Borne Ceaselessly into the Past

NO WORD OF FAREWELL: Selected Poems 1970-2000,
by R.S. Gwynn.
Story Line Press.  $16.95p.

by J. Allyn Rosser.
Southern Illinois
University Press. $12.95p.

by Phillis Levin.
Penguin Books.  $16.00p.

by Louise Glück.
Ecco Press/Harper Collins.  $23.00.

by Ralph Black.
Milkweed Editions.  $13.95p.  

by Michael McFee.  Carnegie Mellon University Press.

by Richard Tillinghast.
Story Line Press.  $13.95p.


Reading R.S. Gwynn, you can find yourself getting irked at other poets: why can’t they all give you this many laughs?   For decades now we’ve been fed the line that formal poetry is by its very nature stiff and stuffy, and that free-verse poems make for more enjoyable company.  Ha!  The deep, dark, dirty little secret is that it’s the formal, even rigorously classical types – one thinks, for example, of the likes of John Frederick Nims and Frederick Turner – who tend to churn out the poems with the greatest entertainment value.

       Certainly this is the case with Gwynn, whose No Word of Farewell: Selected Poems 1970-2000 amuses at nearly every turn.  To be sure, like Nims and Turner, Gwynn pretty much always has something serious (even, at times, deadly solemn) to say; but more often than not he says it with a smile – or a smirk, or a sneer.  Like them, too, his recurring themes are the decay of Western civilization – trash culture, fashionable politics, education made E-Z – and the enduring faults, frailities, fallacies, foibles, and fraudulencies of the human comedy.  Soaked in the classics, positively drenched in poetic history (ancient as well as not so ancient), and suffused by classical wit, Gwynn’s poems read like textbook examples of how to transform the personal into the universal for fun and profit.  

        No Word of Farewell is a generous offering of new poems and light verse (the titles of which include “Upon Julia Roberts’s Clothes” and “The Love Song of Lord Alfred Douglas”), as well as excerpts from Gwynn’s earlier collection The Drive-In and his mock-epic The Narcissiad.  The latter is a smart, sassy send-up of the contemporary poetry scene, its protagonist a typical poet-Narcissus of our time, of whom Gwynn writes:

He knows his poets too, for he has read
The works of many, three of whom are dead,
And like a girl who’d be a movie star
He greedily devours each
(In lieu of
Photoplay) in search of Feeling,
Passion, Emotion – anything worth stealing.

Among the other delights here are a ballade about Yale Younger Poets who are now forgotten (or should be) – and, in the Wish-I’d-Thought-Of-That Dept., a surpassingly clever jeu d’esprit called “Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry,” which consists entirely of twenty-eight famous iambic pentameter lines (pulled together in an ABAB rhyme scheme, yet) and which begins:

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

        J. Allyn Rosser’s work is fun, too – and who would’ve thought you’d be likely to say that about a collection called Misery Prefigured?   Her poems aren’t as strictly formal as Gwynn’s (though her book includes some fine sonnets and villanelles – their rhythms loose, their rhymes mostly slant).  Touching and funny by turns, and composed in a voice that manages to sound engagingly conversational without seeming prosy, Rosser’s poems present us with a middle-aged woman who’s bemused by la vie quotidienne, haunted by both the road taken and the road not, and perplexed by the difficulty of achieving meaningful connection with her fellowman.  That the speaker’s connection problems go quite a ways back becomes clear in a poem about a fourth-grade square dance, at which she and other children were forced into “a formal celebration / of

         I hated grasping any boy’s hand,
sweaty and rough – more real than mine –
the way the tongue revolts against
a slab of beef tongue: horror in touching
what the thing touching is.

Nor did meaningful connection come easily (if at all) with marriage, as shown in an amusing recollection of Husband #1: “Let me tell you, / it hadn’t been easy getting under his skin / and it was no picnic getting back out.”  What, asks another poem, is our proper relation to those we pass on the sidewalk?   “If you know the words to a song you hear sung / uncertainly on the street at dusk by a stranger, / is it right to sing along, is it an invasion / or an obligation to connect, only connect….?”  

