cover image Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer

Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer

John Haines. Graywolf Press, $25 (280pp) ISBN 978-1-55597-184-7

This collection gathers work from eight previous books by Haines ( Uncollected and New Poems ), a remarkable and idiosyncratic poet. Although the landscape of Alaska, where he was a homesteader for 20 years, is always present in his poetry, Haines is not a ``nature'' poet in the usual sense. His treatment of the natural is more expressionistic than narrative, more metaphysical than pragmatic: ``As I walked there,'' he writes in ``The Turning,'' ``I heard / the tall sun burning its dead; / I turned and saw behind me / a charred companion, / my shed life.'' His meditations are less reflections on nature than negotiations with it, as in the early poem ``The Mole,'' in which he identifies with a creature who ``lives unnoticed,'' who dreams of breaking the surface, ``and a small, brown-furred / figure stands there, / blinking at the sky, / as the rising sun slowly dries / his strange, unruly wings.'' Haines's metaphors are striking, and seem to come from dreams. In ``The Insects'' he writes of ``the carrion beetle awakening / in a tunnel of drying flesh / like a miner surprised by the sun'' and of ``maggots, wrinkled white men / building a temple of slime.'' The theme of human destruction of the environment and thoughtless materialism is often more explicit than this; but Haines's visionary witnessing is more moving than his overtly moral or political poems. (Sept.)