Connection and the Personification of the Landscape in “Smith Falls State Park” and “Words from Neale Woods”
By Erin Chetham
Matt Mason’s powerful imagery in “Words From Neale Woods” anchors itself to the iconic beauty of the Nebraska landscape. Neale Woods, a nearly 600 acre nature preserve and trail system in Northern Omaha, includes forest, prairie and wetlands along the Missouri River. The significance of this natural landscape is highlighted throughout the poem, as the “lovely, dark, and deep” woods, an allusion to Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” simulate the emotional depth of poet and poem.
The personification of sun and forest gives life to the landscape, as the trees “blush and thin” and offer apologies for the changing season. The leaves wave “like party favors,” the remnants of the celebration of summer and a reminder that “this will be the last short sleeve day before winter cuts in.” The speaker is “pulled to hike in the woods when seasons change,” using the natural phenomenon of the changing of seasons to “squeeze out poems and photographs.” The act of creative creation here is compared to the creation of the landscape itself, as the speaker attempts to “distill the beauty to my tastes, filter the pulp out and present it as if I created.” Yet the speaker also recognizes the deeply rooted connection between nature and history, using “a machine I barely understand, I’m making words that someone before me made.” The connection between past and present lives in both the words that are created and the landscape that spurred them. The “machine” of writing and creation is the root of this connection, the depth of both the landscape and the speaker’s words. In the fifth stanza, The Missouri River becomes the anchor for this connection: “The Missouri is deep, both the river and the word.” The speaker dips his “toes in the river” and has his “head in the trees,” immersing himself in the very landscape he attempts to describe.
The last stanza of the poem draws on the imagery of the deep and complex forest and floodplain, things deeply rooted in both Nebraska’s heritage and landscape:
I am deep. I am deep underneath, drowning
like the trees do each year
in a fight they’re accustomed to drowning in,
I am in way over my head.
The speaker feels a deep connection with the “the trees” and the “fight they’re accustomed to drowning in.” Just as the seasons change and the trees are buried in rainwater, the speaker feels a similar sense of depth and drowning, steeped in a landscape that is both powerfully unforgiving and beautiful. The connection between the landscape and the creation of words and feeling ultimately brings the speaker to a sense of overwhelming depth, “I am in way over my head.”
Similarly, in “Smith Falls State Park,” Mason uses the experience of nature and the feelings evoked by it to explore the connection between landscape and creation. Smith Falls State Park, running along portions of the Niobrara River in Northern Nebraska, is located near the border of Nebraska and South Dakota. The poem opens looking to the night sky, noting that “every star shows, each buffed to a shine with clouds.” As in “Words from Neale Woods,” the speaker establishes a connection with the landscape that surrounds him by physically inhabiting the space: “A river named Niobrara runs just below my toes, though I hear more than see it.” The night partially disguises the landscape, but the speaker uses his senses of sound and touch to connect to the natural world surrounding him.
There also exists an interesting tension between the sky and the ground, as the speaker looks to both the stars and the depths of the river. Toward the middle of the poem, the focus expands from the river to the larger galaxy, expanding the space of connection:
Four friends sleep in tents
behind me as I wave my legs
over a river, under a galaxy,
floating on this firmament,
suspended in the middle
so much sharper
than daylight’s imitation.
The speaker compares the small movement of his legs over the river to the Earth “suspended in the middle of Creation,” creating a sense of connection between small and large things, both nature and space. The contrast between night and day can also be seen here, as the nighttime experience of the landscape is “so much sharper than daylight’s imitation,” suggesting that the experience of nature at night is somehow more genuine than the same experience within the daylight.
Both “Smith Falls State Park” and “Words From Neale Woods” explore the complexities of the connection between landscape and experience, and the acts of both natural and creative creation. Mason uses his own experience and exploration of state parks and nature reserves to anchor his poetry, letting the influence of Nebraska’s natural landscape inform his work and give it a life of its own. As a long-time Nebraska resident, Mason is able to capture and translate his experience, situating his familiarity with the landscape of Nebraska and the Midwest within his own work; he creates a place within the space of the poem, populating it with elements of the natural world most familiar to him in order to bring life to both the poem and the landscape it describes. The association of nature and place with the emotional and psychological complexity of inner human life is what makes place-based poetry so important; that it “may focus on such interior subjects, but it lets us experience them more profoundly and more authentically because they’re rooted in a specific time and place” (“About Poetry of Place”). In the two poems discussed here, the mixing of introspective feeling with the experience of being in a specific place at a specific time exemplifies this deep connection. The influence of human interaction with nature and the creation of historical and creative associations of place is a key element of poetry that deals with a specific place and time; “the term “place” in poetry includes not only the geographical location and natural environment, but also the history of human presence and before” (“About Poetry of Place”). The two poems explored here exemplify the importance of this place and landscape in the work of Matt Mason and Midwestern poets alike.
“About Poetry of Place.” Poetry of Place. Windfall: A Journal of Poetry of Place, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.