To the Wren: Collected and New Poems by Jane Mead (Alice James Books, 586pp., $29.95)
More Here Than Light: New & Selected Poems by A.V. Christie (Ashland University Press, 122pp., $15.95)
Character Shoes by Kate Light (Able Muse Press, 86pp., $18.95)
God of the Kitchen by Jon Tribble (Glass Lyre Press, 88pp., $16.00)
Letters Written and Not Sent by William Louis-Dreyfus (Red Hen Press, 72pp., $16.95)
Wendy Battin: On the Life and Work of an American Master edited by Charles Hartman, Pamela Alexander, Martha Collins, and Matthew Krajniak (Pleiades Press/Gulf Coast/Copper Nickel, 230pp., $16.00)
Folded away in my copy of Jane Whitaker Mead’s M.F.A. thesis, Through the Brighter Bars of Light, is a yellowed Xerox of handwritten directions to her home, noting a “long row of mailboxes,” “beware of Dog sign,” and “home of the optimists club” that would guide us on our way. Until the map fell out of her May 1988 collection (its typescript pages neatly arranged, its comb binding still intact), I’d completely forgotten the party: a hail-and-farewell to the school year where it would have surprised no one that our host would earn much wider recognition. What I do remember are images, the faces of classmates and contemporaries erased or blurred by time, others still vivid from photos I’d saved from other occasions, other parties. In one of the latter, Jane wears a white tee shirt with black lateral stripes and a concentric, Escher-like design—a favorite top on workshop days. I remember her calm voice, her kindness, the incisive clarity of her comments. And now, on the desk beside me, lies To the Wren: Collected and New Poems: 1991-2019 (2019), and although more work may well emerge from other files or rescued papers, no new Jane Mead poems will ever be written.
Our imperfect compensation is the current volume, a beautifully designed compendium of finely crafted poems whose world is mortal, suffering, yet vividly alive. To the Wren collects all five of Jane’s books, plus her 1991 chapbook, A Truck Marked Flammable and fourteen new poems. At almost six hundred pages, it’s a mighty tome, yet its weight is deceptive: the brevity of individual poems against the white space of the page is crucially defining, especially after her third book, The Usable Field (2008). In all her work, Mead’s voice—wry, skeptical, delicate—ranges widely in mood and mode.
A case in point is Mead’s own Yeatsian dialogue of self and soul: “Concerning That Prayer I Cannot Make.” In this first poem of both her acclaimed full-length debut The Lord and the General Din of the World (1996) and her 1988 thesis, the poet confesses, “Jesus, I am cruelly lonely / and I do not know what I have done / nor do I suspect that you will answer me,” addressing her own soul against the backdrop of a flawed landscape where “the river / reflects the railway bridge” and “a tattered blue T-shirt / remains snagged on the crown / of the mostly sunk dead tree / despite the current’s constant pulling.” The poem is a contradiction—a prayer that cannot be made in the form of the prayerful poem that is made—and the work of a young poet (Mead was under thirty when she wrote it) struggling to be “equal to [her] longing.” In its reach for something deeper that is both inside and outside the self, an impulse to sink or survive in constant tension, “Concerning That Prayer…” is the perfect entry into Mead’s life project: the exploration of interior landscapes shaped by the world around her, environmental threat, and the imperfect human beings who still require love and rescue.
An extraordinary elegist, Mead responds to the material she is given, whether through briefly joyous moments or mortalities small and large. Originally from Money Money Money / Water Water Water (2014), “The Mule Deer on the Hillside / The River Dream / The History” consists of two sequences interwoven to provide three possible ways of reading. The poem returns to Mead’s trademark interrogation of soul and body while bearing witness to the animal life around her: the raptors, rattlers, deer, moles, and more that populate the Napa Valley setting. Both viewer and visionary, the poet looks to the world around her, testing its bodily reality, imagining its elusive inner life: “The deer we named Argonaut / lifts his mule-face // into his deer-history, / and his deer-thoughts shine.” At the same time, sudden death lurks everywhere: in the realm of necessary ranch chores that sacrifice intruding wildlife (mice, moles, and the like), but also in mystifying events with an apocalyptic flavor: “The heavens open the birds / Birds drop down from the sky / The oceans and bays deliver // Their stars and fish to the shore.” “Dying of Stupidity” (from the same book) turns Mead’s interest in the soul toward an ecopoetic purpose: “Anaesthetizing clatter where once we carried upward— / Neither to enlarge our souls nor put the world out— /…I think there is one oak for every millionth child, / One glass of water (human or god) for every millionth child.”
