“For part of one strange year we lived,” reads the opening line of Lois Beebe Hayna’s “Brief Eden.” The declaration, with its loaded qualifier, is intriguing. Perhaps I’m projecting too much of 2020 to this poem published in our Fall 2009 issue, but at the mention of such a year I can’t help but begin asking slightly anxious questions: strange how? why only part? what about that we—strange to whom? Yet we’re left hanging on “lived,” and I find the enjambment (the second line continues “in a small house at the edge of a wood”) gently reassuring. The incomplete thought becomes almost an affirmation. We lived. Together, these effects bring us into the poem on a note of tension, walking a line between the anxiety of strange times and surety life’s larger cycles.
That tension runs through the entire poem in a way I find especially compelling from the vantage of this socially isolated year. Hayna’s verse often moved between the rhythms of human activity and those of the natural world. “Brief Eden”features a speaker transported to unfamiliar territory, where her human rhythms are interrupted:
“No neighbors, which suited us. Nobody
to ask questions. Except
for the one big question we went on
In lieu of neighbors, birds arrive to fill the lines of Hayna’s verse with their own rhythms, “Myriads of birds,” “birds we’d never seen before,” “birds/ brilliant or dull, with sharp beaks/ or crossed bills.” The birds may alight on the feeder or pass without so much as a downward glance, but the poem’s speaker has the time and the room to watch each of these creatures move with an intention and destination she can only guess at as that “big question” continues to hang overhead.
The poem doesn’t wind up to anything as tidy as epiphany. The tension between disruption and the world’s persistent cycles does not resolve; no answer arrives to clear up the big question. But Hayna manages to provide a little hedged comfort to readers, all the same. She performs a little bit of temporal magic; “Brief Eden” takes us through the bulk of a slow and scrutinizing year in a mere twenty-two lines. The quiet, meditative focus of the speaker brings us in close to the birds, seeing them the way one only sees them with drawn out and diligent attention. Yet, circling around those stretched moments of observation, a year makes its usual rotation in no time at all.
The effect is haunting, walking an uneasy line between sentiments of stop to smell the roses and this too shall pass. Hayna’s dynamic cadence reinforces the effect, passing between staccato impressions and legato summary like the long sentence leading us out of the poem and out of the strange year:
“By the time we’d watched them
wing north in spring, then make
an anxious autumn return,
we too had pulled it together and we too moved
into what seemed to be our lives.”
“Brief Eden” can be found in Issue 86 of The Greensboro Review.
Michael Springer is a second-year MFA candidate in poetry at UNC Greensboro and Poetry Editor for The Greensboro Review.