Christopher Patton's Ox:
A Poetry of Learning to See

Patton, Christopher. Ox. Véhicule Press, 2007. (73 pages). ISBN 978-0898232301

Westerners have sought meaning and solace in Eastern philosophies for a long time. Many people’s attempts are superficial and easily given up; a serious quest is no easy business. A seeker who goes deep will hit the frictional wall between Western wanting to have everything and Eastern seeking for nothingness. Christopher Patton has gone deep. He has hit the wall and the friction makes sparks. His struggles pour into the poems of this beautifully crafted debut collection.
     Gifted with an intense physical empathic response to the natural world, Patton frames his pain deep in the life of trees, weeds, dirt, rocks. Even the few houses and streets that appear seem strangely transformed into wild places. In the hands of a lesser poet, this could easily become mere ranting. Instead, Patton’s intelligence and skilled prosodic hand shape the wildness and anguish into a substantive, elegant sequence of poems.
     The book's epigraph stands as a gateway—not "abandon hope, all ye who enter here"—but a swift, 12th century zen parable of letting go. The seeker tries to find the ox, endlessly pushing aside tall grasses, following nameless rivers and distant mountain paths:

I cannot find the ox.
I only hear locusts chirring through the forests at night.
                         —K'uo-an Shih-yuan

The epigraph is an important touchstone worth returning to while reading. It provides a quiet anchor to Patton’s often stormy journey.
     Each of the four sections of Ox views the world through a different lens. We begin with trees: Red Maple, Quaking Aspen, Weeping Willow, White Pine, Hawthorn, Beech. Patton draws us into an interstitial, deeply unsettling world between tree observed and person become tree, as if in mid-metamorphosis one could stop and function with both human and vegetable consciousness. We slip through time, geologic to microscopic, without missing a beat. People elide into wood and leaf with dizzying simplicity. In "Hawthorn":

               . . . And you have crouched
so long beside me, staring, that now
          no one will grasp you: your open
          arms have filled with thorns.

His wood wrist clenches.


                    . . . Rose, a cousin,
              visits, but not often.
       After she has cleaned and cooked
for them, she spreads a lurid whorl,
       then full, seeding hips . . .

"Weeping Willow" evokes a timeless, endless cycle of reproduction both deeply sensual and "lustless" and again suspends us in the tissue invisibly connecting plant and human worlds. It is a disturbing and magical place to be led to as a reader, an erotic nursery rhyme:

         The leaves swaddle a wet
nub. It swells and tries to slip
         between. The leaves, jaws, part
              around a cleft-tipped tongue that now
              should splay to calyx—
         but willow knows
         how the wind blows
and wraps her daughters up in down.

From the opening tree sequence rooted in the reach and beauty of an indigenous North American landscape, the second section shifts focus to relationships. These metamorphose as well—the expected, the needed, keeps shifting out of reach. The poet looks at his failings, his yearnings and etches them ferociously in nature:

     across old water
damage music to a shore beyond
     confusion     a sky all done
with cloud and clear          I want to have
more of you or none      crave
     me or leave alone I went on

                                   (“Cloud Hold”)

Patton's language play leavens his visions. He'll game a word so it pings throughout a poem. He rhythms with internal rhymes. His musicality and sense of structure, both in motion and shape on the page, are impeccable. In "Bird Seed" he aerates the poem with bell-like short sequences of alliterating words and phrases that ring like chimes:

         —I am late. Private.
Complacent. Past condition.
(—Her voice.)
                   —Morning. Sunlight. Coffee
         back on the deck watching life
at a feeder. Nothing is left
         by noon but commotion

         of new leaf, a bold
new white note:

                     I am enough
I am—enough

                     well no—not yet
         not that

. . .

         —Another day off?
—Sits there and fidgets. A door
slams behind him and then

                             leave he?

         be loved! beloved

                        It seems . . .
there’s nothing to fear, it’s just, I’m
         a week late now.
                        —I’m sure
       it’s nothing at all.
—Hear the birds at it?

                             a son
a sign a seed

                   he doesn’t hear
         them at all

In the third section, Patton upends us into the ancient world: women laden in gold, the library at Alexandria, the death of Pliny the Elder, all interwoven with the local plants and weather, with textures and smells and details as fresh as if we'd just strolled to the corner market.

      I see red veins on the cheeks of Caesar:

      on that map
the weak, thin wine
of empire spreads
      as his wife takes her bath for hours
      in the milk of half a thousand asses.
Serving unspeakable thirst
            the hand at the nipple
            the finger on the rim
      plead . . .


      This food needs no fire,
although a fire,
implicit, invisible,
      inaudible, flares in the apple on a branch
            out of reach, in the pear
            we slice in half and stare
      into, and in the useless
windfall too, spilt from a tree, bruised, its skin split,
flesh collapsing in wet pleats:
      a seed dries, hardens, sinks, descends

      through grass, stone, and dirt. . .


The book closes with a long poem—"Weed Flower Mind"—where Patton is his most personal. Set in a zen monastery in upstate New York, the sequence steers us through the poet’s days there in 30 numbered block-like stanzas. Each one steps us through his fierce spiritual journey, tumbled forward with enjambments jumping the numbered boundaries. We launch into the first stanza:

A nature no one could tell you how to tend.
Brown stalk and cracked pod. Spilt milk, blown seed.
A waste of pain. A leaf-tooth
gnawing the edge of noon. —In the yellow
swaying heart-waste of August, an unearthed shout;
buttercup at ankles, towers of white sweet
clover, scent of yarrow
from overhacked, eroded bluffs; nameless, homeless, weed-mind

As brick after brick of text is laid, the narrator’s mind rebels, his body rebels, his senses and emotions run riot. Snot and tears betray the battle.

through sleeve, head through hole, help me, no,
get lost! (Your leave of me. Touch not. Went angry
she.) In bank muck I find
an unfinished form, sobbing and rocking, is
it me or my lost one, we can’t be sure . . .

Mother, father, lovers, all appear, disturbing the peace. The aspirants work hard during their stay. There is digging and planting, falling and failing. Yet by the closing we hear:

                  . . . Oh, enough.
Returning, early evening,
with ordinary gifts: carrots,
tomatoes, dill weed, sugar peas in a white
beat-up bucket. . . .
. . . Each stone a path. We are not our own.

Patton nails the quiet small victory, too. Ox is a terrific first book from a sophisticated and sure-handed young poet.
Diane Schenker has lived on the East Coast, in the Bay Area, Seattle and Paris. She currently lives and works in New York City. Her reviews have appeared in Coldfront Magazine.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761