Mead’s book-length sequence of untitled poems, World of Made and Unmade (2016), is a major achievement and, for me at least, the collected volume’s centerpiece. In it, Mead relives her mother’s dying through poems whose brevity only magnifies their power. She opens with the mother’s voice—“Saying you want to die, / is one thing, she pointed out, / but dying is quite another”—a marvelously pithy way to introduce this difficult material. Moments of fragile tenderness between mother and daughter are intercut with natural imagery often drawn from the Mead Ranch vineyard, which the poet, abandoning tenure, managed after her father’s death. There are flashes of vulnerable Mexican migrants (Mead’s family business gave insight into their plight) and quotidian exchanges made poignant by imminent loss: “Yes dear—I would like some wine. // It’s what I have to give— / dark fruit of the rocky soil.” The poet’s painstaking precision and characteristic understatement increase the impact: “In my father’s big bed / we lie face to face / and tangle our hands together. // They are almost identical / almost inseparable.” Here and elsewhere, Mead invokes her father, a former Harvard ichthyologist who “started disappearing for days / with Timothy Leary” and whose addiction forms a key strand in his daughter’s body of work. Indeed, it is through the memory of her father’s lab that, having viewed “octopuses and squid, my favorites” sunk in formaldehyde, Mead introduces the sequence’s title: “tentacles / curled out against the jar, tentacles // curled in. All that perfection. / World of made and unmade.”
Throughout To the Wren, Mead is fully engaged with life, even when writing about death, and acutely aware of mortality, even when celebrating life. Her delicate language harbors a restlessly questing spirit leavened by humor and the capacity to view the world with wonder. In the New Poems section, “The World Per Se” offers this acutely observed moment: a world—indeed, our world—in miniature:
In their broken pot by the shed—
stiff and upright in the sideways snow,
the dead marigolds quiver.
Comes the moment when you cannot see
for all the fury on the gentle snow.
One great joy of a life in poetry is that of seeing old friends break into print with books that delight and challenge us; but there’s also the sadness of vanished voices—friends whose work is lost to the current, like the river-soaked T-shirt Mead observed. Jane died of endometrial cancer last year at 61, but there’s little danger her work will vanish anytime soon, given the trove of lyric gems collected in To the Wren.
A.V. Christie, whom I knew as Ann, died of breast cancer in 2016, having never achieved the stellar success that Mead—the recipient of Lannan, Whiting, and Guggenheim awards—did in her lifetime. Still, Ann’s excellence was recognized: she received grants from two different state arts councils and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with other accolades and top-tier publication in Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Poetry, and more. Ann was five years younger and died three years sooner than Jane, but her body of work is substantial, distinctive, and well deserving of its own deluxe complete edition. In the meantime, More Here Than Light: New & Selected Poems (2019) presents a fine cross-section of Ann’s urgent, expressive work in a single volume.
I met Ann when, having moved to Baltimore in the ’90s, she turned up as a fellow adjunct instructor at the Jesuit college where I worked; we had several mentors in common, though we’d never met before. Ann and her husband lived on 26th Street, a block of rowhouses that faced the steep downhill drop that allowed a CSX freight line to run below street level; there, a 2014 sinkhole would swallow several parked cars—fortunately, after Ann had moved away. (We joked about it via e-mail.) She published two books in her lifetime—Nine Skies (1997), Sandra McPherson’s National Poetry Series selection, and The Housing (2004), co-winner of the Robert McGovern Prize for poets over 40 who’d published no more than a single book—plus two chapbooks: And I Began to Entertain Doubts (2016) and The Wonders (2014). More Here Than Light offers both chapbooks in full, as well as key selections from the books; in addition, two sections conceived as books (Man Dragged by Horse, Tumultuous River and Little Surrender) are featured, too, along with a brief section of intensely rendered uncollected poems. The whole enterprise amounts to over a hundred pages spent in the company of a unique, accessible voice—one that is generous, smart, original, and, when called for, fiercely defiant.
