The Stones Keep Watch by John Whitney Steele
Published by Kelsay Books, Cover Design by Shay Culligan
Review by Randal A. Burd, Jr.
“The poetry of earth is never dead.” This observation by British Romantic poet John Keats has been oft repeated by countless poets, celebrated and obscure, since the 1817 publication of his poem, “On the Grasshopper and Cricket.” But this sentiment has not been expressed more deliberately, nor with more consistent passion than by another John—poet John Whitney Steele—in his first collection, The Stones Keep Watch.
This collection drew me in from the outset. The cover photograph is of Hawk Tower, a stone castle-like structure built in the early 20th century by the poet Robinson Jeffers. The structure is shaded from bright sunlight by surrounding trees which is a good match for the photographic style of the author. And, while you wouldn’t go wrong judging this book by its cover, the poems inside reward the high expectations it sets. Steele has spoken of coming late to writing poetry and he wastes no time digging into subject matter he feels passionately about.
The first poem in the collection, “Listen,” calls the reader to attention and implores them to listen as they are taken through a slide show of vividly described settings. Anxiety concerning climate change becomes apparent in the next poem, “Grinnell Glacier,” where the speaker kneels in prayer “knowing nothing lives forever,” speaks of “the silent sorrow of silver ice,” and laments to the glacier that “it’s too late to save you.” The poem goes on to describe the fallout from the glacier’s catastrophic disappearance.
The climate change theme bleeds seamlessly into the next poem, “Light from the Stars that Died,” which mentions “melting ice” and “rising tides,” in the first two lines. Water and melting ice continue to be motifs in almost every poem, from the lake habitat of the great blue heron to the extinct war elephants of Hannibal sucking up water from the underworld and spraying it in the clouds. “Buddha Said” speaks of the “paralyzed panic of ice cap meltdown,” and “Posterity” mentions melting permafrost. These poems are not a call to action; they are the primarily the speaker’s grieving the end of nature itself as a foregone conclusion–the unavoidable consequence of past inaction.
The permafrost is melting now,
releasing long held secrets:
fifty-thousand-year-old wolf pups
perfectly preserved, reindeer
killed by anthrax, disinterred.
This collection does not instill a call for increased environmental awareness or greater conservation, as much as it imposes a tone of paralyzed panic that impending doom from climate change is certain to be coming. However, it does raise related political concerns. The speaker posits it is already too late for Grinnell Glacier, and describes humanity as a collection of terminal patients preparing to do “the last things done by humans.” After all, “the sixth extinction can’t be turned around.” And yet, the following phrase: “If nothing’s done, and soon…,” suggests the speaker in “Great Blue Heron” perhaps has not entirely given up on saving the human race.
In “What’s Required,” the speaker laments what he seems to believe is the imminent end of democracy in a nation “roiled by a would-be tyrant.” He asks himself if he can “shake off inertia, do what’s required,” confessing that he has considered political assassination before dismissing that notion with a reflection on Caesar and Ghandi. Moving on the more immediate hazard of a wasp nest in the yard, he ironically speaks of his injured wife and how “everything she says is dramatized.” Water enters again as a motif when the speaker gets the hose to flood the wasps’ nest, repeatedly hoping they drown, then has a twinge of regret over having possibly drowned “an entire community.”
The Buddha said,
The world’s on fire.
How much more so
we still deny it.
What more does it take?
This collection’s strengths include: vivid imagery; the speaker’s passions, both intense and authentic, and verse that seems both traditional and yet, also contemporary. The collection does display some hyperbole as it covers hot-button issues frequently seen in contemporary poetry. I think it unfortunate when readers embrace or reject a collection based on the ideology it appears to champion, although I am sure this happens far too often. Despite the doomsday message, the speakers in Steele’s poems come across as likable individuals with whom readers can empathize. The poems do an admirable job at putting the poetry of earth on display, in all its magnificence. Finally, I love poetry that demonstrates humble introspection as well as astute observation, and Steele’s work does both exquisitely. The Stones Keep Watch is a collection worth reading from a poet who surely has more to come.
John Whitney Steele is a psychologist, yoga teacher, and assistant editor of Think: A Journal of Poetry, Fiction and Essays. He is a graduate of the MFA Poetry Program at Western Colorado University. His poetry and book reviews have appeared in numerous print and online journals. Born in Toronto and raised among the pines and silver birches of Foot’s Bay, Ontario, John now lives in Boulder, Colorado where he often encounters his muse wandering in the mountains. John can be found at johnwhitneysteelepoet.com.
Randal A. Burd, Jr. is an educator and the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, Sparks of Calliope. His poetry has received multiple awards and has been featured in numerous literary journals, both online and in print. Randal’s 2nd poetry book, Memoirs of a Witness Tree, is now available from Kelsay Books and on Amazon.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.