Book Review

Matthew Wimberley on
poems by Jim Minick
Madville Publishing, 2024
I come to the collection The Intimacy of Spoons by Jim Minick at a time when my concerns for place and the erasure of the natural world (which Gary Snyder reminds us is everywhere) brim over the lid of my mind and heart. This is to say, these poems arrive at the exact time of my need, though like all my favorite poems are not timely but timeless. The Intimacy of Spoons triumphs in the practice of observation, the permanence-making work of a poet who has corralled his powers over years of craft and care. The playwright Ben Jonson demands that we “ingest language” and Minick has provided for us the perfect tool, an instrument tuned to the land and to people, one which plays to a particular music of Appalachia that resonates through poems which I will return to whenever my spirit flags. 

Poets are unable to escape their obsessions, and for Minick the natural world and the forking pathways of the heart through it become a labyrinth for the reader. Here, we are not trying to escape the Minotaur, we are the beast wandering the moss-heavy walls, fording small creeks, and listening for the birds which sing less and less each year. This loss of wilderness and nature becomes a major tent-pole for the collection. In early poems like “First Hard Frost” and “Diminished,” we experience moments of impermanence that give us pause. And in the creek like “Lasts” which finds the speaker imagining without knowing the last time one experiences the multitudes of life, a central theme of Minick’s is uncovered like a trail through the understory. “Lasts” finds its way to the obliterated migrations of monarchs:

Twenty years ago, monarch butterflies
glided these fields, thistle to thistle
too many to count; 
now they are too few.

Minick’s ability to overlay memory and observation is particularly heightened here, as the exclamation on loss becomes not an intellectual conundrum, but a condition of the heart as the poet concludes:

I save milkweed, look for eggs,
but what will remain
twenty years from now?
Goodbye doesn’t have to be 
the only way to say love.

As elsewhere in The Intimacy of Spoons the poet finds himself searching for truth in the style of Keats—by finding beauty in the world around him. This search is coupled with the devastating awareness that there is less of this “beauty” all the time and therefore less of an understanding of life. Perhaps more importantly, there is a diminished ability to feel what it means to be alive.

The thread of loss is one Minick picks up throughout these poems, using the land as a guide to the self. Minick asks us to consider how place informs us, with the understanding that its erasure is in fact an erasure of our being. In the early poem, “James and Jim Ponder Enough” the speaker(s) of the poem contemplate place as a window into one’s interior being. Jim sees the world one-way, James another. The poem begins “we live inside a hollow full of oaks and elms / that hold the light in a columned quiet space— // a hollow full of wind-song and bird-caught clouds” and this is mirrored at the midway point (when the shift in voice is from James to Jim) as “we live inside a hollow full of spokes and realms / of no light the quiet not the quiet the space // full of fog and crow call loud” A question Minick is working out, is giving to us, concerns the loss of vision one has for the world and the self whenever place is diminished. If place allows for all of these possibilities then certainly the destruction of it must weigh heavy on identity and selfhood. 

This reality is further demonstrated in a poem like “Whale Light” which opens:

The fluke is no fluke—
this happens all the time, 
these miracle windows
we never look through
except this once.

Minick seems to say “miracles are all around though they are rare” with the implication also being that these things, miracles, are fragile. He makes clear the weight of what it means to care for and notice our world and our relationship to it. This noticing has a cost, as Aldo Leopold reminds us of when he writes that those with an ecological education are “alone in a world of wounds.” Minick’s poems however serve as a counter to this idea. We go to poems for exactly this reason, to not be alone, and here the poet does not roll around in the muck of despair but honestly gazes into these wounds finding hope divorced from saccharine platitudes.

Music connects these poems directly, whether the music of spoons, of lungs, and particularly of birds which flock and murmurate and exaltate, roosting and singing in poem after poem. 

