It often feels like the ailment of our current society is that we want things instantaneously, for results to be laid out for easy comprehension without being willing to sit and observe and come to a natural conclusion ourselves. If this is the case, then John James’s debut collection The Milk Hours (Milkweed Editions) feels like the fitting antidote to this desire for speed and convenience, as James’s writing is not interested in either of these two things. There is an openness to the poems in The Milk Hours that invites the reader to sit and listen without feeling pressured to immediately engage with the images or experiences laid out before them. The meditative, almost anti-gravitational atmosphere that is created as a result of this approach means that the reader themselves makes the leap from the natural world to the personal, rather than having this connection forced upon them, allowing them to experience the full fragility of the moment first-hand, as the speaker in “Driving Arizona” invites us to do:
Let’s only sit and listen. Only stare at the open earth
Without saying why. If approximations are the best
We can do — fine then, let’s approximate.
Home is a question and we’re drifting from it.
The Milk Hours continues the legacy of poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Mary Oliver in its ability to balance the personal and the historical, as well as the occasional political comment, with a discussion about nature without overshadowing it, nor making it feel like an exaggerated farce. James’s collection reads like a continuation of and conversation with the opening lines of Rimbaud’s alluring poem “After the Flood,” in which, “No sooner had the notion of the Flood regained its composure, / Than a hare paused amid the gorse and trembling / bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the / spider’s web.” Similarly, James shares Oliver’s patience in allowing nature to unfold before him at its own pace while also echoing her perseverance and belief that, as Oliver writes in “Walking to Indian River,” “It’s mostly attitude. I’m certain / I’ll see something.” The speaker’s observations capture James’s contribution to this poetic discourse in “History (n.),” stating: “Viewed from space, the Chilean volcano blooms. / I cannot see it. It’s a problem of scale.” Grounded in observations, the poems in The Milk Hours move interchangeably between the bigger picture and the finer details in a way that reminds us that to be worldly means not only to see and experience new things but also to rediscover that which is familiar to us in a way that makes it feel new once more.
Rather than attempting to paint yet another portrait of humanity, The Milk Hours reads distinctly like a portrait of nature—not merely landscape—an idea that James even jokingly hints at in “Le Moribond,” when the speaker states: “A picture is a fine memento. / Bones tell us little.” What might feel like moments of slowness, meant for the reader to pause and reflect, in other collections here become miniature eternities that encourage prolonged contemplation or even simply pure and immediate emotion. Take, for instance, the following lines in “Years I’ve Slept Right Through:”
On the front porch, my cat devours a hummingbird.
He beats the brilliant body with his tufted paws.
He breaks its wings,
swallows whole the intricate bone-house.
Beyond the surprise and slight horror that such a sight invokes, James reminds readers to trust in nature and natural cycle of birth and death, no matter how difficult this may be at times. It is, therefore, nature that is the star of the show in The Milk Hours, with its determination to continue “doing its own thing” regardless of what humanity continues to throw at it, how we continuously attempt to mould the natural world to our ever-fleeting desires. Our technology and way of life are the inconvenience, the intruder, rather than the other way around, the collection suggests, creating a tension that is at its most palpable in “Poem for the Nation, 2016,” in which the speaker’s description of the “mallards / spin[ning] on the Potomac,” their “webbed feet / beating in assembly, / one duck, then another, gathering on the grass / before they take flight,” feels like the main event that is happening at the same time as society’s kerfuffle in the background. Even then, the speaker argues in “Spaghetti Western,” “Nothing avoids the firm / gaze of commerce: not the taut sky, the lake water / rippling beneath it. Not the fields of wild fennel, / their tiny yellow flowers scattering spore dust, sycamores doing the same.”
The speaker’s mentioning of their father and grandfather, which become more frequent around the third section of the collection, therefore inject a push-and-pull dynamic into the poems, reinserting the human individual into the collection, not in an attempt to dominate over nature but to remind the reader of the close relationship with the natural world that we share. The speaker’s transition from thinking about their father to their grandfather to their child in The Milk Hours reinforces the idea of human impermanence, as these blips of mentions occur as part of a larger picture that is constantly being formed and rewritten by the natural forces of time, life, and death, which are felt most strongly in the titular poem of the collection:
From our porch I watch snow fall on bare firs. Who does it
matter now — what gun, what type. Blue smoke rises. The chopped
copses glisten. Snowmelt smoothes the stone cuts of his name.
There were a couple of moments when James’s writing made me pause and question the terminology being deployed, from the speaker’s statement in “Materia”—““Indians,” that’s what / he [my grandfather] called them, shaving fence posts with a saw”—to the moment in “Kentucky, September,” where they reveal their thoughts to the reader: “I was in the cross-barn stripping leaves / from green stalks, knowing God was cruel, / that he must be. Even on a map / South America looks like a sick heart.” Since the majority of The Milk Hours felt as close to “neutral observation” as I have seen a poet get in a while, these two moments felt jarring, as James did not interrogate the language nor the ideas conveyed by these lines. Instead, they exist frozen in time as fact, inviting contemplation about how some moments are preserved in their entire imperfection and to what extent doctoring them is necessary or even acceptable.
I experienced a similar hesitation when I encountered the three collages or “figures,” as James calls them, in the penultimate third section of The Milk Hours. As a visual person and student of art history, I was thankful that James did not provide a neat point-by-point description with each image to explain them. It isn’t difficult to figure out some of the possible connections that James had in mind when placing them in the collection. However, I couldn’t help having mixed feelings, both because of how few of these figures there are in the collection as well as where they are located. Here I felt that The Milk Hours could have been something slightly different if these images were utilized differently than the way they currently are, making it the only “incomplete” element in the collection that feels like it only partly belongs.
For those who might argue that nature poetry is boring and overdone, I would not only point to The Milk Hours as an example to disprove this, but I would more specifically recommend looking at poems like “Metamorphoses,” “April, Andromeda” (my personal favourite), and “Other Adam” as examples of the way James moves past familiar discourses about creation and “being.” Whether by adding his own style and voice to a familiar subject like the creation of Adam or by creating pseudo-mathematical and philosophical explorations of the world around us, these poems exemplify the way James engages with past poetic traditions but largely avoids the kind of Romanticizing of nature that feels justifiably off-putting today.
The Milk Hours is not interested in staking a claim in nature. The poems in this collection are inquisitive and observant rather than possessive, with a speaker who “never / pretended these woods were my own, the light / a thin space to crawl into / when material failed me, mute speakers on the tent floor / attesting to the actual world.” Instead, there is a genuine, almost child-like fascination with every part of the natural world, no matter how big or small it may be, as well as the admittance of the poet, through the speaker, that the mysteries of nature are still alive and well and continue to be safely hidden even from the most attentive eye, as in “Scarecrow”:
— that the wrists, bound to wood planks, stretch out in the wind
That’s not the line I’m searching for.