Nine Skies is among the best poetry debuts of the ’90s and, in my view, the equal of Mead’s. The suicide of Christie’s brother Andrew is the book’s central subject; yet Nine Skies offers far more than elegies or expressions of grief, and the selections here show Christie at her very best. The stunning free-verse sonnet, “Evermay-on-the-Delaware,” recalls the poet’s wedding day—“how rain throbbed on the windshield, each drop / a shadow blooming somewhere on the map”—and concludes, “night after night love is the way you gather / the birds, lifting their cages like a lantern.” Christie possesses a rare gift for description: “Spirit Line,” for example, opens with “the nighthawk’s silhouette” that “slurs and lilts / against a chalky twilight,” the poet’s use of synesthesia vividly summoning the bird’s flight against a blank liminal sky. Christie’s energy and range are unmistakable in “Passage,” an ambitious elegy that gathers greater resonance as it unfolds. Long lines broaden the poem’s perspective, what the passenger sees outside the railcar fusing with memory as the poet imagines her brother’s life: “…I see a school. On the field / cheerleaders are still practicing…/ I think she was a cheerleader. In shadow / the two of you shifted and bloomed like underwater things / in your old DeSoto, spray-paint clouds down the side…” Although I miss a few of my favorites (“Acrostic for Mother,” for example, where the left margin’s “tintinnabulation” offers imperfect comfort after Andrew’s death), the Nine Skies selections are uniformly excellent—no surprise when the source material is so strong.
With The Housing, Christie shifts direction toward the style that broadly defines her later work. The poems, less richly descriptive, show different influences, A.R. Ammons and Jorie Graham among them, as surprising, sometimes elliptical formulations take precedence over narrative. Not that narrative is absent—just that its role varies, often receding as Christie engages in linguistic experimentation. Again, the selections are wisely chosen. “Already the Heart” is a fine example, its ending particularly lovely: “Here is your best self, / and the least, two sparrows / alight in the one tree / of your body.” The poem offers a haiku-like closure in which the metaphors of tree and body fuse to become a doubled self—an image that’s perfect for a book that explores, directly and indirectly, the interconnections of body and mind. “Overture,” a poem of welcome for the speaker’s new daughter, superbly juggles a vigilant mother’s inventory of impressions (“There had been a cricket in the basement / when I dreamt you were an unopened envelope on my chest”) with the surge of relief at new beginnings: “A blood and primrose world, / my darling, a white-tea-of-leaf-buds world, mild as your first tears.” Here, Christie uses narrative toward a meditative purpose, weighing the parents’ disquieting sense of having been themselves transformed: “and just as finely we were ascending to some place past / the blurred coming-home-from-the-hospital photograph, beyond / even sight of ourselves.” Where are the selves we must renounce to parenthood’s commitments? This combination of lyric intensity, inventive free association, and existential meditation is a hallmark of The Housing and much that followed.
Those poems didn’t reach print right away, however. The Housing appeared in 2004, but as of May 2014, a full decade later, Ann had yet to publish its follow-up. In a private message she wrote, “My 3rd ms is I think stronger than the other 2 but last couple years it really hasn’t caught anyone’s eye…I’m at work on a new ms and having good luck placing many of the poems from that.” Most poets face an uphill climb when circulating a new manuscript, but by the time of her message, Ann had spent more than six months undergoing treatment for breast cancer, an ordeal I hadn’t known of before our exchange. But her efforts paid off. Later the same year, The Wonders, a sequence that imagines the semi-mythological Hanging Gardens of Babylon as a “garden rooted in air / in error and mistranslation,” became a chapbook. More Here Than Light includes the entire sequence, though I prefer reading the chapbook version which grants each section its own page.