       These poems are frank in their expression of bewilderment about such questions – and of nagging suspicion that others possess some coveted secret formula: “You wish someone would explain. / When the children come home they look / knowing.  You’d like to ask how / they manage / to forget what’s wrong, to stay busy.”  Whether posing for a portrait painted by a friend
(“Realism”), or visiting another friend who’s dying (“Before the Sickness Is Official”), Rosser’s speaker comes off as congenitally alienated.  Indeed, she even feels detached from the images of herself in old snapshots, which, we read in “Missing Person,” seem to her “all wrong”: “I’m not / what any camera I know has caught. / In albums, on walls, on the fridges / of friends, you can easily see it.”  And yet a yearning for human connection persists: “Why are we all gathered here,” asks one poem, “if not to couple souls on earth?”

       This is, of course, hardly sitcom territory.  But Rosser moves through it with an easy lyricism, a casual elegance, and a blunt, wry, self-mocking wit (preaching in a snappy villanelle called
“Patience is a Virtue,” for instance, that one should not “let bygones be bygones” but should rather hang onto one’s anger and “let it build”: “If someone dots your lawn with his dog’s shit, / Lie low in it”).  Though she and Gwynn are, needless to say, very different poets, both have a knack for using lively humor to make deadly serious points.

       There’s not a lot of humor in Phillis Levin’s third book, Mercury, though one does find in its pages a Rosser-like bafflement about life and preoccupation with childhood memories.   In one elliptical poem after another, unidentified voices ask and answer questions, express perplexity about everyday phenomena, or meditate on situations that aren’t spelled out but whose essence we grasp at once, recognizing the mood of regret, the sense of loss, the feeling of betrayal.  Yet where some poets would wail and accuse, Levin’s speakers probe their eggshell-delicate feelings with a surgeon’s concentration, dispassionately exploring the philosophical issues they raise.  The result is a volume that, for all its self-absorption, never feels self-indulgent.

       The mystery of integrity and division – between as well as within individuals – figures prominently in Levin’s vision.  Her opening poem, “Part,” takes the form of a dictionary definition: “Of something, separate, not / Whole; a role, something to play / While one is separate or parting; / Also a piece, a section, as in / Part of me is here, part of me / Is missing….”  The poem also introduces Levin’s preoccupation with the magic of words, which can drive lovers apart and cleave the heart, or, alternatively, reconcile and heal.  In Mercury we meet speakers who are painfully sensitive to every nuance of an intimate conversation, fascinated by a grandmother’s Yiddish, attentive to the dehumanized vocabulary of TV reporters discussing a blizzard (“damage assessment, / Evacuation, emergency management”).   The book ends, too, by contemplating words: its closing poem is entitled “Meditation on A and The.”

       Shaped by a metaphysical sensibility that is at once fiercely cerebral and deeply passionate, and that responds to both rigorous logic and spiritual mystery (in “Final Request,” Levin writes:
“If I die I will need a cross / To carry me to the next world, / The one I do not believe in. / But a cross will carry me / Anyway”), the poems in Mercury mediate repeatedly between heart and mind, faith and science, the domain of ideas (and words) and the physical world, setting us down inside a restless, relentless mind that, torn between these poles, strives continually against imbalance and fragmentation and for equipoise, harmony, wholeness.  In her title poem, Levin not only refers to Mercury the chemical element, with its unique ability to divide and re-form itself, but also issues a humble appeal to the Roman deity of the same name, whose diverse portfolio points, perhaps, toward a definition of poetry: “god of alchemy / And currency, patron of traders, / Travellers, and thieves, inventor / Of the lyre, master of dreams, / Leader of the Graces, bearer / Of the message that tears / Odysseus from Circe, Aeneas / From Dido, guardian of the departed.”  

       Though Levin is sometimes counted among the New Formalists and is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of sonnets, Mercury – her strongest collection – consists almost entirely of free verse.  Yet this book, remarkable for its sensitivity to language and unerring rhythms, is a textbook example of the fact that the most valuable free verse is, with rare exceptions, composed by poets with solid formal foundations.

        “Louise Glück,” reads the jacket flap of this award-heavy poet’s sleek-looking ninth outing, The Seven Ages, “has long practiced poetry as a species of clairvoyance.  She began as Cassandra, at a distance, in league with the immortal; to read her books sequentially is to chart the oracle’s metamorphosis into unwilling vessel, reckless, mortal and crude.”  To which a jaded reader, sick unto death of such ridiculous poetry-world hype, might wish to reply: yeah, and I’m Sabrina the Teenage Witch.   

