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‘Companion Grasses’ by Brian Teare

‘Companion Grasses’ by Brian Teare

Author: Walter Holland

August 4, 2013

Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses (Omnidawn Publishing) is  “both field guide and autobiography, containing details of place and season as well as the facts of my own life,” to use the author’s own words. It is a meditative work, which blends his observations of the landscape of the Northern California coastline and New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Again, according to the poet, the poems are the response to two concurrent experiences: “my first attempt to identify grasses and wildflowers with the aid of field guides, and a deep immersion in the central texts of 19th century Transcendentalism.”

The poems were written as “rough drafts” while on foot during long hikes, and later were revised. They draw from various sources and often contain quotations and texts from various poets and philosophers, naturalists, artists and Transcendentalist works. Robert Duncan, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson,  Charles Ives, Luce Irigaray, Michel de Certeau, Matsuo Bashõ, Emily Dickinson, Juliana Spahr, Henry David Thoreau, Carl Phillips, Reginald Shepherd, and Martin Heidegger are just a few examples of these sources. The formal range of the poems is from the sonnet to the verse essay in which verse is paralleled by citations for various source texts. The notes are extensive.

A post-modern work, bearing many hallmarks of language or elliptical poetry, these poems weave in and out of naturalistic description, interrupted by their own quick shifts into language play. In “Susurrus Stanzas” (Sutro Baths”) Teare writes:

& wants          two grammars
one affable to ocean another
equal to its sheet of silver
surface shook by light          &lifted
from blue rudiment  one pattern
translucent at noon  another
as crest to trough      verb’s arc
from subject to dark    scintillant
predicate        “the sea’s hostility
to memory     its passion
for erasure”   wed to sun sets
a pivot between joy & terror
it is true          it takes            one
sentence         two grammars to
marry the mutable to the fundament

Teare is sensitive to the idea of “landscape as aural, ambient trick/ to hear the ear’s eye.” And indeed his language has a wonderful sonic texture. In “Largo” he writes:

form    steps forward                        wearing its suit          of summer’s dust


A quietus


My ear on your chest                        where rest hems breath with thread
until    being is everywhere             an edge          a cloth’s
periphery pinned with rocks           & we under

In “Tall Flatsedge Notebook” Teare comes close to revealing his approach to form by stating:

_____I was making language
a stem to aspire to:

durable     flexible   able
_____to register shift quickly

And in “Atlas Peak” which alternates between prose paragraph and short lyrics we are told:

& send logos to whim’s

irrepressible stretchy
_____syntax, the poem for a time

__________both kinesis & mimesis, process
_____& scene, body & world, our
__________selves doubled, stationed between two

_____possibilities continuous
rather than discrete—

And later:

reading a lyric produces
_____a theory of lyric that then

__________produces a reading of lyric,
_____as Virginia Jackson notes,
__________a “hermeneutic circle

rarely open to dialectical
interruption, “ my mode is

fundamentally standing
_____at the margin & letting

__________things in.

Charles Ives’ “Concord Sonata” is evoked at several points in the poem in whose composition the poet finds similarities. These are complex poems with highly abstract diction that put forth a “language that which/”from a metaphysical-/aesthetic point of view/may at first appear to be a rhythm,”

_____. . . is to risk authoring

context as part of the lyric
_____only to fail at both, though

__________Ives swears “all melodious poets
_____shall be hoarse
__________when the penetrating keynote

__________of nature and spirit
_____is sounded,” or maybe

virtuosity too much informs
_____my ideal, a design I’d play

__________the way Ives’ Sonata asks,
_____without time signatures,
__________without regular measures

_____just notes & articulation—
slur, legato, staccato,

Sometimes Teare’s work becomes tied down by its clipped elliptical approach as in “Fail Better”:

—solstice brings the field

to its knees     yarrow

flex      vetch   heavy
estival air a gall of pollen

—& aren’t you novice           again in lit      Euclidean gilt

shadows to true        each natural fact       toward more

radical matter   :    a robe of rhetoric          auric eulalia

Language poetry tends to focus on the gestural finding context a “terrible weight.” And in its play with form, context and rhythm sometimes becomes too conceptual in its methodology. The interior shifts in diction and in subject while becoming “ecstatic” and “sorrowing” also become perplexing and opaque.

The most erotic of the poems in this collection is “Quakinggrass” wherein a gay sexual encounter occurs in the woods:

as when I held his cock & his body

bodied forth there—

Tender force


_____his need to enter me—

Teare does have a gift for pure natural description. As in “Atlas Peak” he writes:

Rocky, uneven, enclosed by chaparral then opening onto pasture, our sightline
belonged solely to path. Deer-track lent color, umber & ochre; rock, light-struck,
chips of scintilla; bark, lichen’s mimic signature.

To my mind, the more successful aspects of this collection is Teare’s turn toward the elegiac. His poem  “Atlas Peak” which alludes to the death of his father and then his beautifully rendered “Star Thistle” which is written for the poet Reginald Shepherd (April 10, 1963 – September 10, 2008) are lyric masterpieces in their own right, finding just the right balance in tone.

often I climb up
_____& find myself thinking

_____of my father dead now a year,
how near I was to him
_____in my ambivalence; he was

the thing I held away
& so held it closer

for how intently I examined it
_____thinking myself safe

_____from influence. I loved him
before I knew anything
_____about him—the way I loved

Heidegger, Ives, Duncan,
& the idea of California,

And of Shepherd Teare writes:

the day before Reginald died, we spoke on the phone
but morphine filled his speech

so completely
it was terrible to listen to him, disappearing

even as he said I love you & echoed him, the last thing
I could bear

before I had to say goodbye
filled with the certainty I’d failed to witness the death of a friend I loved.

This poem, “Star Thistle,” far surpasses Teare’s earlier compositions and is the most fully realized poem achieving a Transcendental quality.

if we die to become nothing but matter so that Being itself might continue
grounded by ground itself,

“such a sweet thing out of such corruptions!”,
who wouldn’t wish to linger in the material world

that won’t spare me or let me hold a living hand to him :
all spring I’ll return

to bring grief to the field, . . .


Companion Grasses
By Brian Teare
Omnidawn Publishing
Paperback, 9781890650797, 112 pp.
April 2013

Walter Holland photo

About: Walter Holland

Walter Holland, Ph.D., is the author of four books of poetry including Reconstruction (Finishing Line Press, 2021), Circuit (Chelsea Station Editions, 2010), Transatlantic (Painted Leaf Press, 2001), and A Journal of the Plague Years: Poems 1979-1992 (Magic City Press, 1992), as well as a novel, The March (Masquerade Books, 1996 and a revised edition from Chelsea Station Editions, 2011). His poetry credits include Antioch Review, Barrow Street, and the Cimmaron Review.

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