Juliet Wilson’s chapbook Unthinkable Skies (Calder Wood Press, 2010) sat atop the to-read stack for a long time, but I regularly picked it up and flipped to a random poem whenever I passed or when I had a spare moment or two. I don’t know why I read it this way except that after a while, I started to like the slow process of reading one poem and then putting the book down, letting the poem settle into me as I watched the dogs eat their dinner.
When I finally decided to sit down and read Unthinkable Skies all the way through, the poems I’d already read were waiting like recent acquaintances alongside the ones I had missed and the whole thing just got better and better as I progressed back and forth between the new and the familiar. Maybe that’s an odd way to read a book, but I rather enjoyed it and somehow the individual poems resonated more since this helped prevent their getting lost in the whole of a collection.
And what poems these are. Wilson displays a deep love for the natural world tinged with mourning for what has passed (“Passenger Pigeon”) though she manages this without resorting to hopelessness. Throughout, she writes eloquently about her concern not just for the loss of wild places and creatures, but how that impacts us humans, an idea powerfully described in “Lost Dances of the Cranes” in which she imagines future city dwellers watching old video and marveling at “the wonders the world once held.” It was hard not to see the great construction cranes that have dominated Austin’s skyline the past few years.
These poems are full of birds too, but one bird has been with me since I first read “Domesticated” a few weeks ago: a pet goose, bound to earth by habit and domestication, wondering at the sound of wild geese flying overhead during migration:
Flightless and petted, you enjoy comforts
of home and hearth,
Winter air fills with honking
geese in joyful formation
high in unthinkable sky.
Later you puzzle over dreams
of endless blue and the steady beat of wings.
I feel for that goose. For my dogs that once were wolves. For all of us who every now and again might wish we could go back to swinging through the trees with our most distant ancestors. This isn’t to say that being civilized and having our modern human culture doesn’t have its perks (the internet, electric guitars), but with it we’ve disconnected from the natural world and Unthinkable Skies does a wonderful job exploring that disconnection and suggesting possibilities for reconnection.
Finally, these poems are full of space and silence. Space for a reader to enter into Wilson’s richly described world, to sit with her on a beach listening to shorebirds turn stones or reflect on the emptiness of a field after the birds have migrated. With that space, comes a reverent silence perfectly balanced between notes of mourning and wonder, a wonder that fills me as a reader with hope. Unthinkable Skies reminds us that this Earth and all its creatures—even us apes—is beautiful and holy and in trampling it, we lose some deep and important part of ourselves.
Juliet Wilson blogs at Crafty Green Poet and Over Forty Shades, and she edits the wonderful online journal Bolts of Silk (where a few of my poems have appeared). You can buy Unthinkable Skies from Calder Wood Press. It’s a lovely little book and to my great surprise and delight it arrived here from Scotland only three days after I ordered it.
Here’s a video by Alastair Cook of Juliet reading her poem “Adrift” (h/t Moving Poems where I found the video).