       The way I’d put it is that Glück, a sometime specialist in portentous, self-dramatizing Olympian pronouncements, has now (in some poems, anyway) come down to earth. Granted, the vatic Glück is still much in evidence in The Seven Ages; if Levin appears to view her art as a divine entity and herself as its lowly servant, Glück – who ends one poem here with a reference to “exalted figure of the poet, figure of the dreamer” – often seems determined to communicate an image of the poet (or at least of herself) as a heroic, prophetic near-deity who enjoys special access to the True, the Holy, the Infinite.

       Yet The Seven Ages, like Rosser’s and Levin’s books, also turns out to contain its share of elusive, questioning, and frankly personal poems that allude to romantic betrayals, parental prevarications, and the like.  And the best poems of all here are those in which Glück, leaving Cassandra far behind, allows herself to draw quite explicitly, and with unguarded emotion, on memories of girlhood.  In “Youth,” for example, the wistful speaker pictures her younger self sitting on the family sofa, reading, her sister at her side: “it seemed at the time / almost impossible to conceive of any of it / as evolving or malleable.”  Then (moving a few steps down the periodic table from Levin’s “Mercury”) there’s “Radium,” which recalls a summer night in childhood when the speaker – lying awake in bed, “listening to my sister breathe” – experienced a precocious awareness and terror of the implications of time:

And on the bureau I could see my new notebook.
It was like my brain: clean, empty.  In six months
what was written there would be in my head also.
I watched my sister’s face, one side buried in her stuffed bear.
She was being stored in my head, as memory,
like facts in a book.
I didn’t want to sleep.  I never wanted to sleep
these days.  Then I didn’t want to wake up.  I didn’t want
the leaves turning, the nights turning dark early.
I didn’t want to love my new clothes, my notebook.
I knew what they were: a bribe, a distraction.
Like the excitement of school: the truth was
time was moving in one direction, like a wave lifting
the whole house, the whole village.

Indeed, “time was passing.  Time was carrying us / faster and faster toward the door of the laboratory, / and then beyond the door into the abyss, the darkness.”  One can’t help being reminded here of “Fern Hill” (“Time held me green and dying, / Though I sang in my chains like the sea”), and though Glück’s language and rhythms aren’t exactly as memorable as Dylan Thomas’s, her poem has its own plainspoken power.  For a poem like this, in fact, one can forgive Glück all the windy, phony, highfalutin parts of The Seven Ages.  One hopes she now recognizes that she’s at her best when she drops the posturing and taps into her vulnerability and fears, grounding her craft in everyday specifics and admitting she’s no Cassandra but just a human being.

Thankfully, there’s no Cassandra in sight in Ralph Black’s first book. Turning over the Earth consists largely of low-key poems that memorably capture the textures and rhythms, the meandering thoughts and shifting emotional temperature, of typical days in an ordinary life and that rise (at their best) to surprising, moving, and entirely credible small epiphanies.  In one poem, for example, the recently married speaker sits with his wife watching the Academy Awards on TV, and when an actor leaps onstage to collect his statuette, his conspicuous delight resonates with the couple’s own joy in their love for each other, “an award … they didn’t / even know they were up for:  / the luckiest days, / the sweetest delirium.”  (That’s right, reader – a love poem!)  In “What Faith,” the speaker sees a homeless man in New York fall to his knees before a church and is reminded of Christopher Smart, “dropping in the middle / of any London street, / and saying to the public / that might hear him / his prayers, / and to the daylight / that had blessed / and given them / his wild tirade of poems – / to the daylight he knew / to be full of God.” The conviction that the daylight is “full of God” is ubiquitous in Turning over the Earth, and feels entirely sincere and unforced, flowing naturally out of lived experience.  

       In these and other lovely poems, Black is convincingly, unsentimentally affirmative about daily life.  Yet he can also be rather lax, his language flat, his lineation seemingly random – a failing that would seem to result not from any lack of ability but from an aesthetic ambition more limited than one would like it to be.  This is a shame; Black has such a pronounced lyrical talent that one continually finds oneself wishing he would reach a tad higher.  In particular, one would like to see him take an occasional break from free verse: the discipline of form, I think, would do him good.

