Caw Caw Phony, 21st-century nature poems by Michael Sikkema, reviewed by William Lessard

Saxophonist and composer Marion Brown mapped the pastoral for avant-garde jazz. “Afternoon of a Georgia Faun,” the title piece of his 1971 album, explores deciduous sonics beyond the jagged urbanism of Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and his own late 60s work. In an interview for 1973’s “Notesto Afternoon of a Georgia Faun: Views and Reviews,” Brown said his ruralism was inspired by:

“… things that I saw and heard each day going from my house to school, church, visiting, roaming with my dog and a BB gun looking for birds to shoot … It was also … the things my ears enjoyed: birds singing outside my window, dogs barking, a rooster crowing in the morning, crickets in the summer, the sound of people having a good time in one of the houses where those good times are had, standing outside the sanctified church at night enjoying music, and the sound of happy feet stamping furiously, in tune with the preacher and themselves.”

Caw Caw Phony, the newest collection by poet and artist Michael Sikkema, traces a similar music. More than a series of field recordings, the book approximates a hike in the woods with a smartphone tucked into denim. In place of Brown’s lush Georgia idyll, we are given the timbered mystery of Upper Michigan. Sikkema plays the mischievous guide, scattering words, letters, periods, backslashes, ampersands, opened and closed parentheses, commas, quotes. Anything he can grab becomes a trail of breadcrumbs at our feet:

The collection gestures toward mimesis, both visual and aural. Sikkema proceeds without compass, eyes pinned beyond the Frostian crackle of modern nature poetry. Like Brown, Anthony Braxton, Bennie Maupin, and Chick Corea on “Georgia Faun,” the normal rules of brass and wood no longer apply. Sikkema’s music vibrates in a spoon brimming with rainwater:

N.H. Pritchard peppers the underside of every hurled comma. “Frog,” the opening sequence of the Umbra poet’s Eecchhooeess (New York University Press, 1971), reissued last year by DABA, could reside in the dampness along Sikkema’s beloved Heron Lake. Its fragmented ululations remove subject, remove shadow for more than 20 pages. Sikkema, as fellow traveler in minimalist repetition, fists each piece forward, often across acres of text, eager to locate the silence where music dissolves.

In “Possibilities,” the book’s first section, repetition offers the journey in miniature: “maybe fill a drinking glass at the mouth of the Grand River near Grand Haven and carry it by foot to the source in Somerset Township 252 miles to the north and dump it in then repeat in the opposite direction or maybe construct a tabletop universe out of puppets and hate mail …” In “Crawdads Skitter on River Dildos,” the book’s second section, repetition becomes a visual, rather than verbal, trope:

[rain falls on the motorcycle]


[crying grows more fitful]


[consciousness forms in an oak grove]

[shotgun shell racks]

Sikkema hails from a long line of Dada tricksters, from Apollinaire and Schwitters, BpNichol to Décio Pignatari. Jokes swish around his canteen. Occasionally he pours them on dry sticks, with the Zen absurdism of Shinkichi Takahashi. “Low bacon rain” is one of the collection’s stunners. In “Here on Heron,” the collection’s third and longest section, humor teaches while filling the patches most poets are unwilling to tread:

“Heron” combines the repetition of the previous sections with moments when words reveal the stream flowing beneath their letters. Sikkema has a radical ecological point about the uselessness of human intention, which he makes by not appearing to have one. His avoidance of sententiousness is a welcome change for anyone wanting more from poetry than versed polemic.  

Caw Caw Phony smuggles the entire world into the nature poem—and the nature poem into the entire world. Sikkema is a sly mystic who never takes off his boots. In “Spring Quartets,” the collection’s final section, music hangs from the ceiling by metal hooks. Words cluster, connected by parentheses. Each poem glistens as a Calder landscape, awaiting wind to rearrange its syllables:

The precision of this writing is reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things. Sikkema excels at everyday scenes where the Emersonian brushes past the knuckles. They can be a woman cutting carrots while overhearing a neighbor’s radio, or a pen scratching paper as the whir of a boat engine bounces off white pines. Sikkema edges his heels into these tableaux without trying to possess them.

Caw Caw Phony is a collection for anyone who’s ever wondered what 21st-century nature poetry looks like. In place of well-worn realism, we shuttle on a path that continues long after the flannels are back in the closet. Sikkema reminds us that everything in our lives is a nature poem, not just when we are being the “phony” in the title.

Caw Caw Phony, by Michael Sikkema. New Orleans, Louisiana: Trembling Pillow Press, September 2022. 116 pages. $16.99, paper.

William Lessard’s work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, FENCE, and Southwest Review. His chapbook, instrument for distributed empathy monetization, was published by KERNPUNKT Press. He is Poetry & Hybrids editor at Heavy Feather Review. Read more of his work at:

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