Whether The Wonders is part of the “ms” Christie had been circulating, or a separate project, it is a triumph of seemingly disparate impulses: lush details and extreme concision, ancient references and contemporary language, vulnerability and self-possession. The voice reminds me of Marco Polo as depicted in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, though the “you” whom the poet addresses is not Kublai Khan or some would-be traveler, but a place: the garden itself, a fabled wonder lost in time: “Not a hoax exactly, / just as the fairy tale is not. / Just radiant bulwark / made of what’s insubstantial; / little surrender, richly perfumed.”
More Here Than Light contains more vivid, memorable poems than this overview can catalogue. Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum of Medical Abnormalities provides oblique inspiration for “And I Began to Entertain Doubts,” a sequence of seeming fragments that unfolds with unsettling precision: metaphors, memories, treatment rooms, fleeting impressions. I have no idea when, exactly, Christie composed this work, but it is (somehow) as playful and life-affirming as it is harrowing (and it’s frequently harrowing). Several fragments are gorgeously luminous (“Did I ever stand here / with a lantern? / with an owl’s call?”), others witty, resigned, or startling: “I advance: a ruin, an amalgam, a tracery— / wound-connected—a grievance.” While it is tempting to celebrate art created in illness on the basis of its maker’s courage (a critical cliché, to be sure), Christie’s intelligence and guiding vision are everywhere evident in the sequence, as in its self-aware and powerful ending:
It is December.
Time now to use the words and imagery,
use up the raw materials.
A poem that’s absent from More Here Than Light is “And I Thought of the Bracelet That Said ‘Fall Risk,’” one of two poems by Christie that my partner, Jane Satterfield, selected for her co-edited anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (2016). Accepted during Ann’s lifetime but published after her death, this arresting piece confronts a daughter’s vulnerability to hairline fractures, a serious condition that leads the mother to lock away every possible source of danger, concluding, “I saw that everything was / or could be sharp, that even mild things / in abundance, or mixed, / could be toxic.” Two years later, Jane arranged to meet Christie’s daughter, now a student at the same school where Ann had been our colleague. Conversing in her office, Jane gave her the book as a gift, shared recollections of Ann, and spoke of the “farewell, Baltimore” party where guests had admired her as an infant, the poet, her husband, and their daughter about to embark on a new start.
If gifted writers who died too soon can be said to be fortunate, Mead and Christie are: the gathering of a life’s work (or a substantial portion of it) into a single volume is—even in today’s chaotic, decentralized literary culture—a key step toward securing a lasting readership. In fact, it is we who are fortunate: for the foreseeable future, their poems will remain in reach, whether we read them on the page or savor them onscreen. Not yet as fortunate is poet, violinist, librettist, and lyricist Kate Light, though the esteem in which so many hold her work—and the deep affection she prompted in life—suggest that a comprehensive edition will follow. For now, published posthumously, is Kate’s fourth full-length collection, Character Shoes (2019), a book that is rhythmically effortless, generous in outlook, melodious in expression, and emotionally rich. Frequently writing in nonce or received forms, Kate Light produced a body of work that is subtle, intelligent, wise, and well crafted, including her debut The Laws of Falling Bodies (a 1997 Nicholas Roerich Prize co-winner), Open Slowly (2003), and Gravity’s Dream (2006 Donald Justice Prize), as well as libretti and lyrics worthy of being read alongside her poems.
An accomplished poet in form or free verse, Light uses meter to enhance her work’s expressive qualities, accentuate its rhythms, and further its music. Among the pleasures of Character Shoes (the term refers to dancers’ stage shoes that help performers control their movements) are the many poems that touch on Light’s life as a performing artist. “Mirroring” depicts the joy a girl feels, “already gluttonous / at four,” over the prospect of performing: sitting in the audience with her mother, she views the dancers, singers, and musicians on stage, imagining herself “up that side / of the lights, making other eyes widen.” In “One Day at the Opera,” Light captures the shared history and camaraderie of fellow performers trying to recall the name of an obscure opera they’d accompanied years before: “Then I remembered the lions…/…library / lions that came to life in foam rubber costumes, and sang. And / there was a policeman arresting someone. What was it?” (Light played professional violin for the New York City Opera till it went bankrupt in 2013—the same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer). Light addresses her illness directly in one poem only, “A Bad Ten Years,” in which the poet compares her own life span to that of her instrument, lamenting the years she was unable to play: “And this hellish / time becomes a long / and sudden illness, / then remission in a snap; /…Oh Rip Van Winkle / violin, I’ve missed you so—.” This note of longing echoes the similar plangent note that we encounter in Light’s poems of love and loss.
