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Review of All Things Touched by Wind

All Things Touched by Wind by John Daniel Western American Literature
Vol. 30, no. 1. Spring 1995
Review by Ingrid Wendt

In the beginning is "The Meal," waiting for the word. Until it is spoken at the table, in the imagined presence of father, grandfather, and "more beyond him" that the poet almost knows, the meal cannot begin. And so begins John Daniel's wonderfully nourishing book All Things Touched by Wind, a book in which the poet's impulse toward responsible speech, toward evoking and naming some of life's deepest mysteries, emerges over and over in poems that are themselves various ways of saying grace, with love and reverence, and with the knowledge that ultimately, "the last and truest of these words / is the one that won't be said."

For this is a deeply spiritual book, a celebration of the natural world, of ways not human, of "what lives outside our lives" yet finds us "Here," wherever we are. Masterfully crafted and cohesive, its three main sections are distinct yet interwoven in image and theme, much as ripples in water will cross each other when their centering stones have been tossed together, by the same hand. In deft, many-layered poems, the poet involves us in various migrations, like "The European Birch," "Half the world from the birthplace of its kind," in search of a place to plant seeds and roots. If we were like whales, Daniel suggests, there might be a path to "gather us / and lead us around through the turning of seasons and back / to ourselves, again and again, / looping our one life through the lengths of Earth's time."

And still, by learning to see how one clear drop of rain can be a "cosmos / glowing from within…held in wholeness / by the sheer / tension of its forming," and by learning to let go of our human, "echoing talk"; by learning—in settings ranging from Death Valley canyons, from Oregon's old-growth forests, to a university office desk—to listen to what the birds, the rivers, the wind and the stars have to sing—Daniel finds his place in the natural order of things. One of my favorite poems, "A Suggestion to Myself for Dark Times," begins

Late in the night when no direction I walk
leads out of sadness, when my own life
feels lost to me, and everything I've done
seems wrong or not enough, what can I lose
if I abandon the lights I've been living by
and travel to a place where the land lies flat
and clear, where the luminous Milky Way
spreads specked and glittering across the sky

and progresses through a burst of cosmic imagery—an explosive, almost breathless re-vision of Creation, from big bang through "the mouth that first sucked air"—in which the poet sees himself and leads us to these concluding lines:

mine were the feet that found their way,
that carried my shifting and shifting self,
the carefully listening ears were mine,
the eyes gazing across the land, and up
at the far-strewn brilliance of night—
my own forgotten face shines there,
and where in this bright heaven could I be lost?

For all their expressions of joy, however, these poems never come close to the traps of simplicity, or of the sentimental. Fully aware of the darkness around us, of the "Unseen" from which all of us come and to which we all return, Daniel recalls (in the book's final section) his childhood awareness of death's inevitability, of the presence of spirit in the dying breath of a snake, of "the beautiful indifference of this world." This is a poet who has always known loss. And yet, in the poem "Opal Creek," having climbed to sit on a fallen old-growth tree, he is able to speak of "death's generous body, / and all around us where the stillness sings / we see the green abundance of death's rising."

In "To My Mother," a poem which brought me, quite unexpectedly, to tears, the poet anticipates his mother's death—anticipating, also, the ways she will always be with him:

But when tall pines stir with a rising wind,
when the river whispers past my camp,
when breakers sound beyond the brink of dunes,

I will know you by such signs
as I must have known you before I was,
when the anthem of your blood played round

and bathed me in power I breathed and breathed
until at last you could not hold me,
until at last you opened and gave me the world.

"Why do you read?" a new friend at a party once asked me. It wasn't a rhetorical question, or small talk. But before I could answer, he said it first: "I read to find out about my life." Reading All Things Touched by Wind, I remember this conversation, because John Daniel's poems remind me of how I want to live. This is a book I'll pick up again and again, for pleasure, but also on days when the world feels wrong, my life feels wrong. And reading these poems I'll remember what in the world, and what in my own life, brings joy.

I'll be reminded, again, of the power of words—how words, well-chosen, well-spoken, can help me (as in the poem "Dependence Day") to envision, and to name, the new kinds of celebrations: ones that unite, rather than divide, our human race with the rest of creation.

But most of all, these poems will help me give thanks. In a time when some of the older religious rituals, the traditional forms of saying grace, have lost much of their meaning; in a time when words all around us are used with less and less care (a point well made in the poem "A Modern Man Speaks of Animals"); Daniel's poems give shape to mystery "that won't be said, / that almost forms upon my tongue / as I listen / for its missing shape of sound / in wind and running water, / in the stillness of the misted field." A mystery for which each poem, in the act of naming the indefinable, becomes itself a new word. "The word," says Daniel, "for which I make this home and pass it on."