On the landscape of time, place, history, and romance.
Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By WYATT PRUNTY
As Long As It's Big
The Infinity Sessions
Little Boats, Unsalvaged: Poems, 1992-2004
THE NEOCLASSICIST T.E. HULME described romanticism as "spilt religion," while Harold Bloom says religion is "spilt romanticism." Who is right? Both, to judge by the poets considered here. The religious and romantic poles of agape and Eros define these five writers, as their worlds emerge from the amplitudes of place and people.
James Applewhite's Selected Poems traces a world ranging from the rural landscape of his South with its crossroads and tobacco to England's churches to the more universal subjects of time and children. "The Water-Machine" describes a river "infinitely divisible / Whose plastic mass knifed by snags rejoins / And rejoins, a divided whole always going." And this makes a good summary of Applewhite's own continuum as a writer, balanced by what in "Prayer for My Son" is put this way: "the psyche has its own / Fame, whether known or not, that / Soul can flame like feathers of a bird."
Perhaps the most compelling poems in this vein are two late ones in the collection, "A Distant Father" and "Interstate Highway." In the second of these, a poem dedicated to Applewhite's daughter, traffic, here a collective figure for us all, moves over a landscape much as a river might, "exiting and rejoining . . . so closely linked that, / if seen from above" it makes a "stasis of lights," and "the pattern we bead is constant." Constancy, no small matter, characterizes James Applewhite's poetry.
David Baker's Midwest Eclogue is theft quality. Read it, you will buy it. Poets will want to have written it. The book's first poem, "Monarchs Landing and Flying," opens: "If they have come for the butterflies then / bless their breaking hearts, but the young pair is / looking nowhere except each other's eyes." An elegant and celebratory catalogue of butterflies follows before the poem returns to the young couple taking a taxi from sight. Turn the page, and the collection's second poem, "Hyper-," maintains the same stride: "Blue night descended our neighbor's blown hills. / And the calm that comes with seeing something / beautiful but far from perfect descended--." Later we are asked, "How many ways do we measure things by / what they're not."
This book is about what things are. Its poems open quietly, then torsion one's perspective in some surprising yet compelling way. The book's final poem, "White Heron Pond," ends asking us to see "the sure, slow / orbit of things / becoming / the next thing." Along the way to such a vision, readers encounter lines such as "O lunatic world. / O lunatic, swelling, flowering world" ("Bedlam"), "the irony of every cell: that it divides to multiply" ("The Spring Ephemerals"), "I have the horror of my neglect" ("White Violets and Coal Mine"). These are poems by a mature poet with a keen eye for limit and our struggles for renewal.
Baker's Eclogue explores a mostly pastoral setting, what he calls the "exurbs," the irony here being our tendency to crowd out life even as we desire to preserve it. But while vulnerable, Baker's world is resurgent too, by season, by generation, and by human choice. A daughter diagnosed with AD/HD grows beyond that frustration, as a husband and wife grow through the entanglements of plants in the yard, algae in the pond, illness, deer and developers, and the vicissitudes of neighbors.
Baker summarizes the passage of these and other events this way: "like the blossom / waste of the apples all over the ground, / it was less about plenty than goodness." In style and subject, there is some permanent goodness in this book.
As Long As It's Big by John Bricuth is a sequel to Just Let Me Say This About That. The earlier book is based on a presidential news conference with three reporters, Bird, Fox, and Fish, trying to wheedle the truth from a figure, referred to as Sir, who combines elements of God, the president, and everybody's father. Sir is not about to give the truth, admits he doesn't know it, so gives maxims instead: "better / To live in a house painted an ugly color / Than live in one that's right across the street." The book proceeds from slapstick to horror to Nietzschean laughter and is a tour de force.
As Long As It's Big resumes Sir's life, this time in the role of a divorce court judge, with Bird, Fox, and Fish present once again, two as lawyers and one a plaintiff. This time maxims are not enough. "Consolation" and "compensation" denied, "failure or success" matters less than that whatever happens is "big." One's "failure is ordinary" and comes on one "daily--through some dream of love." But then, following an encounter with a contemporary version of Wagner's Brünnhilde who leaves him nearly crushed to death by a murderous hug, the judge concludes, "I, uh . . . think that I'm in love." The gavel's given up, as with the collaboration of all good jokes, the audience is left to laugh incongruity to order.
