“I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in creation’s dawn.”—John Muir
Philippa Rees has recently published a new edition of her book A Shadow in Yucatan. Many reviewers have already taken note of the near-hallucinatory verbal richness of this free verse novella, whose style contains echoes of such writers as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Dylan Thomas, while, at the same time, remaining very vividly the author’s own. “The monocle of light, now focused, flames her hair,/ it lifts, it falls, it curves, it conceals…/ Her open nectar-mouth, now shaded, breathes.” Among her other activities, Philippa is a cellist, and this play of echoes within echoes is what you will often find in a piece of classical music, so that, in listening to Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, for example, you can hear Haydn—the disjunctive trickster!—on one side and Stravinsky on the other, in what you had first assumed to be a kind of new and improved Mendelssohn. Yucatan could productively be read, several times over, with only such formal concerns in mind. I am coming somewhat belatedly to the book, however, after wrestling with Philippa’s magisterial opus Involution: An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God, and so I am going to approach it from a different angle. I hope to show how the challenges faced by Stephanie, the protagonist of A Shadow in Yucatan, recapitulate, on an intimate scale, the more supernatural ones faced by Philippa on a beach on the southernmost tip of Florida; at the same time, they prefigure Philippa’s decades-long struggle to give form to her vision. In one moment, prompted by an accident, the whole of a person’s life can change. If a question is posed, does this mean that one has to answer?