mind
By Peter Kirn
Get Fresh Books, LLC
50 pages, $17.00
Reviewed by Stephanie Tobia

Rooted deep in the heart of Mother Earth, Peter Kirn’s Songs from the Back Woods of the Mind transports readers out of their bodies and into the forest. We are outside in the world in the gray October soils, we are in cornfields on the farm and we take in trashcans. Kirn’s poetry is direct; it plants us firmly in the imagination by meditating on every day tasks and by using plain language. There is beauty in the simplicity of life:

i looked up from the exhausted gray
october soil to see the long ragged black tongue
in the sky with the wind billowing beneath it
i marveled then at the resilience of the roots of the dead
until i realized they were still alive

The speaker exposes himself to us through what he sees as he wanders the landscape. He is an oak tree — his skin bark, his fingers leaves, and his legs roots – becoming absorbed in everything the Earth offers. The poem “the ant” whispers at larger social issues; Kirn plays with perception as our world appears larger than life to humble ants:

they will never know my love for what is buried
beneath the oak trees & sidewalk panels

they will never see the world the way that i see the world
unless they see the endless maze of tunnels believe me

Songs from the Back Woods of the Mind is the quiet, internal dialogue of a man who seeks answers through natural beauty in a man made world. This is the only constant in a universe of intricacies. The poems transcend out of the woods and into a factory where his questions remain, seeking the same solace in signals and switches:

as if there was nothing beautiful
about the way signals & electricity zapped around over our heads
as if there was nothing beautiful that couldn’t be flicked on & off with
a switch
nothing beautiful that wasn’t beyond our control
as if there was control

The poem celebrates different forms of beauty through control, a construct of the physical world. Drawing on Descartes’ mind-body philosophy, Kirn invites us to look beyond what we can see and investigate with the third eye. There is a reoccurring theme to connect human mind and body with the physical world. In the poem “28” Kirn writes:

i came upon it one day
when i wandered into an empty space devoid of all things a
lonely place where i was not lonely & the jewel in my side was
glowing for it was near i was enraptured by the machine it
was gorgeous & working & purposeful

“Enraptured by the machine” admits a sense of power and appreciation for the known. As a reoccurring theme, the speaker questions essence, which is not governed by the laws of physics. The speaker attempts to fuse them together as one cannot exist with out the other.

Kirn makes smart choices by use of white space and line breaks, which mimic the unknown he ponders. The eye gravitates toward the white space as the speaker observes, breathes and connects the seemingly unrelated. When spoken out loud, we are able to breathe life into Kirn’s thoughts. In the poem “26,” a list forms around the white space and we are inside the mind of the speaker:

if your sleep is the meaninglessness
that will explain it all coffee black night
black darkness glitters stars glitter
the love is in the timing the peace
is buried in the wheel like the shapes buried in the air

Kirn draws upon Thoreau’s spirit through fragmented images as the poem flows out of black coffee into darkness. Immersed in the “black” of night, Kirn’s work glitters with Thoreau’s spiritual quest around Walden Pond. In opposition with the “machine,” both seek philosophical enlightenment found in peace and quiet.

Kirn’s love of the natural world gives each tree in the forest a voice. The sensation found in his collection is worth the read because it speaks across a galaxy. His images are “circular but not circles/connected but not fluid/fluid but not connected.” When I flip through the pages I smell electricity in the movement of air, blending ordinary things such as automobiles, baseballs and birdcages; yet long after finishing Kirn’s book I still want to touch down and gather Earth in my palms. This reconnection to Mother Nature is not one to be overlooked or soon forgotten.

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About Author

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Stephanie Marie Tobia was born and raised in New Jersey where she has earned a BA at Rutgers University. She is currently a graduate student at Drew University earning a dual degree for a Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry and Poetry in Translation. Tobia serves as a mentor for PEN America's Prison Writing Program and has founded a poetry healing group at a Senior Rehabilitation Center. Her work is also forthcoming in The Pleiades Book Review.

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