Arts & Culture Features

Beyond the Elegant Equations: The Joy of Bob Ambrose’s Between Birdsong and Boulder

A buoyant ring is tossed into a boundless sea. The winds blow the ring this way and that, until after a hundred rolling years a tortoise, awakened from her century long slumber, breaks the surface, emerging within the center of the ring. Without realizing, she takes a moment to feel the sun on her scaly face before sinking back into the depths. 

The chances of the tortoise sticking her head through the ring, according to the Buddha, is the chance that a sentient being is born a human on our planet. It may seem absurd, but consider: Ants on this planet outnumber humans by a magnitude of millions. That is to say nothing of the billions of microorganisms actively inhabiting each of us. Each one of us is exceedingly lucky to have been born in the human position, where we have unlimited ability to alter the world around us for better or worse. 

I say this not in an attempt to convert (believe me, this town has more than its fair share of evangelists), but only in a vain attempt to replicate for myself a minute amount of the wonder evoked by Bob Ambrose’s new book of poetry, Between Birdsong and Boulder, published in March by Kelsay Books.

Bob Ambrose

Through the eyes of Gaia, the Ancient Greek personification of Mother Earth, Ambrose takes the reader on a journey that’s bounds could not possibly be any wider, from the beginning of the whole thing, through the eons, the ages and the timid beginnings of life on Earth, to the present, where it all hangs in the balance. He imagines Gaia as a living entity, an unimaginably complex system of interconnected organic and inorganic processes that serves something well beyond human. 

As a retired environmental engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ambrose drew from his passion for the natural world and his poetic abilities to create the volume. Ambrose is also a frequent participant in Athens Word of Mouth, where he workshopped his poems individually with a trusted group of colleagues. 

His book is a short read, but sublimely affecting, and as you dig deeper into it you begin to catch on to a sort of rhythm, entranced not as much by the words as in the space between them, not so much the guideposts as the horizon beyond, not so much the pages as the insect crawling on it…

A dog may bark, or a bird may chirp. A pinecone may not fall far from you, while you sit on a bench reading this book of poetry. These events are as much a part of the themes of the poems as the words themselves, and should be welcomed. It is a rare book that expands its world outside of its pages, but Ambrose sends them far in wide in space and time. 

Daniel Borremans Bob Ambrose

Throughout Between Birdsong and Boulder, Ambrose touches on the work of naturalist and romantic poets of all ages: Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats and Frost all leave their mark, subtly, on the pages. 

There are also a number of Biblical allusions, but they’re refreshingly interpreted. Creation myths are deeply ingrained in almost every culture, and Ambrose approaches the subject in a manner free from dogma, as more of a marvelous story than an objective truth.

“I do not take the days of creation to be literal days, nor as sequential ages,” Ambrose said. “Rather, I see them as overlapping strokes in a vast and complicated tapestry of continuing creation. The creation story in Genesis 1 was written in verse with the cosmological understanding of its time. It conveys a timeless sense of awe, reverence and thanks.”

Awe, reverence and thanks are the operative words when it comes to Birdsong and Boulder, allowing the reader’s mind to see, if briefly, time as it is seen by Gaia, where the creation of boulders become as ephemeral as birdsong. I don’t believe it’s presumptuous to say that the ideal way to experience Birdsong and Boulder is surrounded by any sort of humming, flying creatures or small ground mammals, while digging your bare feet contently into cool, native ground cover. 

If that isn’t possible, just get somewhere where you can see the sky, and feel the hum of Spaceship Earth. 

Ambrose will do a featured reading of “A Brief Tour of Deep Time” at Athens Word of Mouth at The Globe on May 1 at 7 p.m. He will also offer a reading and book signing at Avid Bookshop on June 11 at 7 p.m.