Irena Praitis, a strong new poet who teaches literature at Cal State Fullerton (and is a colleague of mine), is fiercely uncompromising, sincere and elemental: all the poems of her debut chapbook, Touch, take the form of a speaker encountering, trying to understand and ultimately wanting to merge with a natural object: the sea, the moon, and trees, trees, trees. What towers were to Yeats, what cars are to Springsteen, trees are to Praitis: a complex, fecund image on which she projects yearning, hope, pathos, puzzlement, a wonder for the chthonic mysteries that keep things living and dying—weeping willows, cottonwoods, oaks, stands of aspen, groves of hemlock, trees struggling for sunlight, trees that burn, trees that turn to driftwood, roots that clutch, branches flowering shamelessly.
The collection begins with the poet tentatively running her "fingers over the Braille of these trees," but by the second poem, the poet's already on her back under "a black lace canopy" of shade trees, when "Slowly as a lapsing day they enter/Me, and I feel the low, steady pulsing/Darker than night trees burning the day's heat." Echoes of Wordsworth's desire for nature-union, of course, also of a sexual merging that stays mostly latent until the collection's closing poems. Before long, the poet is deep inside the tree, speaking from the point of view of its roots, for whom "the earth is a complete/Lover, and blankets me entirely."
In "Two Oaks," a meditation on dangerous passion only thinly disguised by metaphor, she imagines a pair of oaks literally taking up root and fleeing toward a nearby raging river—why? the poet wonders in alarm, when it could just sit tight and let its roots take nourishment from the river's underground tributaries. "These won't be the first to mistake/Promise for an actuality/That callously sweeps them away." These last lines sound like Frost, the last American poet to masterfully allegorize nature into cautionary tale, and Praitis has learned his lessons. Amidst the quieting voice common to these oak-trunk-sturdy poems—most of them 14-line shadow sonnets—which are designed to make the reader (probably urban, probably nature-blocked) relearn patience, to stop, listen and feel "the growth straining through leaves . . . roughly grieving," there's a certain phrasal audacity ("I relearn the life of leaves") that sometimes is breathtaking, though the endings of some poems reach too hard, explain too much ("After Fire," "Under Trees in Autumn"). The collection's final offering, though, is a beautiful summation for a group of poems that have looked for the silent, secret life that, though it's all around us, escapes us at our peril:
The life outside
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The life you're told is life, is the real life. And one simple motion—
Your lover fastening a button on your shirt—
Holds a world behind the gesture.
Touch by Irena Praitis; Finishing Line Press (firstname.lastname@example.org). Chapbook, 23 pages, $14.