That Night We Were Ravenous is a poem I am familiar with. However, it was not until I researched John Steffler and his philosophy on nature that it began to make sense to me. Originally, this was the poem Megan and I considered to present - the prospect of reading the fifth line in front of the class thwarted this idea.
What often draws a reader to a poem is its entry. “Driving from Stephenville in the late October / dusk - the road swooping and disappearing ahead” reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s frank, straightforward verse (1-2). Additionally, Steffler’s use of shorthand makes the poem personal and journal-like. It is for this reason I felt like being dropped into the middle of something that has already begun - like Kerouac's On The Road.
Immediately, I take note that the landscape is given agency. The mountain comes alive and suddenly has urges to demonstrate its vitality to the speaker. The metamorphical transitions also remind me of Nocturnal Migrants, although the “landscape doing a moose, a cow / moose” was more difficult to wrap my head around. The relationship between humanity and nature is both obvious and subtle. For instance, by mentioning that “trees detached themselves from the shaggy shoulder and stepped in front of the car,” or that “a grove of legs startled” the pavement, it obviously demonstrates a person experiencing nature on a road trip, but subtly gives human anatomy to the natural world. The fluidity of Steffler’s writing is also confusing; though I have read this poem many times, only now do I realize that the trees detaching from the road’s shoulder are not the same entity that the speaker must swerve from moments later. Perhaps, by use of enjambment, fluidity between plants and animals is the point. The source of the accident is almost indistinguishable between a tree and a “hunchbacked horse” (11). Thus, the natural world is given unity.
Using “she” to describe nature threw me off the poem’s true meaning. I thought this poem was meant to pay homage to women and their power, or the way women can be unconventional, wild, unbound, and untamed. By sweeping readers on a rollicking journey through a variety of physical and emotional landscapes, I even thought this poem was describing a love-affair between the speaker and the natural world. I make everything more complicated than it needs to be. Now, I read “she” as Mother Nature. I suppose it is hard to come to this conclusion when Steffler uses a pronoun to represent an enlarged sense of the natural world and humanity.
What makes this poem really cool is Steffler’s philosophy. In an interview, he remarks that a great story is one that shows how humans deal or get along with what they can not control. This is the fundamental condition of reality, and it is present not only in the beginning - during the road swerving adventure - but every time Mother Nature is mentioned. Steffler also notes that wisdom tells us, though we have minds that desire to be divine, we are still creatures like everything else in nature. Mother Nature reminds us of this fact by coming forward as “our deaths” to say hello (31). For these reasons, I believe that landscape is not just a backdrop, but a living entity to which humans are connected. Nature is a kind of character with which we have a complex relationship with. Nature is also home, which is represented by “a mother wearing a brown sweater opening her arms” (39).
I think it is important to note that Steffler once said: “My mind is composed of what I perceive and have perceived and the broad environment in which I live.” He argues that his ego or sense of self is a layer of consciousness superimposed on a wider and deeper mind which is identical with “The World” or nature. This poem is like a meditation, a way of letting go of the ego consciousness. By letting the world fill one’s mind - or be one’s mind - sleep can arrive “deeper than ever” (57). In other words, peace is more easily achieved.
On a final note, “We entered one another like animals entering woods” is a line that reminds me of both The Hinterland and Nocturnal Migrants (56). In Hinterland, the animals lean over to drink from a pool that represents the mind of the speaker. In Migrants, the speaker faces a creature in the mirror that is really an enlightened version of himself. In all of these cases, the natural world is given as much agency as humans have, making their relationship equal and familiar - after all, animals are familiar with the woods. It is interesting to imagine nature as being either the animal or the forest in this situation, and vice versa with humans. In other words, nature can enter the self, and the self can enter nature. Hopefully this is a familiar forest, but something tells me that there is a lot left undiscovered.