Afterall, the instrument of this work here is a spoon. The collection opens with “To Spoon” and here we see the approach the poet takes to his care of the world. It is not a fork which pierces and penetrates, a tool carried by the devil. It is not a knife which stabs, increasing the number of wounds. The knife “is to dam / water that once / spooned the land.” No, Minick writes of the spoon, “Yet the tool is innocent” something specific that can get a song out of it and therefore bring about comfort, nourishment, and healing to our wounded places. 

In “Elegy for My Body,” a sequence of twelve strophes, twelve poems, that comprise the second section of the book, Minick further confronts the ideas already at the foreground of the collection. The first strophe begins with the homophonous music of “decade” and “decayed” the attention of the ear heightened like the speaker’s in the poem which weaves together time winding down with the poet as he hears “the tic-tic-tic / in Minick-ick-ick.” 

Time itself is a bird for Minick, a raven “nevermoring my thumb / when I try to hitch a ride.” But also, one of the juncos the poet has observed which has returned each winter and left again, which has become familiar to Minick who knows there will come a year when that particular bird will not show up. And of course, the cuckoo’s mechanical chirp is part of this sequence. By now, the poet has tied life and death to the natural world and the metaphors call out through the melted clocks of time, “cuckoo, cuckoo” and “nevermore” simultaneously.

Like his attention to life and the natural world, Minick has not shied away from confrontations nearer to the end of life (of course, it’s all mystery). In “Another Truth” Minick meditates on dusk:

Thoreau was wrong
to focus just on dawn.
To wake to an infinite
expectation of dusk
is also another way.

And why not have this “infinite expectation” as we recollect on our lives? There has always been a tomorrow, but  a poet’s job has been to remind us of the end. Things end, and therefore we understand beauty, and by extension something of truth. 

It is the darkness beyond dusk that also permeates this collection. Take for instance “To Spoon the Dark” where Minick writes, “How do we live with such darkness?” only to ask a few lines later “How does the darkness live with us?” and finally landing on, “Every seed, every song comes through the dark.” Music connects these poems directly, whether the music of spoons, of lungs, and particularly of birds which flock and murmurate and exaltate, roosting and singing in poem after poem. 

The collection concludes with poems on wonderment, place, and people. Like the poems before, Minick turns his skilled eye and ear to the world and lets the noticing of place work on him as much as he works to get it down in language. In “When you realize the Future” the lush language and imagery that is a signature of Minick’s work is stripped down masterfully to exactness. There is no excess here, “Pollen, like baby’s breath, / clouds the air, a fine 
dust / of pine, chestnut, and oak.” only the visceral world which is slowly going down to silence remains. The poem ends mid thought with a conjunction, the music of the woods “turns / empty and” as if what that silence means is too great to put down. As if the mystery of what is and what could be must linger. It is a haunting and beautiful poem. What realization has been made? That we do not get to know seems to me possible, and that carries the weight of time inside it, and I want to look out at my own woods and pay attention while I can. 

The Intimacy of Spoons is a complex and singular work by a poet that carries the scent of the woods and the songs of birds with him. Jim Minick has written what is a tremendous book that is certainly a force and necessary reading in the world of ecopoetics and the poetics of place. More than any labels, these are poems of the heart and of hope. The title poem closes the collection, where Minick writes:

Slowly your breathing softens, falls
into that space of sleep

where you twitch in dreams
and I hold on.

Minick’s work reminds us that the world around us is alive, and these poems push against malaise and despair, offering a map through a labyrinth of loss and leading ahead toward hope.

Matthew Wimberley grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Daniel Boone's Window (LSU, 2020) selected by Dave Smith for the Southern Messenger Poetry series, and All the Great Territories (SIU, 2020), winner of the 2018 Crab Orchard Poetry Series First Book award and winner of the Weatherford Award. Winner of the 2015 William Matthews Prize from the Asheville Poetry Review, his work was selected by Mary Szybist for the 2016 Best New Poets Anthology, and his writing has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in: 32 Poems, Image Journal, Poem-a-Day from the Academy of American Poets, and The Threepenny Review. Wimberley received his MFA from NYU where he worked with children at St. Mary's Hospital as a Starworks Fellow. He teaches in western North Carolina.

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