issue 33 > nonfiction > dunkle
Wandering Electron by Lee Slonimskyreview by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
Wandering Electron by Lee Slonimsky
New York, NY
Spuyten Duyvil, 2014
Lee Slonimsky’s fifth poetry collection, Wandering Electron, introduces us to the lyrical orbit of a brilliant mind, one that is able to experience both the joy and redemption offered by the natural world. Poem after poem in this collection depicts a speaker who has escaped the confines of the debilitating city by venturing into the often raw, wintry truth of the wild. In Slonimsky’s experience of the wild, however, one experiences the peace gained in the wild at the atomic level, as one sees in “Blackbird”:
You stand in the sweetness of sunlight
which drips down trees like syrup,
and lick the essence of Slow
from the air with atom’s tongues (16).
The wild of Wandering Electron is a wild where nature not only offers escape--it reveals ancient truths about human existence and through this experience, grounds the speaker in what is real.
Throughout the collection, natural objects such as a wind-swept pine or an ancient, arthritic oak instruct the speaker by their own example. For instance, in “Bluebird,” a pine tree instructs the speaker in mathematics just by being itself:
The best math is this lone and stubborn pine:
its fortitude in constant wind
an angle toward forever. (5).
Later in the collection a circle-oak instructs the speaker on how to find a sense of hope, even during the dead-like “wastes of January,” by reasserting the idea of a motion that never quells regardless of the season (15). In “Loop Geometer” the speaker seems conscious of the collegial environment nature has become to him as he gazes at the shape of the branches of a wind-swept tree:
Now a bluejay comes to rest
on one whitebarked parabola.
Flutters as if settling in.
The lecture starts at noon
when sunlight strikes the apex
and even winds blow straight (39).
These lessons are not only derived from natural objects, but they can be spurred by something manmade as well. In “The Crow” a recording, by some interstellar probe, of the sounds the sun makes triggers a synesthetic epiphany for the speaker. After realizing that celestial objects can not only be seen, but heard, he longs to hear the sounds of the trees and the sky that surround him, to no avail. Instead, he uses the natural synesthesia of his poetic mind to switch his sensory experience and in doing so expands his understanding of the natural world. By switching his senses he is able to finally see the “true color” of oaks and understand “the sky’s balmy blue” (10). Such examples suggest that Slonimsky believes that it is not through a straightforward human approach that we can understand nature; rather, it is through a close observation of nature, in its wildest state, that we can better understand our own place in this world. However, bound to this dramatic realization is the sheer and devastating fact that the wild, untouched areas of our natural world are quickly disappearing. And because of this, there is a deep longing throughout the collection for a pristine wilderness: one that is void of “foul smears from cars that go/ along the state road half a mile away,” as if such a wilderness could provide a spiritual gateway, or a vast education that would bring the speaker toward a better understanding of himself.
Unlike other poets who look to the natural world as a means to understand human existence, and who see the reflection of our own violence in the order of the natural world, Slonimsky finds both a spiritual and scientific pedagogy in his close examination of the natural world. His poems often begin with a narrative description of an animal or an idea, such as a hawk, before they crack open, like brilliant geodes, into a lyric. For example, in “Branch and Wing” the piercing cry of a hawk reaffirms “the common origin of plants/ and animals.” This realization sends the speaker reeling toward the stunning truth that at one time in our natural history “branch and wing [were] one,” and with this realization the entire natural world he sees before him becomes intertwined into a single heritage (20). This idea of shared origin and timelessness continues in later poems such as “Commodities Trader,” where the speaker again begins with the narrative description of cupping a flower in his palm in order to find the epiphany:
[y]ou know if you stood in these woods
a million years ago
your palm would have held this same flower
birthed of shimmer and gleam (29).
Slonimsky acknowledges the often forgotten synergy between the natural and human worlds where “our every inch of flesh / [is] suffused with leaves’ inheritance” (71). In this stunning collection, Wandering Electron, Slonimsky reminds us that though we are a part of the natural world, we are merely young disciples to its vast knowledge.