Mountains and museums. Rivers and suburban roadways. Water bottles, wheelbarrows, sunflowers and salmon. In Jeff Steudel’s Foreign Park, cityscapes become landscapes become environmental wastelands become personal metaphors, leaping from page to page and moment to moment with a calm, intense thoughtfulness like the morning after a hard night’s drunk. Careful and poised, yet possessed of a certain self-effacing charm and a genuine warmth, Foreign Park is surprisingly complete and mature for a first book.
Foreign Park is deeply grounded in the environmentalist tradition, documenting the degradation of the world around us. On every page, the natural world—and our relationship with it—disintegrates. In some pieces, this desecration is large, evident, the result of the world we live in, as in “Postcard,” where, “Fertilizers and pesticides reach the river’s plume. The horizontal stacks discharge chlorides, sulphides, copper, zinc and arsenic.” Other times, the destruction is much slower, more insidious, less a metaphor for direct environmental pollution and more for our slowly dissolving link with nature. The poem “The Garbage Truck Trashed the Sunflower,” for example, reads like a fable, wherein “the life of one sunflower,” acts simultaneously as the thing that is—a crushed sunflower—and as a stand in for some kind of loss, a natural casualty discarded by modern circumstance, at which “if (you) look long enough, (you) feel happy.”
This duality is at the core of Foreign Park; there is that which is said and that which is left unsaid, present but blurry as if held just below the surface of the water and viewed from above. At this second level, Foreign Park is also a work of personal struggle, pollution and healing. Something strange and dark is happening in many of these poems, something much more personal than the straight-forward imagery of ravens and dead possums and dogs playing on the beach would lead you to believe. The opening line in “Reading Rilke on Dog Mountain,” for example—“I know the sound letting go makes”—is both obscure and tantalizing, but why the writer is interested in this sound, what has brought him to be listening for it, what he is letting go of, are all mysteries left unsolved for the reader. The idea is merely perfunctory to the overall imagery of the poem, and yet the line continues to linger on the periphery of all that come after it. A similar sensation is evoked in “Ground Temperatures,” where “Everyone must swim and dream alone.” In “Even Just Breathing,” we begin to have more concrete links between pollution of the environmental and of the personal sort, where the speaker admits that if he keeps drinking the way he does, he is, “going to die a slow death. Many of us do. The habits of our time. Everything for sale. Even carbon gets credits.”
While cohesive and well-crafted, some poems lose power, not because they lack imagination or skill, but because they are preachy, their imagery too overt and lacking in subtlety to deliver a powerful moral message without causing the reader to recoil. In “The Local Source,” for example, “plastic pellets melted in molds. Together in the dark hold of a freighter. For this,” sounds more like the dialogue of a Greenpeace YouTube video rather than a poem. This tactic may inversely blind readers to the beauty of some of these pieces in the face of the jarring brightness of the overtly environmentalist message.
Fans of naturalist poetry will enjoy Foreign Park, as will readers looking for a more modern take on the style. Steudel brings a fresh, modern and deeply personal perspective to the Canadian landscape through careful craftsmanship, deeply thought out observations and gentle imagery which sees the everyday and calls out new meaning from within it.
Lori Garrison is a writer, poet and reviewer whose work has appeared in QWERTY, Northern Public Affairs and The Rusty Toque. She lives in Whitehorse, YT, where her hobbies include trout fishing and waiting for spring.
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