Written over the course of a decade, John Haines’ latest collection of poetry, For the Century’s End: Poems 1990-1999, reads like a “state of the human spirit” address for the beginning of a new millennium. The poems explore the balance and disharmony relating man, earth and politics, and are concerned with how our “mythology” fits us, and how we fit the planet and elemental world. Haines seems intent on coming to terms with the events that shape our relations as political and as natural beings. In the introduction to the collection he writes, “I have always sought a poetry that…can include the public events of our time and do so in a way that makes them at once contemporary and unavoidably linked with humanity’s long and troubled history.” Divided by subject into five chapters, For the Century’s End contains visionary meditations on the natural world, ruminations on western history and culture, vignettes of events influencing our times, wise counsel on politics and capitalism, gentle sketches of personal life, love, children and loss, as well as visions of the simple elements that mark our inhabitance in the world.
Now a Missoula resident, Haines spent the better part of 40 years in Alaska, 20 years of it eking out a subsistence from the land during the 1950s and 1960s. The poems from his 1960s homesteading years are some of the most astonishingly beatific verse in American letters:
“Well quit of the world, / I framed a house of moss and timber, / called it a home, and sat in the warm evenings / singing to myself as a man sings / when he knows there is no one to hear.”
With his home and the surrounding landscape as his center, Haines describes his elemental being:
“Our berries picked, / the mushrooms gathered, / each of us hides / in his heart a small piece / of this summer, / as mice store their roots/ in a place / known only to them.”
The wilderness landscape and its inhabitants seem contained within a mythological essence that arises interactively with each passing moment. Reflecting back on these years in the preface to his Collected Works, Haines says, “What I wrote then emerged with difficulty from a kind of spell, one that I was reluctant to break, knowing that once I did, nothing would ever be quite the same.”
Haines’ poetry reveals an uneasy fit between humans and modern society. The guidelines that compel human nature in a man-made environment seem arbitrary, based on the desire for riches and power, rather than on the essential mandates of living. The poet’s interactions with the natural world in Haines’ poetry are celebratory and deeply nourishing. God exists in the suffering of fellow creatures, in powerful interactions and in the silent air. Contrarily, human society, driven by deceitful and manipulative commands, is capable of horrifying destructiveness for the sake of pure selfishness. An anguished bitterness at our society’s loss of connection with the natural world suffuses many of these poems.
“The forest bond is broken, / and the tongued leaves no longer / speak for the dumb soul lost/ in the wilderness of his own flesh.” Yet Haines seems clear that even in our deluded, rapacious way of life, the balance we seek is in the epiphanies that enlighten our quietest moments. “I am the one who touches fire, / who rakes the leaves to watch them burn, / and who says once more to himself / on this calm evening of earth: / Awake! The stars are out, / mist is on the water, / and tomorrow the sun will return.”
Throughout this collection, Haines seems concerned with the various levels at which mythological truth arises in the world. There is a sense in which Haines might claim a personal, hard-won mythology, imparted in descriptions of the poet’s personal interaction with the landscape and its inhabitants. His journey is as much internal as external. “I climbed my own steepness, / my way forgotten, slept / in the red cave of my heart.” In the poem “The Ancestors,” we see a marsh, a forest and “a great flock of birds.” As the sun sets and shadows rise, everything merges into a presence greater than the sum of its parts: “Above those distant trees / huge heads and sinewy necks / upthrust, as though that forest / were waking, root, branch and crown.” At the level of classical mythology, Haines connects with elements from three different sources: the Mesopotamian legend of Gilgamesh, an Alaskan hero named Enkidu, and the Greek myth of Orpheus. The poet travels back and forth within an environment where present experience and ancient, impersonal truth arise together, often journeying toward a transformative wisdom. “Overheard through the downpour, / in the stillness of my own / late-learned solace, I understand / through what repeated error / we were driven from paradise.”
Haines’ decades of experience in the wilderness give his poems a rare, authentic voice that is forthright without self-righteousness. Whether or not he has hope for our world just rounding the cusp of a new millennium, Haines seems to understand the ephemeral end we travel to, literary immortality notwithstanding. “And each of us will remain / mostly an image in someone’s mind: / a brief light in the summer / darkness, a remembered gesture / like a single unfastened button.”