In her foreword, poet Suzanne Noguere suggests that love is Light’s “great theme,” and I agree. Eros strikes a responsive chord in this poet so sensitive to sound, and love’s travails provide an ongoing motif. “So What’s New Anyway in the Paradigm of Love?,” the opening poem of “Technology: Five Sonnets,” questions the relevance of pastoral conventions—“When last I looked, the Arden fields were gloomy, / but it seems they’ve undergone some restoration; / each shepherd packs a cell phone / and chats away. Once, sheer choice was innovation”—before further noting, “It’s not necessary, anymore, even to meet.” Here, as elsewhere, Light resists metrical conventions, her ear attuned to the poem’s overall sound while she varies individual line lengths in skillful, pleasing ways. “Because I’ve Chosen Words” explicitly connects Light’s chosen literary medium to romantic loss, adopting a self-deprecating tone in matters of heartbreak that is a characteristic stance: “Because of this choice, I was compelled / to bury, in this small field, / another death: love turned back, expelled / without warning, without reason; promises repealed, / however kindly, gently…” Here, Light’s shifting of blame’s burden onto an aesthetic decision—the use of words with literal meanings as [her] medium (as opposed, perhaps, to wordless music)—puts an artist’s twist on the type of rationalizations used to explain breakups; as a result, the speaker’s sorrow seems more poignant. But Light knows love’s joys as well. After acknowledging a new partner’s hypersensitivity to nighttime sounds, “When We Met” captures love’s early passion in terms anyone will recognize: “Now that I lie next to you, / sounds of clocks are nothing to / the singing of my heart / which keeps me up night / after night kissing every part / of you that I can find.”
Character Shoes yields, for me, two bittersweet discoveries. One is “Silver Moon,” whose subject follows in the honorable line of Smart’s Jeoffry, Yeats’ Minnaloushe, or Eliot’s celebrated clowder. Poems about beloved animals stand or fall on their author’s eye for observation and ability to tread the line between sentimentality and restraint. In both areas, Light excels: “her breath is the breath of the patient / wheeled outside, of the heartsick, / city-exiled; rapturous and sad…/ I needed you; and here you are: / climbing the hills of the comforter, pulling the strings / of the blinds.” The poet is shrewd enough to know that the poem is as much about her own need for this small soul’s affection—the deeper longing that it fulfills—as it is about Silver Moon, who loves deeply within her limited perspective. But the poem also brings to mind Kate’s annual New Year’s messages featuring JPEGs of this companion, her white coat dappled with tabby patches: Silver Moon snoozing on papers, twisting into a plastic bag, or swiping one foreshortened paw in the viewer’s direction. Does whoever cares for her now love her as much as Kate once did? Similarly, “Riddles 2 and 3” (whose answers are “solitude” and “time,” those precious commodities for poets) reminds me that Kate had once proposed a riddle poem anthology, writing by e-mail in 2009, “In this world increasingly full of puzzling things, now seems a great time to start.” Soon after her passing in 2016, tributes would follow at two writers’ conferences where Kate’s loss was keenly felt: the West Chester University Poetry Conference and Poetry by the Sea. At the latter, before a window filled with the darkness of Long Island Sound, fellow musicians played Kate’s beloved Bach between readings of selections from her work. Time—in Light’s riddle, is
…… Thing which we speak
…… of having or not having,
that slow and steady leak
that can’t be fixed or sealed or staved
off, and certainly not saved…
It’s a tragedy she didn’t have much more of it.
