In “Falling Folds,” a poem that comes early in The Bark of the Dog (Flood; $14.95), Merrill Gilfillan’s fourteenth volume of poetry, the opening lines sketch a pastoral scene:
From the knoll road we befriended
I tried to catch the pitch of osier
where it follows the stream, declines
in gentle falling folds—
The syllables ring out bright and sharp, as if they had been hammered on an anvil from the same molten core, and their rhythms coalesce into lines of quiet lyric beauty. An osier is a type of willow or dogwood, but its pitch—not just the angle at which it follows the stream but its color and sound—can’t be fixed with any permanence, as Gilfillan half-mockingly admits. “Tried the Mongol vermilion overset/with Prismacolor plum. Then sat down/and wondered who would ever notice.” Gilfillan takes on a big question—how can language accommodate a world of things?—without trafficking in oracular statements about the ambiguity of representation or the ineffability of the world. His poems are neither final statements about reality nor mystifications of it. They are quicksilver inquiries, attempts to meet the world on human terms, ever “so slightly.” In the book’s best poems, Gilfillan’s language is located and concrete, his diction crisp and precise. He notes not the dogwood but an “osier,” not the lull between waves but the “slatch,” not the fruit of the white baneberry but its “Doll’s eyes.”
Reading the twenty-six prose sketches about wood warblers gathered in The Warbler Road (Flood; $15.95), I couldn’t help wondering how much the precision of Gilfillan’s poetic diction owes to birding, which the poet has pursued for most of his sixty-five years. Birding demands attention to the details of earth and sky, one ear drift-feeding on the murmurings of a specific habitat, the other pitched for an outburst of song that the eyes trace to a flash of color alighting on a branch or a smudgy silhouette in underbrush shadows. Catching the pitch of the world in poems may not be identical to identifying a bird song, but the two undertakings are certainly apposite. Gilfillan writes in The Warbler Road that “the bird song one grew accustomed and attached to on home ground is merely one small rendition of a species’ vocal possibilities, rather than a magical archetypal pattern gracing one’s youthful ears and therefore the world at large. It is a deep paradigm eroded.” For Gilfillan, birding and writing poems are acts of casual grace, a sorting and weighing of the earth’s erosions and migrations, of the songs nesting on the air and in the ear.