SCAVENGER LOOP
David Baker

Norton, 2015

Throughout Scavenger Loop, David Baker forges dignified music from terrible truths. In “On Arrogance,” he settles himself and his daughter in a strange house, hangs three ferns on the porch to give that house an aura of home, then watches the plants die as tenacious robins choose them for their brood:

By the time
I saw their nest the fern
            was sickly gray, a
            maw in the middle of fronds

splayed like shocked hair.

Later, when Baker has begun to embrace the new life occupying those planters, a cat arrives at the back door “with a mouthful of bird.” That clever, awful turn reminds us how various lives depend upon the cancellation of other lives. Elsewhere, in “The Quiet Side Street,” flowering dogwoods cast shadows over the “many blue / bins to recycle / things we cast away from us….” Often startling, the concurrent processes of death and life can be oddly beautiful: in “What Is a Weed?,” emerald ash borers “eat the inner body of bark, / creating winding galleries as they feed.”

Such observations ultimately engage Baker’s larger concerns about responsibility. “Jesus, David, now / what have you done?” Baker asks himself at the end of “On Arrogance.” The same question resurfaces in “Fall Back”: “what have we done / with this chance this day / but turn our backs as / leaves turn to light…” In “Magnolia” the question becomes a devastating assertion: “We were done for. Things broken. Things broken.” Wherever humans exist in the ecological chain, we are still part of that chain, and not immune to cyclical dieback.

Nowhere is Baker’s theme more fully explored than in the long title poem. Narrative vignettes are woven with passages from other sources and inspired moments of found language. Although such literary composting is deftly managed throughout the sequence, Baker’s concept seems willed in comparison to its iterations in the shorter lyrics. One, “The Errand,” alludes in scene and theme to the quandary laid bare in William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark”: Baker finds a fawn abandoned under a hydrangea and wonders what to do:

I had somewhere
            to go. I don’t know where, but

how could it
matter, so much, to go?

The best poems in Scavenger Loop bring us to a halt so we can account for our actions and place ourselves in the loop of creation and destruction.