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Poetry Book Review:
Variations on a Natural Theme:
A Loon Year

by Hugh Hennedy
Illustrations by Jan Mercuri Grossman

Variations on a Natural Theme book cover

What would you expect from a book of poems all about loons? Well, whatever your expectations, you can cast them aside because Variations on a Natural Theme: A Loon Year defies them as you speak them.

This isn't your typical poetry book. Cast in a 8" X 8" perfectly bound soft cover, I can easily see it gracing the coffee tables of suburban housewives, the waiting rooms of family doctors, student lounges in universities all across America, and on the nightstands of nature lovers and bird watchers.

Variations on a Natural Theme: A Loon Year is published by Hobblebush Books out of Brookline, New Hampshire. Hugh Hennedy grew up in New England where loons are common. He taught writing and English literature for 36 years at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. He also had the pleasure to work with Seamus Heaney in Ireland in the late 1990s. He is no stranger to poetic expression.

So what can you say about a book that is over 100 pages full of poems about loons and related sea birds? First, it should be said the poems are wonderfully crafted. Of course, one could describe them with one-word adjectives just as well: Sublime. Peaceful. Short. Terse. Thematic. Natural.

While I concede that these poems won't be for everyone, I will say that they are beautiful renditions of word play and peaceful meditations. None of the poems are more than a single page long, which makes them easy to read. Some of them have been published in the finest literary journals, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Tar River Poetry, and Hawaii Review, just to name a few. But that really means nothing. You'll have to read the poems.

What impresses me most about Hennedy's poetry on loons is the nuanced way that he plays with language. For Hennedy, the sound of words is very important. It's hard to find a poem in the book that you don't like even if you don't read much poetry.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the poems in Variations is that they are almost all too much alike - in length, in style, and in form. When Hennedy does veer from safe waters he doesn't really take any new risks. The poems don't fall flat and there is nothing trite in them, it's just that they all seem too much like any other poem in the book, sort of like loons at sea. I would not recommend reading them all in one sitting, but to read them in short stints, pausing for reflection between poems as if chewing on health food, is likely the best way to get the real value that they hold.

Here is one of my favorite poems from Variations on a Natural Theme: A Loon Year, titled "On Another Birthday":

Riding breakers in heavy rain
Loon and goldeneye natural surfers
Not riding them in but going down
And out more than holding place
In storm as in calm fanning out wings
As if delighting in light
Arcing self visible out there
To the eye unaided in here
As visible as in another state
A father and son riding waves of time
Protected from heavy rain before
And during and briefly after war
Sometimes Hennedy's verse seems contrived, but most of the time it is peaceful and calm. You can hear the waves of the ocean slapping against rock and the eerie call of the loon as you try to cogitate. It is hard not to feel at peace with yourself and the world around you after reading just a few of the poems in Variations. Aptly titled, Hennedy's inspiring book of loon poetry, enhanced by the illustrations of Jan Mercuri Grossman, is a wonderful treat. Formalists will love it, though rarely does Hennedy use traditional forms, but experimentalists may not. Nature lovers and bird watchers, however, will dash themselves against the sky with each metaphor and every medicinal line.

Order Your Copy Of
Variations on a Natural Theme:
A Loon Year

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