From my first meeting with Greg Pape, it was obvious to me that this man does not get into a hurry. He is one of those rare humans who listens intentionally, not just waiting for his turn to talk. Greg has been an official mentor to me as part of my work in Spalding University’s Master of Fine Art program. As a teacher and as an artist, Greg is an active listener and the poems in his new book, Four Swans, give attention to the details that often get lost when we push ahead, out of synch with the earth’s rhythms. This latest collection is, in part, a meditation on the messages Greg interprets for us, as he moves through time at a poet’s pace.
The four-part book moves through each of the seasons, beginning in winter, and ending in fall. The details and correlations of each season are subtly woven in with observations small things with great significance. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm here, where mountains can “float” in the eyes of a child and God is both “great” and “small.”
The tone of reverence for great and small is set with the title poem, “Four Swans.” The speaker is observing swans in January. Once he establishes the image, he goes to the trouble of naming them:
January. Four white tundra swans
stand at the edge of the ice.
Grace. Peace. Dignity. X. (5-7).
To name something is a way to show recognition, love, and maybe even guardianship. The importance of the loving attention inherent in the act of naming resonates throughout the book. Greg uses specific names for places, people and things that star in his poems: His mother, Irene; his poetic ancestor, Su Tung-p’o; his departed rooster, Big Red; and the river, the Bitterroot. They are all named along with the swans out of reverence for their importance.
The remainder of the poem, “Four Swans,” moves between observation of the swans and memory or reflection on serious “real-life” circumstances: The hospitalization of a mother, the tragic consequences of reckless behavior. In many ways the movement of this poem mirrors the movement of the book. The poems often begin in observation of the natural world, and the speaker points to how the human world intersects with nature or how the struggles of nature parallel human suffering. Often this intersection reveals something about how humans grapple with reconciling the cycles of modern life with the cycles of this planet.
These poems seem to be the product of Greg’s “listening” to the silent: animals, the rivers, valleys, rocks and water. In “Rain on the River he interprets a message from the river:
forming pockets, temporary cover,
holding water for trout. Water says
everything’s temporary, everything’s moving,
trees, gravel bars, the new house
where the roofer kneels, nailing shingles,
in light rain. Look, water says,
right now, before and after –
raindrops falling into clouds on the sunlit river.
Greg listens as if channeling these voices confirms that all matter surrounding us is significant and holds a clue to the meaning of our existence if we are able put our finger on the pulse of what is around us.
By the section II of Four Swans, Greg establishes the Bitterroot River of Montana as a key image, emblematic of the natural world. In the poem “The Spell of the Bitterroot,” human management of the river muddies the scene:
in many places. Portages abound,
and no-trespassing signs hang from strands
of barb-wire strung across braids.
This is not right.
But does the river care? It just wants
to meander, take its own sweet time,
trust in gravity and the tidal pull
of eventual dissolution
in the great peace-making sea. (6-14)
It is interesting that although the speaker is offended, he focuses on the wants of the river. Like the water in “Rain on the River,” Greg gives voice and certain wisdom to the force of the river; this helps the audience to see rivers in a fresh light. The poem ends emphasizing that perspective:
channels, braids, a continuous flow
of wild water. Just as we do,
our river wants to stretch out
and move freely in its own bed. (41-44)
By acknowledging the intention of the river, Greg allows us understand how our own intentions can be in tune with nature, if we stop to notice the similarities.
The similarities are sometimes small and overlooked by moving through time too quickly. Just as the river will make and “take its own sweet time,” we too must move slower to receive the messages that delight and enlighten us.
As I read this collection, I found myself holding back, not reading too many poems in one sitting. I wanted to savor these poems; I didn’t want to rush through them. This is the effect of poetry that enlightens its reader by minding particular details that enrich the experience of being alive.
To be present in the days’ miracles, Greg finds that it is essential to operate within the natural tempo of our earth; Greg listens to the earth’s messages, and he shows us what we are missing if we forge ahead too quickly.
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Angela Elles is a resident of Madison, Indiana. A mom, wife, teacher, and student, Angela teaches at Ivy Tech Community College and is pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Spalding University.