Reading Janisse Ray

For many readers, Georgia’s Janisse Ray is best known as an essayist. Books like “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood” and “Wild Card Quilt” represent stirring examples of powerful memoirs firmly rooted in nature and our natural environment. But before she was an essayist, Janisse was a poet, and she still lives a life in which poetry plays a preeminent role. It is not with import that she recalls her father telling her many years ago that “saints and poets will inherit the earth,” and that she then “determined to be one or the other.” (Apropos of little, I suppose, the effort at being a saint would seem to me to be the more difficult of the two possible paths, though either for most of us surely would come to a dead end.)

Janisse’s first published book, I believe, was a poetry chapbook published a half dozen years before “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.” Though that tiny volume is almost impossible to find now, some of the poems from it appear in Janisse’s most recent collection, “A House of Branches.” Those who came to the Georgia Center for the Book last month to hear her read some of them know what compelling pieces they are and how inspiring they can be especially when heard spoken by the author.

“A House of Branches” is a substantive collection that evokes, at times, a landscape that might have seemed familiar to William Bartram. It is as southern as the author, a celebration of and hymn to the elements and the elemental, of seeing and touching what surrounds us, and of giving it our benediction of responsibility. “Let it not be said in passing through this world/you turned your face and left its wounds unattended,” she writes.

The scenes she describes, whether in the woods or the waters or the sky, are lovely and lyric. But they urge us not just to appreciate ¬†but to become involved, as she vows to do: “I’ll pay more attention/I’ll write down glimpses.” ¬†Whether drawing mils from a cow, walking through a field of fireflies, or seeing the hawk soaring over the hardwoods, she is that keen observer and recorder, the one who sees in our needs and nature’s needs a coming together: “The flower loves the sky that loves the bog/that loves how the fly loves even the frog.”

“A House of Branches” is a book about the love — maybe even the ecstasy — of a poet’s journey. It has a narrative simplicity and purpose that give many of the poems a transcendent grace. It’s really a lovely book and certainly one that admirers of Janisse Ray shouldn’t be without. My copy already has acquired a dog-eared familiarity that feels as comfortable as a kiss.

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