Out West with the Ancient of Days: A Review of John Poch’s Texases

Texases (Poems)
by John Poch.
(WordFarm, 2019. 89 pp. $18.00)

In an era of malfeasance and corruption, it’s no surprise that poets revel in apocalyptic apprehensions or seek solace in satirical verse. Poems in these modes are more than necessary balm; they join an esteemed and lasting literary tradition of literary witness. But poems that turn toward landscape and local habitation hold equal heft, as John Poch’s fifth collection, Texases, powerfully attests. A poet of spiritual questing and canny craftsmanship, Poch is consistently recognized for his virtuosity. Two of his books were singled out for outstanding formal achievement: Two Men Fighting with a Knife (2008) won the Donald Justice Award, and Fix Quiet (2015) received the New Criterion Poetry Prize. With Texases, the poet turns his full attention to the geography and inhabitants of his home state, offering readers a lyrically rich and formally varied travelogue that seeks to capture what he described in an interview with Lone Star Literary Life as the “complexity, beauty, and difficulty” of the place.

After the Fall

The sound was everything I’d read it was,
and more: soft and precise,
a single apple dropped on sodden ground.
Now time is measured from that sound.

Not in my ears, but roiling through my marrow
swept a sudden sorrow.
Then the epiphany: sick rushing knowledge
that I had done irreparable damage.

Never again the luxury of ease
or happy thoughtlessness.
So innocent and careless was that life
before! Now the world’s unsafe,

the smallest gesture feels as if it matters,
this side of the fracture,
and I consider long where to place my feet—
always aware that it’s too late.

The Fox

One red fox crosses Route 100
skittering past our front tires—
a few yards up, another.

We could be near or half a world from
our home. Wheeling
in our seats, we try to catch

a glimpse of these two fiery hymns,
their chanting footsteps
crossing the familiar spine of a road.

I bless your ears and eyes,
and remember last winter when we watched
a fox span a snowy field, pause,

then call the other, as if with small bits of thunder,
and it was then I asked myself
how shall I live?

Spring Peepers at Flanders Hill

I try to record the song
lifting from the pines and birches,

one solitary note—shrill—then three
trill, trill—then twelve or twenty,

all at once like a reunion of women
at a kitchen table: my aunts and grandmothers

with wine in hand & cigarettes bouncing
to the syllables of the names in their stories,

their ash-flick of grief.
Why is dusk so melancholy?

The vesper of tree frogs begins
with or without me. I often sit

and watch the end of the day
turn to a steely grey. Those women

Down-to-Earth

In the field the coyote yip-yips imminent danger;
……….the dog in the kitchen rumbles a basso growl;
the field sends back a shrill elastic baying;
……….the kitchen gives a soprano howl.

These two aren’t discussing climate change,
……….war, flu, layoffs; in this dialogue
a well-informed coyote’s not relaying
……….to a pessimistic dog

grounds for worry—national cases of mange,
……….the mountain lion population swelling,
a cougar-sighting fifteen miles away—
……….only a future close enough to smell.

The World’s Weight: Artifice and Reality in Richard Wilbur’s Poetry

In his essay “Poetry and Happiness,” Richard Wilbur asserts that poets cannot achieve artistic fulfillment until their “vision fuses with the view from the window” (136). Wilbur’s examination of the tension between imaginative vision and concrete reality stands central to his writing. He frequently traverses this terrain through poems that probe the relationship of people to works of art, human-made objects, and performance-based representations. In such pieces, he both courts and resists the blurring of distinctions between reality and imitation, immersing readers in illusion while tugging us back to the world. When it comes to the interplay of life and art in Wilbur’s writing, some critics have argued, as Henry Taylor notes, that Wilbur’s “well-wrought surfaces” risk containing “little more than themselves,” possessed of a consummate artifice that keeps reality away (94). However, a close reading of Wilbur’s poetry reveals that, in his view, artifice performs the paradoxical function of helping us more fully see reality. Art that engages this paradox, Wilbur’s work insists, is essential to our lives if we wish to avoid personal, political, and cultural ruin.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Fall

Fall

The leaves are falling, falling from afar,
from distant gardens wilting in the heavens;
they fall as if refusing their descent.

And in the nights, through lonely firmament,
the grave earth falls, away from every star.

We’re falling, each of us. This hand here bends.
And look at others: it is in them all.

And yet there is One capturing each fall
within his infinitely gentle hands.

Herbst

Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.