Philadelphia-area poet Hayden Saunier’s newest collection, How to Wear This Body, released in June 2017, catalogues the “hard facts” of having a body and moving it through the world. As the book’s cover — a picture of a dark suit filled with feathers and flora, a bird’s nest, a deer’s shed antlers — suggests, Saunier is deeply concerned with keeping that body close to its earthy roots.
Her poems pose that earthiness against the blankness of our mortality. In the poem from which the book’s title is derived, “Dear T, Who Overdosed,” the speaker finds bread left “in my good coat pocket” from “your funeral lunch/three months ago, was it, or two?” And she thanks her dead friend “for this bit of bread I throw out/for the churchyard birds and for reminding/me how to wear this body.”
Many of Saunier’s poems work this way, by balancing the sensuousness of having a body against the knowledge that that body is temporary, and more often than not they come out on the side of what is carnal or lush rather than what is bleak. Her friend’s death is present at a wedding, but that death becomes a reminder for her to fully experience the moment she’s in, rather than dwelling on the one that’s past.
We lose pets and people
“Hard Facts (My Cat),” too, begins by taking loss as a given, by admitting what we all fear about a lost pet, that “my cat’s not coming back.” But the speaker immediately skirts her grief in favor of imagining coyotes who “need to feed/their pups, the red-tail steady/on the storm-struck oak/her chicks.” The world, it seems, is too distractingly immediate to get hung up on death. The lives that are rested on the other side of death are too fascinating to this poem’s speaker.
She goes on say, “however civilized/it looks out there among/our salmon pink geraniums/edged with dwarf lobelia’s/cobalt blue, the mint sends/creeping rhizomes underneath/this turning earth to crack the mortar between/farmhouse stones and take us/down.” The verdancy of a forest or a garden has become, in these lines, an elegy to that which has passed away — or that which will, soon. The fear that sparked the poem and the poem’s beauty exist Janus-faced, each always inventing the other.
As the deliciously quick “I Need to Live Near a Creek” puts it, “the lush/mossy/rush of it/hushes/me up.” That stunned silence is at once an admission of the beauty of the earth and of our limited time on it.
Saunier’s best poems are concerned with our deepest humanity and what it means to inhabit our planet temporarily. If some of the lesser poems are a little quick to their conclusions or maybe overly pithy, we can forgive this collection for those problems; she offers many other poems to admire. These range from surreal and imaginative (as “Performing Heart Repair Surgery at 2 A.M. While Asleep” and “Her Eulogy, as If Composed by the Moon”) to deeply rooted in the tradition of nature poetry (“Adage” and “Deep Run”).
But on the whole, the poems’ serious contemplation of mortality and wilderness binds them together and makes them as important as any you’ll read this year.