        At times Michael McFee inspires similar thoughts.  To be sure, most of the poems in McFee’s sixth collection, Earthly, have a formal look, with lines and stanzas of regular length; yet the rhythms are mostly prosy, the lines invariably unrhymed.   Indeed some of these poems – which tend to be more narrative than lyric – are downright baggy.   The recurring theme is family: the speaker’s working-class parents, his baby-boom childhood, the log house in Asheville in which he grew up.  One poem recalls being in fourth grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis; another, the excitement that greeted the arrival of a rich family friend’s annual Christmas gift, a “yule log” of ice cream.  And a third poem (one of the tauter items here) describes the “shocking winter” when overly static-charged wall-to-wall carpeting was installed at the First Baptist Church, eventuating in not-so-formal celebrations of otherness: “all the boys in youth group were ecstatic / with the electrostatic thrill of touching the girls / and being detected, the tiny lightning-and-thunder / sizzle and pop of finger touching skin.”

       These are likeable poems, gentle in both their humor and their expressions of grief, and one admires McFee for eschewing overblown language and refusing to force big themes on his often modest material.  For the most part, the book’s virtues are those of a fine prose memoir: the evocative particulars are all in place, and one can readily identify with the speaker’s filial love and woe.  The chief problem is that some of McFee’s poems lack aesthetic interest as poems; omit the line breaks and you’d lose nothing.  Indeed, the most consistently absorbing part of Earthly is perhaps the section entitled “Afterlives,” in which the speaker, meditating on his parents’ deaths, often dispenses with lineation altogether (and writes, on the whole, more concisely).  To be sure, there are bona fide verses even in this part of the book, including several, all entitled “Dream-Poem,” that record dreams about one deceased parent or the other:

I dream my mother visits my father and me
in the house where we always lived.  She’s dead
but nobody mentions it.  She seems very unhappy
and won’t stay still, she keeps pacing the rooms.
Soon she leaves, walking across the dusky yard
without looking back.  As she slowly drives off,
Dad turns and says, “I just don’t understand this.”

The entire section is quite poignant, sometimes intensely so.  Yet I intend no disrespect for McFee when I ask: why call this a collection of poetry?  Much of “Afterlives” isn’t poetry at all, and in fact the section would be just as moving, and in exactly the same way, if most of it were written in prose and were explicitly identified as, say, a gathering of diary entries.  Which is not to put it down, only to suggest that generic distinctions mean something.

       One poet who evidently knows that is Richard Tillinghast.   In many of the poems in his seventh collection, Six Mile Mountain, the keen historical consciousness, tony New England milieu, strong (if metrically irregular) rhythms, and authoritative manner can bring to mind the Robert Lowell of Lord Weary’s Castle:  

Before Independence craftsmen whose descendants
Sail yachts now, mitered oak for wainscoting, planed down
Planks of white pine from the King’s forests in New Hampshire,
Sawed and hammered, plumbed and plastered; and then
In the Twenties some threadbare survivor
Of a mercantile family with clippers east to Japan
Willed to Harvard this variorum of substance and labor.

Yet at other times one is reminded less of Lord Weary’s Castle than of the later, more openly confessional Lowell.  For Tillinghast, too, has his poems about childhood – home, school, parents, church.  Like Glück, he’s haunted by life’s impermanence: “Soon we die, and all this is past, / but today I sit in the driver’s seat / and drive.”  Like Rosser, going through the day-to-day motions, he puzzles over the mystery of the ordinary: “Knowing the answer or not / knowing the answer, / penciling the morning in….” And just as Levin’s speaker imagines a cross that will carry her to a heaven she doesn’t believe in, so the speaker in Tillinghast’s “Petition” finds himself praying, his lack of faith suddenly irrelevant:

I was taught as a child about the kingdom
And the power, and the glory that overarches
Our little lives.  And when my hard moment came
I prayed – that surely is the word – “Let me live.”
I breathed that prayer out into a kindly sensate
Surround I could feel, a power I could touch,
If only in thought: an essence of the air
I breathed, which somehow cared for me, whether
I believed or understood – that wasn’t the point.
“Let me live.  Please.  I have work to do.”

Here  too, then, as in Ralph Black’s poetry, the daylight – and, apparently, the darkness as well – turns out to be “full of God.”

       “How long it takes us to become who we are!” ends one poem in Six Mile Mountain.  This might well be the motto not only of Tillinghast but of several of the poets I’ve reviewed here – baby boomers all, apparently, who, in some of their work, seem hardly less than astonished by the pilgrimage they’ve made from childhood to middle age, and unable to turn away from mesmerizing images of the irrecoverable past.  Should it perplex us, then, that at least a couple of them appear now to be drawn to a deity whose existence they may not credit, but to whom they nonetheless feel moved to pray?