According to poet David Baker, “contentment is usually quiet.” When we whimper and sigh, scream and shout – it is because we are in pain; it is because we are yearning; it is because we are discontent, curious, or awed. That is the stuff of poetry, of art. That is the stuff of Scavenger Loop. And yet, this book of poems is not a Howl. Rather, it is an ode, a plea, a complaint. It is an attempt, as all art is, to reconcile the holy and profane, the violent and tender, the beauty and horror of life.
With equal parts grace and gusto, Baker uses the precise to give voice to the nebulous; Scavenger Loop employs sharp scientific jargon and transmutes it, rendering its clinical chill into something beautiful and almost comforting. Massive concepts are decomposed into etymologies, taxonomies, cycles. Science explains. And there is something satisfying about knowing the process of a thing, about understanding life’s mechanics. Here, knowledge is not only power, but peace.
And yet, these poems also admit that sometimes, science does not suffice. That is when those such as “Flood” return to imagery – to visions of a “wren on a red tree – amid the wicks of wet fruit” and “the little birds brown as buns”. It is here that the tangible and intangible, the inexact and the true bleed together, making Scavenger Loop an intriguing, compelling, and quietly devastating work.
“Scavenger Loop” is both the book’s namesake and most ambitious poem. If you’re wondering what a scavenger loop is exactly, not to worry for Baker begins by explaining the process for us.
“In the wild, animals lie where they die, thus placing them into the scavenger loop. The upshot is that the highly concentrated animal nutrients get spread over the land, by the exodus of flies, beetles, etc.”
As the poem continues, it becomes immediately clear that scavenger loops are not isolated to the natural world. From the trash picker that asks “Buddy, can I dig” as he simultaneously digs through Baker’s garbage, to a shared link on Facebook, to outside lines and quotations given new life in the poem itself, to the death of Baker’s mother who returns to the earth; here Baker masterfully explores the scavenger loop’s unique ability to reincarnate, and repurpose.
“The world gives you itself in fragments/in splinters,” the poem says, and true to its word, “Scavenger Loop” presents itself in parts from corn fields, tattoo sheds, heirloom silver in a hand-tooled box, to more obscure things like the Poisson equation, plant diseases, and dustscaewung (an old English word meaning the daydream of a mind trapped in the past and present). There is no distinction made between the natural and artificial. Instead, Baker mixes everything together and writes of a universal nature devoid of categorical barriers.
And yet, the poem knows that despite its hoarding, all things are ephemeral and asks “how do you keep a thing you cannot touch?” Answer: you can’t, and even the things you can touch won’t be yours forever. Baker ends by “feeding the earth the earth” fully aware the scavenger loop cycle will continue with or without his involvement or permission. All of us equal parts essential and inconsequential. All of us scavengers.
Scavenger Loop is published by W.W. Norton & Company, and retails for $26.95.
By: Aaron Bennett & Autumn Stiles