Only a year later, on the beach below the retreat center where Poetry by the Sea is held, poets gathered on a cool May night. A gifted poet played her banjo against the ocean’s white noise while we stood on the sand or rested on boulders, voices fading in and out with the waves. Earlier in the conference, Jon Tribble had read selections from And There Is Many a Good Thing (2017) and his debut, Natural State (2016), both exceptional collections long awaited. No flashlights or bonfires broke the darkness, so most of us looked like shadows, though the longer we stayed outside, the more those shadows took on features. I’d met Jon at various conferences—he and his wife, the poet Allison Joseph, had published my work in Crab Orchard Review, the distinguished literary journal they’d founded in the ’90s—but amid the chaos of panels and book fairs, conversation had been limited. Now, finally, we got to talk, among friends and fellow artists. It wasn’t the last time we’d run into each other, but it was the longest time we’d share together. In October 2019, Jon died at fifty-six, to the shock of readers, friends, family, and, especially, his wife. Not much more than a year before, his third book, God of the Kitchen, had appeared, completing the trifecta that showed us all what we’d been missing.
Jon had published and won awards—notably, the 2001 Campbell Corner Poetry Prize—but, prior to 2016, was known less as a poet than as the driving force behind the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, admired for its quality and an enviable backlist featuring Dan Albergotti, Julianna Baggott, Bruce Bond, Chad Davidson, Camille Dungy, Timothy Liu, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Jake Adam York, and other admired writers. The efforts Jon extended on behalf of our craft and its practitioners were also a source of joy, as evident in a 2013 interview at StorySouth where, as usual, his enthusiasm for the art displaces the business of self-promotion: he discusses Crab Orchard Review’s themed issues, its awards in various genres, regional poetries and geographic influence, aesthetic fads and fashions, and other topics at far greater length than he speaks of his own work. Particularly telling are Jon’s remarks about how being an editor affects his own poetry. Realizing that the work of many writers unconsciously reflects an era’s commonplace assumptions, he says, “I need the writing I do to find a way to go beyond that, or why am I doing it?” His remarks hint at the huge backlog of work that would soon see publication: “I don’t know what I’ll do with the collection when it is done since it already looks like it will be difficult to keep it under 120 pages, but I’m not worrying about that right now. Writing the poems is exhilarating and challenging and I plan to enjoy that part of the experience as long as it lasts.”
God of the Kitchen is indeed exhilarating—by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking—and it’s a book only Jon Tribble could have written. Centered on the inescapable global franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken, Tribble’s project book is a memoir in poetry, a harrowing account of teenage hope and hard work in collision with painful epiphanies. Among the poet’s kitchen gods are the young and older marginalized employees who toil amid the grease and bones, working the cash register, or narrowly escaping electrocution when “the breading station’s heavy cord” makes unwelcome contact with water: “From behind, I heard Dre order me // to freeze, stand perfectly still, / and then I saw what he saw, / blue sparks dripping from my / gloves…” (“Electric Fire”). Through it all, the visage of Colonel Sanders—founder, trickster, tyrant—is never far, becoming both god and Godot in “Waiting for the Colonel”: “we were told / he never lost his legendary temper / and knew when he arrived here our purpose / was to present him a store like those he first / opened everywhere for so many years, // our job to keep him from raising his black / cane and beating out his percussive anger / on our spotless counter.”(Sanders, of course, never arrives.) An Arkansas native, Tribble’s ear for idiomatic speech is pitch-perfect, his poems enacting a skillful blend of high and low diction, literary references, crackling sensory detail, and late ’70s-early ’80s popular culture (see references to Taj Mahal, Vinnie Barbarino, Olivia Newton-John, et al. in “Learner’s Permit,” Tribble’s account of two co-workers who pretend to teach him how to drive in order to hook up with each other in the back seat).
