Four Crowns for Mother Earth by Sandy Eastoak. Sky Island Press, 2013.
Sonnets for Nature
The sonnet as a form lends itself to following rules and to bending rules. You can be a purist and adhere to the rules exactly or you can take liberties. The late Sandy Eastoak, a consummate poet in iambic pentameter, took some liberties, but not so that you wouldn’t know her poems are perfect sonnets. Because they are.
Eastoak, a California poet and artist, who died in 2020, published four sonnet crowns in her 2013 book, Four Crowns for Mother Earth. It is an important book and deserves to be noticed, not just for its extraordinary craft but for its timely message, as Planet Earth continues to warm, and in so doing to bring on major climatic catastrophes.
Eastoak’s sonnets make up what are called “heroic crowns.” When artist Eastoak first learned about the heroic sonnet crown, she saw it as a “metaphor for continuity in painting” (Note, p. 131). Poet Eastoak wanted to write a heroic sonnet crown to understand better what that continuity was. The result was not one, but four, sonnet crowns dedicated to earth’s creator/protector in this remarkable book.
The heroic sonnet crown is a compendium of fifteen sonnets, fourteen plus a master as the fifteenth. A single sonnet normally consists of fourteen lines. Presumably Eastoak wrote the master sonnet first for each of her four crowns. From a craft standpoint, the master is the lifeblood of the crown itself. Each line of the master sonnet becomes the last line of each sonnet in the crown, and that line begins the next sonnet. The exception is, of course, the first sonnet. With none preceding it, it begins with the first line of the master. And the fourteenth sonnet ends with the same first line.
As for the rhyme scheme, Eastoak’s form is closest to the Petrarchan (Italian) form. This is her scheme: abbacddcefgefg. Eastoak’s rhymes are pure and unobtrusive. One never feels that the rhyme has written the poem. And there is delightful internal rhyme at times, such as in the sonnet about the moth, where she writes,
I lean in tight to see each hair & sweep
of elfin scale across her fairy wings.
antennae soft with fronds explore the air (p. 103)
Note that a new sentence does not begin with an uppercase letter. This is the poet’s style choice for the whole collection. The reader adjusts to it quickly.
Sonnets are often love poems, but Eastoak’s are about fauna and flora and the ravages of humankind on Earth. Nevertheless, love is present throughout. The crowns are suffused with an awe and love of nature, through which the poet offers the hope of healing.
The first crown, “Corona Gaia,” taking the Greek name of the goddess of all Earth, is explosive in its political condemnations. Even in the first of the fifteen sonnets, the poet does not hold back her rage against “our leaders fat with ignorance & lies / this twenty-first, beleaguered century.”
She despairs that the shallowness of people’s goals kills hope.
the beings whom we trust are seen as meat
or measured for their profit in board feet.
we search for kindred souls to help us cope. (1, p. 5)
In the second Gaia sonnet, Eastoak mourns the “species lost” to “stupid greed” and frets about “when animal or plant becomes extinct.” (2, p. 7) And in the next three sonnets, she agonizes over how “the floods that rose & fell with cyclic rhyme,/now tainted, serve electric revenue” (3, p. 9); over the “blight of mining & atomic test” (4, p. 11); and over “voracious timber lords” (5, p. 13). By the sixth sonnet, it’s very clear that the poet is good-and-angry and weeps for “every lost & starving child” (6, p. 15). She acknowledges the tragedies of tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes, specifically in Haiti and Japan. But she says—almost ordains—that departed souls will return as animals and that they will have the ancient knowledge to heal earth and sea.
In one of her blogs, Eastoak wrote of herself, “I yearn to restore Native values to American culture & policy." As the Gaia sequence progresses, while still disparaging the “culture ill-beguiled” (7, p. 17), the tone shifts to optimism—that there will be healing through evocation of an ancient past.
with sacred feathers braided in our hair,
we drum our ancestors to bless our fight,
prepare our strength to vaporize this blight,
while circling rings of sage intone the air. (8, p.19)
The last line of this sonnet and the first of sonnet 9 is: “with poems & paintings medicine we bring.” Through her art as well as her writing, Sandy Eastoak has fathomed profound realities about the natural world today. In the same note referenced above, she wrote, “Corona Gaia was the natural extension of a conversation . . . about ecological peril.” And she wondered “whether artists & poets make any difference” (Note, p. 131).
The anger of the Gaia crown gives way in the subsequent crowns to the sheer celebration of nature with all its realism and beauty, as the poet observes birds, fish, animals domesticated and feral; the mighty oak, zucchini, the sword fern, to name a few. These three crowns observe animal life in “Corona Fauna”; plant life in “Corona Flora”; and a mixture of natural lives such as of spiders, dandelions, mushrooms, beetles, worms, etc. in “Corona Rhea,” Rhea being Gaia’s daughter in mythology. In the latter, Eastoak, contemplating what some might call “lowly creatures,” writes: “There are no creatures low enough to shun.” (p. 103).
A heroic sonnet crown is alluring with its repetition and rhyme, indeed with its continuity. Eastoak understood it well. She used the form to perfection, in which all fourteen sonnets hold together, star-studded by the master lines of the fifteenth. And she did this four times to make four crowns fit for the head of Mother Earth herself.
Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently, Trouble (Turning Point, 2020) and four chapbooks. An excerpt from her chapbook, The Last Gun, won the 2016 COG Poetry Award, judged by A. Van Jordan, and was subsequently animated (www.cogzine.com/watch). Anne is a member of the Poetry Board of the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Board of Governors of the Emily Dickinson Museum.