In Dawn’s Fool, I feel like Kyla Houbout gives us a post-pastoral form, or a pastoralia of close ties, influenced by ecopoetics’ attention to ecology. The pastoral form is rooted in the Latin word, pastor, which means “shepherd”, and implies a relationship between the human and other forms of life. While the pastoral uses artificiality to achieve it’s critical social distance, Houboult allows the distance to emerge naturally, without artifice, in the tension of relations between species.

The poet begins from inside that tension. Houbolt starts with a dream that advises the poet:

to spend time with otters,

shake hands with fish,

gossip with mussels.

The use of second-person amplifies the conflict. In “Turtle Law”, we discover that this law is walking slowly to find the self in:

direct company

of everything alive

however slowly you arrive.

The poet walks in the spell of this law, noting the absent species in “For This Burning World,” offering a landscape where even the sounds of life have been burnt from the mouths of creatures. 

In “What Only the Earth Remembers,” Houbolt uses a rock in a lake as a vehicle into difficult questions:

The heart of the stone 

is not what they think,

not dead or cold

but full of a story

so long and hard

no voice can sound

its tone.

Houbolt doesn’t attempt to speak for the stone so much as honor its speaking, its way of being. She observes bees, fishing boats, a goat, and an interaction between kelp and children from this same perspective. 

In “Time Passing”, the notion of time is measured in natural events–“chevroned geese arouse the sky”–and itis no longer clear that humans can (or should) lead other animals. 

If this is poetry of place, it is the pastoral idyll rendered uninhabitable by a human species. I’m fascinated by the way poetry of place seems riven by an ecopoetic urge, a desire to witness what cannot be saved. Others have written more profoundly about the helplessness of this voice, particularly Elisa Gabbert in American Poetry Review–and it is this helpless witness or passivity that also inhabits the traditional pastoral form.

I appreciate the way Houboult veers between shepherding and being-shepherded-by in her poems. While conventional pastoral forms offer an idealized view of humans in nature as staging ground for their critique of urban society–Houboult’s pastorals of close ties rest in uncertainty and wonder. Whatever romanticism meant is challenged by the landscape of new loss.

Review by Alina Stefanescu

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