Tribble’s gifts raise the material from mere back-breaking drudgery into memorable art. His descriptive powers bring even mundane moments into sharp relief (“New oil has a deceptive beauty, / a pool shimmering gold, deep / as the mystery of heat,” from “Full Thickness”), and his insights into culture and character ring true. “Color-Blind” turns the lens on Tribble’s own obsessive work ethic (partly a response to his minister father’s unemployment), exploring his teenage ignorance of how his managers began using him to cut the hours of African American co-workers: “…the more I worked, // the hours that more and more appeared / with my name assigned on the schedule / beside the time clock, the other cooks // became whiter and then front counter / workers and servers until the entire crew / was all the same…” “Honey on the Tongue,” Tribble’s farewell to the job and the Colonel’s iron grip, recounts his failure to ace a franchise interview for promotion because he was too honest about using recreational drugs. Later, after agreeing to confirm two female co-workers’ complaints about a manager’s sexual harassment, he finds they’ve been let go before he can speak on their behalf, both women “fired for stirring up trouble”: the need to lie is a lesson learned, but so is the danger of telling the truth. In “This Day the Lord,” Biblical language and religious imagery are used both to emphasize the hypocrisy of employer expectations and to articulate more painful realities:
It’s a miracle there was any food at all those days when
the world around us was designed for every disaster, the
Colonel’s face everywhere we turned, mocking us with its
secret knowledge that our faith was misplaced, our
recipe was a recipe for unpaid bills, a path to a future
that would cover us with scars and pain, the failure that
makes an apostle a heretic, takes hard work and turns
it into less than pocket change, fills the mouth with the
taste of blood and sweat…
The realities of labor—the difficult passage of daily life—are too rarely depicted in poetry, and still less often with skill and heart. I look forward to Tribble’s fourth book, expected shortly from Salmon Press, and to the further ascent of Jon’s belated poetic star.
Given the loss of such gifted poets, it may be fitting to say a few words about one who lived a long, full life. I did not know William Louis-Dreyfus (he died in 2016, at eighty-four), but Letters Written and Not Sent (2019), his first and only book, provides an appealing capstone to a career of service, philanthropy, and high ideals. The chair of the Poetry Society of America from 1998-2008, he was born in Paris, the son of an American-born mother who brought him to the U.S. in the wake of the German occupation, and a father who remained behind to fight in the French Resistance. A scion of great wealth (his great-grandfather had founded the Louis Dreyfus Group in the nineteenth century), he served as chair of that company after graduating from law school but continued to find sustenance in poetry. The father of the noted actor and Seinfeld co-star, and a longtime friend of the ALSCW, he dedicated time and resources to social justice causes, endowing minority student scholarships, funding efforts to stop voter suppression, and financing the Harlem Children’s Zone educational initiative with the proceeds of an art collection worth over ten million dollars. His own understated verse appeared during his lifetime in The Hudson Review, New Criterion, and elsewhere, and now is collected in this posthumous gathering of over fifty concise, skillfully crafted poems.
Louis-Dreyfus’ ruminations on mortality are both thoughtful and evocative. “Progression” follows the inheritance of melancholy that passes from widowed mother to daughter “who / also knew how sorrow lurks / and how much consolation / is needed and can’t be found.” “Conclusion,” a villanelle variant, turns to the poet’s father whose death compels the son to puzzle over the source of “black feelings, which he hid, although / many around him felt them seeping through”; in the end, however, the son is left mostly with “the echoes of what [he] cannot know.” “Those Days” recounts a visit to some unidentified place where the speaker’s “young time was spent”; seeking aspects left unchanged, he ends up feeling disconnected, ready to “leave the past in its scattered regrets.” The poem’s final quatrain references Merwin’s famous lines, “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day / When the last fires will wave to me” (“For the Anniversary of My Death”), but reinvents this famous epiphany to address the reader directly: “I’ve often passed the anniversary of my death, / perhaps like you, mute and unthinking every time.” The final lines suggest resistance rather than acceptance, another key departure from Merwin: “Will I know, when that Tuesday comes, to strain / against the blurring of its brother days?”
