cambridge book review

the eelgrass meadow

Robin Chapman
Tebot Bach 2011

Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske


As Robert Frost described it, I am one “acquainted with the night.” In other words, like a lot of people as they grow more “mature,” I suffer occasional insomnia—a condition for which I have developed a series of “cures,” depending on how intransigent the bout. Recently, worried about something, I lay awake long after my husband was sleeping sweetly. As the minutes and then an hour crept by, I finally employed my best remedy: a trek down to the chilly kitchen for a cup of warmed milk. Nearly always, if I am patient, this lulls me softly back to sleep. That night, I needed a bit more help, so I decided to use my wakefulness profitably by reaching for a book that Cambridge Book Review had asked me to write about, the eelgrass meadow, by Robin Chapman. Switching on my reading light, I flipped the book open randomly. The title of the poem on page nine brought me to attention: “When I can’t sleep.” I confess to feeling a little thrill at the serendipitous nature of this poem’s appearing before me, a feeling only enhanced by finding out that Robin Chapman’s cure is the same as mine:

at one or two in the morning,
++++++I leave your warm arms
++++++++++++and the goose-down bed,
creep down the moon-lit stairs
++++++to the blinding light of the fridge,
++++++++++++pull out the milk carton …

Later in the poem, the poet echoes Frost’s tone of not only acceptance, but excitement at the privileged view we sleepless ones enjoy:

++++++standing there, I’ve seen
++++++++++++the silent winking
of lightning bugs
++++++rising in the locust trees,
++++++++++++the sudden shadow
of a low-flying owl,
++++++February waddle of raccoons,
++++++++++++racing rabbit pairs …

The speaker, whom I think we can assume is the poet herself, returns “reassured” to “milky sleep.” Smiling, I started writing this review instead, but well-prepared by Chapman’s lovely and reassuring imagery for a sweet sleep to come.

Like “When I can’t sleep,” much of the eelgrass meadow employs natural imagery and place-names both in the poems themselves and as a structure for the book, with three of the five sections referring directly to geography (The Eelgrass Meadow, Canyonland Country, and Old-Growth Forests) and the other two containing poems much informed by observation of landscape ranging from Southwestern France (“Following the Cathar Martyrs of Southwestern France, 1202-1244”) to “a Welsh malt-house converted to a cabin” (“Rabbit Watcher”) to Gambia, China, and Banff. But this volume is not content to simply describe the fabled wonders of Nature-with-a-capital “N,” in which the poet may grow rapturous simply observing Beauty-with-a-capital-“B.” Like the metaphysical poets first and the Romantics later, Chapman frequently uses the surface appeal of the scenery to suggest more subtle messages. The book seems to unfold organically, celebrating the unseen and seen with a nearly-orgiastic tone as she appreciates the sacred laws of evolution in the language of the mystic. After reading a few of the poems, I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of William Blake: “to see the world in a grain of sand.”

Chapman lays the philosophical groundwork for her book in the first section with two poems extolling the virtues of the philosopher/scientists Spinoza and Galileo whose dangerous and heretical speculations growing from their work with optics famously led to their censure by powerful authorities of their times. In “The Philosopher of Clear Sight” she imagines Spinoza’s perhaps reluctant conclusions: “And as he works and polishes, thinks on the God of all, the seen / and the unseen … // thinks how God must be immanent / in all of nature, ocean, each faint star … we can’t conceive or see, / so—no providential God, no immortality / or rescue for us …”

Chapman’s poetry is tough, infused with her love and reverence for the natural world beginning at the microscopic, cellular level (about which she clearly knows a great deal) but never does the need to convey information to those of us less well-versed in science overwhelm her art—her devotion to precise, yet playful, language. One senses a background in wonderful popularizers of science—e.g., Lewis Thomas’s Lives of the Cell, and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters—and the poet does in fact allude in a later poem to the environmentalist and nature writer Edward Abbey. She lets her love of sound romp in “The Second Messengers,” for example: [Molecules] “slosh to knock, unlock, / grapple, tangle, tango, brush or push.” Most of the poems are written in well-shaped free-verse, allowing the rhyming words to be enjambed so that the reader may not know what makes the line read so well, but whose ear pleasantly recalls the muted internal rhyme. Her diction, while containing several technical terms that may not be familiar to the lay reader (“neurotransmitters, histamines, and hormones”) pulls off that difficult task—translating technical information into colloquial language and concrete imagery (“those cruise ships docked in the slips / of the cell’s membrane, exotic arrivals …”)—which is the mark of an accomplished poet. (Both quotes from “The Second Messengers.”) To plant her poetry back on solid ground where most of us live, she descends to the humble in the same poem, to “black-eyed peas and hog jowls.” (Another interesting bit of serendipity—the night before I read this poem, I had been seized with a need to boil up a pot of black-eyed peas and greens—a meal I rarely think about making. There were more such coincidences waiting throughout the book to delight me.)

