The Poetics of Place: Robert Haight’s Emergences and Spinner Falls

Robert Haight is a Michigan poet in the truest sense. Born in Detroit, educated at Western Michigan University and Michigan State University, and currently residing in Cass County, Haight has spent nearly his entire life amidst the awesome natural splendor of his home state, and his poetry is a reflection of the powerful influence of natural immersion in both writing and living. While he also dabbles in writing non-fiction articles and essays and has taught at the full-time level for a number of years. Haight is, by his own admission, a poet above all else, citing poetry’s deep capacity for experiencing language as the force that draws him to the craft. His has published two collections of poetry, Water Music (1995) and Emergences and Spinner Falls (2002).
Emergences and Spinner Falls is, if nothing else, an intriguing exploration of the connection between humankind and the natural world. The poems contained in this volume are deftly crafted and highly immersive, so much so that the reader cannot resist their pull; they grab tight and submerge the reader in the narrative of rivers and forests, and the language of nature, making them internalize the experience of the poem’s often unnamed subjects.
Many of the poems begin with descriptions of nature and scenes that seem to evoke Hemingway-like matter-of fact simplicity. The collection opens with a poem entitled “This River” in which the opening few stanzas are a fitting example: “This is the river / that didn’t appear on the map / that spread across the end / of one of those endless two-tracks / angling of a logging road.” However, what makes Haight’s poetry compelling is his ability to transcend mere natural description and force his poems to become something larger. The nature depicted in these poems is a place for escape as in “The Desire to Farm,” where the “you” subject of the poem is moved by the pure and uncomplicated existence of a woman tending her house in the undisturbed countryside to “decide to live / out your life with her, leaving your / briefcase to rot in the backseat” and “dig out the mailbox / and throw it into the ravine.”
Likewise, in “Learning to Fly,” Haight points out with wry humor that the human desire to fly reflects our attempts to escape our own natural role by emulating another creature’s, likening the elderly to “birds / hands stiffened to claws, / eyes darting around our heads” still holding out “as if we will grow wings / sometime very soon.” Both poems seem to speak to the ultimate shortcomings of such escapism. Like Hemingway, Haight offers a better way to interact with nature by exploring the idea of natural integration, an acknowledgement of humankind’s participation in something much larger and more timeless than ourselves.
In “The Hand That Is a Fin,” Haight sets a beautiful scene in five parts, the speaker meditating on his family while also immersed in the observation of nature, watching “salmon fan their eggs as if rocking them,” knowing that just as the fish lives, bears offspring, and dies, so too does he. While “the hand that is rock erodes” and “the hand that is a blossom wilts” the hand of the fish, or “the hand that is a fin / strums a slow guitar,” creates in the speaker a transcendent experience in which he is “for that moment neither father nor son” but simply a man. For Haight, nature is what sustains us, and we are part of its intricate web of existence. Wherever we live there is a connection between us and the land. Nature is at all times a guiding force, for as he writes in “Reading the Water,” “even if you don’t know where you are / you follow the water that knows its course / whether you wriggle awake from a nightmare / or stare into the thin mortality of the mirror.”
It is quite evident from the poems in Spinner Falls and Emergences that Robert Haight is a poet of place. All of these poems stress the need for a deeper connection with the land upon which we live our lives. They don’t make nature out to be a place of resuscitation and escape, and don’t shy away from showing the reality of its importance, and the reality of humankind’s lack of true connection with it. The closer of the collection, a seven-part poem entitled “When You Have Lived with a River” is simply a stunning piece of work. It draws you in at first with simple yet eloquently phrased depictions of nature, and then plunges deeper and deeper into a poetic blending of the natural and the human. In one section, the subject watches “the river change, the way a tree grows rings, / feel the shallow imprint of your boots, / the distinct and permanent
conception of yourself / making a sound so slight no tree can hear it.” In another, a heron passes high over a river where the human subject is standing, and to the heron the human figure appears “as much the river / in the heron’s eyes as any log or stone.” But the last section of the poem, the human subject has achieved ultimate natural integration, experiencing a sort of spiritual communion with the earth and the heavens, witnessing “the universe born anew.”
The mastery with which Haight captures in his own poetic language the intricate language of the natural world is invigorating. Anyone who reads these poems cannot help but tremble outdoors at the slightest swaying of the trees, or the softest sound of rushing creek water. It is a joy to read the poetry of a man who seems to have lived with a river himself for many years, enough at least to possess the capacity to transfer his connection with nature to the written page. These are poems that leave the reader with fresh eyes and a burning desire to get off the couch. They force us to look beyond the surface of our material reality to acknowledge our participation in something larger than ourselves. Whether you’ve lived with a river or not, Spinner Falls and Emergences is necessary reading, a book that will profoundly impact the way you perceive the world around you.

Works by Robert Haight

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