By Greg Bem
“through each other we become”
(from “Inner River,” page 51)
Natalie Díaz, in her 2020 collection Postcolonial Love Poem, writes: “I am fluent in water. Water is fluent in my body– / it spoke my body into existence.” The water around us, fluid and encompassing, vital and nourishing, fills space, creates impressions, and harnesses stories. As the world changes, as the climate morphs, these stories—who we are, where we are, and how we are—shift too. Tanya Holtland’s first full-length collection of poetry, the glyphic and mesmerizing Requisite, explores these shifts in a full sense, in a sense that is aquatic and liquidous, heavy with weight and fluid with transition at once.
Holtland’s intentions, rooted in a “spiritual ecology” inspired by Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee’s book of the same title, contain reflection upon the changes of the world and its environments, and inquiry and observation into those changes. In this balanced and strong approach to an eco-poetics, Holtland applies meditative aspects to the exploration of the imperative: that the world is undergoing “dis-symbiosis” and the threat to wellness is real, and that comment is necessary.
Following a brief introduction to the text are four sequences of poetry. Each sequence connects with space, with life, with water, in a way that reflects our stories. Each sequence is a flush of the linear that also feels balanced between the open and the terrestrial—rooted in the daily practices of our lives. With Holtland’s speaker, the embodiment of life can be found in gazing through a window, conducting research and reading the stories of the world’s climate crisis, and pondering the memories of the self, the home, the community, and the global collective. This reflective range, when spread across the page, exhibits a powerful transformation between the concrete and the abstract, with abstraction serving as invitation for the reader to be present and to wonder, as Holtland does, of the imaginative and the possible.
I cascade down to the marrow of a thought
its parts—my parts
(from part four of “Fated,” page 13)
The first sequence in Requisite, titled “Fated,” is a four-section work originally written “as a libretto, set to music by conductor and composer Daniela Candillari and performed by mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae on November 1, 2017” (from the end notes, page 92). The work’s literary iteration is powerful, its lyrical origins connecting it to music are obvious. “Fated” takes a deep look at our relationship to the world and our relationship to life. It elevates an image of the people of Greenland who live with ice. It embodies early, indigenous knowledge, posing it as more than memory. It looks at time, and the moments of time, as being interrelated to the self and personal identity. “Fated” is a surge of an opening that closes with an image of the moon and the world as systems of communication and iteration knowable and curious.
the river giving way to all its water
part of a lifelong relationship to instability is this
(from “Inner River,” page 30)
Following, “Inner River” is the second sequence in the book, a single poem that stretches roughly 25 pages. The sequence was previously a chapbook, and holds space on its own as well as side-by-side the other works of Requisite. Holtland’s long meditation is concerned with the idea of the river, the symbol of the river, and all its properties. While reading it, I was reminded of Joy Harjo who wrote, in 2020’s American Sunrise, “Rivers are the old roads, as are songs, to traverse memory. / I emerged from the story, dripping with the waters of memory.” Among her many considerations, Holtland examines the Duwamish River in this section, the river that was transformed by the colonial Europeans not long after they arrived to the area of the Pacific Northwest now containing the city of Seattle.
As much difficulty there is in the river, Holtland’s poetry examines it in a way that is compassionate. “imagine the cells of all your loving / loving a body of longing” she writes on page 34. These “songs, to traverse memory” are bound to and carried by and cleansed with a larger river, one that exists between and among and surrounding the collective memory. The spirit, or Spirit, of the world, which includes and is beyond humanity, makes many obvious and hidden appearances in “Inner River.”
The penultimate “Other Names for the Future” reads both as a long poem and a series of entries in a daybook or journal. The poem opens and closes with the sun. It opens up and acknowledges change, and the potential, natural violence within change: “It is more than a belief that we are changing. / The wind’s violence is in the trees.” (page 61). Prophetic and at ease, the tone carries sorrow and urgency as well. Holtland’s poetry is multifaceted, much as the way we as humans interpret the environments around us. While “Fated” and “Inner River” take shape over many pages, “Other Names for the Future” carries a form that feels sharp and instantaneous.
And yet it is full of more questions and considerations, it is subtle, and its pace continues from its predecessors. Themes include fate, include logic, include process. Holtland here is also concerned with life, death, and the renewal. The poem closes with “In front of us now / a tree grows in the city, / following through / on all its commitments.” (page 66). And the sentiment rings: to observe, to be present, to see hope but also to, more flatly, more plainly, see the beginning led to an end of multiple possibilities—is one of many lessons contained.
The central energy within Holtland’s closing sequence, “The Story,” is Brahma. Destruction is central here, with Brahma’s closing eye, which can remove and recreate in a blink. And it’s a fascinating concept Holtland describes: what is now, what is our reality, is just before the blink: “We are the story we watch / as the eye closes.” (page 79). There is a solemn, matter-of-fact approach to this destruction. Surrendering to what is and what will be, and acknowledging the power and powerlessness of that surrender is yet another invitation. It is also an invitation to act, in a way that resonates with communities of practice, communities of meditation, communities of being present and sharing experience.
The spiritual ecology to Holtland’s works finds a pause with “The Story,” and is a pause that feels modular and unclosed, in a way that asks for more, asks for action and activity, alongside acceptance and agreement. But these concepts are abstract, and they are bound to the medium of poetry, which, like a river, is capable of holding much—much interpretation, much understanding, much conversation.
Requisite is a book of many waters, and is a book of many insights. It is an outstanding and exceptional release from a poet who is deeply connected with, interested in, and invested in the rapidly changing world. It is both quiet and loud, both enduring and abrupt. It calls forth, but also listens. It is demonstrative of shifts the way the world is, and the world is better with this book’s presence.
You can find the book here: https://platypuspress.co.uk/requisite
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.