Chapman also shows her familiarity with a number of formal structures, though she modifies them freely. At least one of the long poems referred to earlier, “Following the Cathar Martyrs…,” is a sestina, an intricate and difficult form to write well. Others contain organizing elements other than rhyme or rhythm, such as the repetition of a key phrase, usually the first of each stanza, a technique called “anaphora,” as seen in “Hometown,” which begins “Which way was North?” and continues the pattern with the same question, but also punning on some of the refrains—“Which way was right?”… “left?”… “true?” She favors triplets (“tercets”) in some of her longer poems, but also writes a couple of prose poems toward the end of the book.

In my experience, much “message” poetry allows its preaching to overwhelm its responsibility to the needs of the reader to be gently persuaded. Even when her narrative poems, sharing insights into her personal autobiography, become a bit didactic, when one can trace how for Chapman “love of Nature” is much more than a simple philosophy, the language veers away from stridency. She mourns our human stupidity and arrogance in poems describing how her early experiences in the shadow of the Oak Ridge [Tennessee] National Laboratory, sensitize her to the dangers of what has always been a terrible two-edged sword. (She implies that her father worked at the nuclear facility in some capacity.) There are several poems cautioning about the unintended consequences of both physical and behavioral scientific experimentation, such as “Strontium-90 After WWII” which she dedicates to her father and “Will Safety be the Sturdy Child of Terror?” whose title is a quote by Winston Churchill and which ends with a “confession” of her own—her “field” being the one responsible for terrifying primates by “dropping / baby monkeys down drains,” likely a reference to Dr. Harry Harlow’s now-infamous primate lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Chapman takes the point of view of the laboratory frog in “The End of Biology,” and in the poem “Discovery Channel” chides the stupidity of  the cable network’s cynical observation, “We don’t know whether animals have emotions,” which leads the poet to “Washoe, the chimpanzee / raised to sign, who signed ‘rock baby’ over her stillborn infant.”

The breadth of knowledge and experience packed into the eelgrass meadow can be somewhat overwhelming since, like all good poets, Chapman knows how to compact a lot of meaning into a relatively small space (the book is 91 pages and contains 65 poems of various lengths). She clearly has plenty to say and has been saying it for many years. Many of the poems have been previously published in an impressive range of publications, anthologies, and chapbooks. As seems inevitable in such a collection of riches, some poems (such as “The Whale Becoming the Angel of the World in the Field of the House”) seem to me less accessible than others (though I imagine those to whom it was dedicated were thrilled to see the poem included). One last such thrill was left for me to discover in the final section of the book (though I am doing some educated guessing here). In “Joe’s Dream,” Chapman refers to DeKalb, Illinois where I spent many years as I attended Northern Illinois University and taught for three years. Just after the Dekalb reference, the poet talks about “Pastor Joe,” whose dream of seed-saving and helping to organize a farming effort on fallow land to “till and sow 80 acres of wheat / that will complete the protein needed in Gambia” forms the poem’s title. Reading, I began to smile, knowing that this pastor could be no other than the old fellow-English-graduate-student-turned-teacher-turned-Congregationalist-preacher of my “youth” (whose surname I shall omit as well—just as the poet did). Chapman had just given me the extra gift of figuring forth this hilarious person, himself a terrific poet, who remains my good friend over some 35 years. Three interesting coincidences in a row while reading the eelgrass meadow seemed just a bonus added to the pleasure afforded me by reading these ambitious poems. Thoroughly satisfied, when I finished the book I felt that I too had roamed the world freely, much like the majestic whales whose evolution she traces and pairs with other “wanderers” ending with an ecstatic description of the “encircling world, housed / under a roof of stars.” Robin Chapman’s work is not easy reading, but the lover of both craft and content willing to put in the effort will be well-fed.


Gay Davidson-Zielske taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews. She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM onWORT-FM or

June 1, 2012 Posted by | poetry | , , , | 1 Comment