Despite the retrospective glance that marks many of these poems, quite a few are charmingly playful. In three stanzas of fluent trimeter, “Prescription” diagnoses a problem—“If you stop too long / and then think too much //…confusion like a swamp / will intertwine your steps”—then closes with the cure for anxiety and doubt: “Desire[,] the antidote[,] / will keep the meanings clear. //…Be subject to the dance. / Be seasonally enthralled.” For those of us who sometimes ponder the ways we show affection, “Kissing” proves we’re not alone. “How did kissing first get started?”, Louis-Dreyfus wonders, before observing a few lines later, “It remains the surest signal / of the movement of the heart.” “The Iamb Speaks” is one of several poems about poetry that wear their maker’s amiable persona to advantage. Utilizing the “iamb / I am” homonym pun, Louis-Dreyfus opens with eight lines of dimeter and ends with four lines of tetrameter that frame a rhetorical question: “Or does my meaning come around / when I insert the empty sound / to echo what has just been said…?” The iamb implies an answer without ever having to say, “I am.”
Still, it is in the darker mysteries that Louis-Dreyfus is at his best. “Bargain” boasts one of his most powerful opening stanzas: “Comfortless as I am, / grieved though I may be, / I will not turn to prayer / for my infirmity.” The poet peers past the façade of national optimism in “America’s Not Hard to See,” mentioning war, assassination, and “the candidate’s hygienic face,” pointing out, in an aside, his nation’s xenophobia: “And what offends an American mind / is all that’s other than kin and kind.” “Secrets” is one of my favorites: mysterious and moving, it reminds me of one of Louise Bogan’s austere, carefully sculpted gems. In part:
It is in dark that sharper things are seen.
Bright light obscures all by its busyness.
It is by whisper truer things are told.
Words have their echo when only barely heard.
For me, these lines of William Louis-Dreyfus hold a special poignance. They speak to the value of quiet voices, truths too often overlooked, the echoing words that gain their power by asking us to listen closely.
Of course, I could mention many more poets—talents prematurely lost or somehow overlooked amid the clutter and constant crush of new releases. I was recently asked to add some back cover commentary for Wendy Battin: On the Life and Work of an American Master, recently published in 2020 in the Unsung Masters Series established by Pleiades Press. Co-edited by Charles Hartman, Pamela Alexander, Martha Collins, and Matthew Krajniak, the volume collects the best of Battin’s two volumes, In the Solar Wind (1984) and Little Apocalypse (1997), along with a sample of Battin’s prose, essays of critical appreciation, and a generous selection of her late and early poems. I never knew Battin beyond a few Facebook exchanges, but I’d attended a memorial gathering where those who were close to her spoke eloquently about her work. In response to the request, I wrote in part, “Wendy Battin is a poet of lightness and light; her lines, rhythmic and musical, unfold with a dancer’s grace to illuminate the world.” It’s true, and I hope the book brings many new readers to Battin’s work. Right now, finding her poems is difficult, although a Google search does yield her Poetry magazine appearances, and her compelling debut volume, In the Solar Wind, was posted online at the Contemporary American Poetry Archive before her untimely death.
We poets meet by chance, passing in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes vanishing, sometimes leaving an indelible mark on memory. The upcoming Wendy Battin volume shows just how dependent we are on a few committed readers to see the value in our words—the “truer things” told by whisper—and to ensure that they continue to be heard. At a time when books of poetry are both more numerous than ever, yet prone to vanishing without notice, it’s easy to be forgotten or lost in the multitude. When Jane Mead read at the Folger Library in 1999, she inscribed my book, in part, “Hope we see each other again before 10 more years go by.” We didn’t. But the world has her words, and so do I. Perhaps, as Kate Light suggests in her own “Words,” the final poem of Character Shoes, our value as readers is, paradoxically, both modest and essential. “Words, we ask the world of you,” she acknowledges, but for all that we expect—asking words to “describe, console, and fortify”—what we give back is our human presence: little enough, yet all-important.
It is enough that we are here,
as audience and passersby,
to show how spirits persevere
in love and life and hope and art.
Also by Ned Balbo (see all)
- “For When the Days Seem Absent Any Answers”: Poets of Skepticism and Faith - February 19, 2023
- Fluent Phrases in a Silver Chain: On Finding Poetry in Song and Song in Poetry - February 19, 2022
- “Shimmering with Fragile Grace”: Poets of Public and Personal History - February 22, 2021