T.R. Hummer's new collection, The Infinity Sessions, is a series of responses to jazz and the lives of the artists who made that music. The book opens with a quotation from Kierkegaard's account of Phalaris, who imprisoned people in a brazen bull placed over a fire: "[T]heir cries could not reach the tyrant's ears so as to strike terror into his heart; when they reached his ears they sounded like sweet music." This is the underlying principle of The Infinity Sessions, what in a poem entitled "Vapor," Hummer describes this way:
Far down inside the nucleus, just to the left of the quark--
Wallace Stevens tells us that "Death is the mother of beauty." Hummer says it is not death but suffering, and is found in the most ordinary places, in "days without attributes," or in "Junk Mail," which happens to be the title to one poem, or in the painful noise of squealing brakes heard as an "A-flat" by a woman with "perfect pitch" who also hears the "concert G, of the ambulance siren." Such is the nature of beauty, Hummer tells us, with diction and syntax meant to approximate the spontaneity of jazz melodies--a language running from whimsical to bluesy, fusing a poverty of setting with a stoical read of the future. Life continues, we are told, in a poem entitled "Random," when "The new soul starts to flicker. But we must not say it this way. / We avert our gaze."
The improvisations of a jazz musician are a way of averting one's gaze, an abridgment that renames and renews what otherwise is lost. This book lives by the angularity of jazz improvisation, but ends with the conviction of melody, what Schopenhauer would call "will-less knowing."
Dave Smith's latest volume, Little Boats, Unsalvaged, begins with the histories of family life and one's growing up. The rhythm of these accounts is pounded out of their texture, the insistence of catalogue pitted against the resistance of particulars. Smith catalogues in the tradition of Whitman, only does so more economically, and thus more powerfully, compressing details so they concentrate experience.
The historical importance of Whitman's articulation of American amplitude should not be confused with the aesthetic potential of what he began, perhaps especially where geographical focus is concerned; otherwise, we are xenophobic. Dave Smith, for example, writes about northern Italy, today and during World War II, especially Milan and the Lake Como area, where Mussolini was captured and killed.
Smith recollects history through small things--an antique German motorcycle left over from the war, for example. Or he listens to a group of scholars arguing over the division of Jerusalem, then tours the complex offerings of Milan Cathedral. Each instance is rich in harmonics, and in each case place condenses history. Texture turns into time. And human choice, tragic to beautiful, sticks out in landmarks like a movie set: "It's like the movies here, / old. Close, shocking, the way we find, astonished, a perfectly / preserved Nazi cycle and sidecar."
Then there are addresses to fellow writers--Bernard Malamud, Edwin Muir, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Matthews--articulated in poems by which Smith confronts the bookends of agape and Eros, here the shared love of writing versus the deaths of these five writers. As Smith puts it, "the penalty of place / applies anywhere we play with lines." Later, the book turns to other places, quail hunting, beagles crossing a busy highway disastrously, or a game played in Louisiana's state prison, Angola, called "Rodeo Poker," the title of the poem, a contest in which four men play cards with a bull let loose. The last one to run wins.
All of these poems have the element of contest about them, if we retain the Latin sense of contestari, to call to witness. That is, the witnessing of art is the subject here, as "Little Boats, Unsalvaged," Smith's title poem, makes clear: "Like a child I still climb in and wait to be lifted, flood tide cycling / in tiny waves that swell, take us unaware, the sprawl and soothe / of reed bed, wake bubbling anticipation, all we loved. This. Now." Contest means the lines of games, furrows of a field, mortality and the choice to give oneself to something more than self. Here the contest is by lines of poetry, each "turn" to "return," as Smith's "Plowman" puts it, made from worlds that meet in memory and desire. This poem, which concludes the volume, is an important one to know.
As Wagner did with music, the poets reviewed here skip short arias for a less formal art that is more speech-based than melodic, more inclusive than distilled. The goal is amplitude, a gathering of particulars that is shaped certainly but also extensive, living in local time and place yet large enough to range from agape to Eros--and back.
Wyatt Prunty, Carlton professor of English at the University of the South, is director of the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the author, most recently, of Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems.