For All Weather: A Review of David Havird’s Weathering: Poems and Recollections

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Weathering: Poems and Recollections.
by David Havird
(Mercer University Press, 2020. 136pp. $20)

There are many gripping titles for poetry collections. Sometimes the title overpromises, the poems underperform. David Havird’s Weathering: Poems and Recollections, though, strikes a clarion tone that rings true throughout the book. The poems—and prose (three autobiographical essays are included)—re-collect various personal erosions, family struggles, passions spent, times lapsed. Yet it’s not all bad news. There’s a steady value found in memory, its reconstructive power, and in the good-faith ventures to which the poet commits himself: love, literature, family, wildlife, art. Plus, those weathering storms, as reanimated by Havird’s memorable touch, contain rough beauty in themselves, and help us learn to appreciate more the remembered calms. After a prodigious start—Havird published in The New Yorker as a fledgling writer in 1975 Weathering proves he has aged well.

Overall, Havird’s poetry is marked by precision, clarity, and incisiveness. His keen allusiveness can be daunting—his lines resonate with references to other literary texts and writers, artworks and artists, historical episodes, figures, and places—yet this intertextual play is tempered by Havird’s lucidity. There’s a quiet confidence in his command of language and form, and in his astute attention to detail, his ability to locate the exact right image for a situation or feeling. Havird was a student under the mentorship of James Dickey at the University of South Carolina, earned his doctorate at the University of Virginia, taught college literature for more than three decades at Centenary College in Louisiana, and has published at the highest levels: The New Yorker, Poetry, The Hopkins Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Yale Review. He is obviously quite learned, and his poems reflect the training of an erudite mind, in the vein of Robert Penn Warren, for instance, or Charles Wright. This might create a sense of distance, even standoffishness. However, Havird takes pains not to leave us behind: to keep things grounded, he mixes common concerns and humor with his aesthetic and philosophic tropes. At times there’s a downright friendliness in the tone.

Memory is one of the chief concerns coursing through Havird’s work, and several poems in Weathering are suffused with a light of belatedness. The way the poems superimpose past and present seems almost like a photographic double exposure: that is, Havird is honest about his reconstructions of the past, about how we alter the past as we reintroduce it into our present. This means that Time in the poems always appears a little astray, elusive. This belatedness seems to work together with the layered allusions, as Havird channels myriad past voices, that none be lost. The range of the poetry in Weathering is so wide—across time, subject, and mood—that the collection resists reductive paraphrase, but I’ve selected three poems to illustrate some of the collection’s marked techniques, themes, and general ethos.

“Prayers for a Giant” recounts a literary pilgrimage to Thomas Hardy’s gravesite undertaken by the poet and his young daughter. The tone is familiar; the poem begins with “my mother” and “our daughter,” and continues on as if we’re part of the family. Moreover, the poem is filled with jokes, off-color, but pointed. For instance, we hear about how plans to bury Hardy’s heart may have been curtailed by his pet cat, who made a quick snack of the unprotected organ prior to its safekeeping:

The story goes—we sit on the gravestone,
Rachel and I, amid the shade of a yew—
that when they came for the heart, they found the tin
in which the surgeon had laid it, this cookie tin
on its side, top off, the tea towel lining it
out, Cobweb licking his bib. (43)

The episode prods us to ponder where body ends and soul/consciousness begins (or ends), while also worrying traditional divides between human and nonhuman animals. For a poet so full of mind like Havird, he doesn’t neglect the body—or the heart. This grim joke on Hardy (one the man himself likely would have enjoyed) sparks a further memory. That night, the poet’s daughter remembers in her prayers another feline, Midnight, who “drowned on her grandparents’ farm before she was born” (43). Memories keep spinning in connection, like the crosshatches of a spiderweb, not because of lived experience, but because of the at-least-equal power of narrative, of an imagined past, which creates a form of prosthetic memory:

still a kitten, Midnight mewed at the door
and when let in made us the gift of a bunny.
With green eyes looks at us, looks down at it,
she paws it, peers at us…
It went straightway, a fist-tight wad,
into the garbage can outside. (43-44)

Havird does not allow his poetic reckonings of the past to stray into the maudlin or the facilely nostalgic; instead, for Havird, memory is the strength of creative consciousness reworking the past, turning it to new use in the present. Notice how the daughter’s memory—for which she was never present—is rendered in the present tense. It is the narrative recreation of the past that leaves it open and available for us in the present. Yes, occasionally something of Hardy’s dark naturalism enters into the scene (Hardy was the subject of Havird’s dissertation at the University of Virginia), as evident in the linked representations of these wild(ish) cats. Still, we can manage such scenes of nature a bit reddish in tooth and claw, the violence distanced by humor or assuaged with empathy. “Prayers for a Giant” concludes with the poet’s prayer that his own heart’s “last beat may be a new star’s first” and his bodily response: “I feel throughout my frame pulsations of starlight” (44). Will the poet’s lasting “starlight” be found among the pulsations of his rhythmic words, his legacy written in starlight? One hopes so. Havird deserves lasting notice. He’s a hell of a poet. Yet, as the poem also avers, the poet’s code will live on through the good-hearted daughter, who cares about living things she never saw, but feels she knows, nonetheless, through someone else’s storied memories. These are more real to her than a lot of things. Memory becomes an ardent, binding inheritance.

On some level, each of Havird’s poems can be read as an ars poetica, and this is especially true of his ekphrastic poems, which closely attend to the painter’s trained practice in producing effects. “Vanishing Point,” focusing on the poet’s response to Hendrick Cornelisz van der Vliet’s “Intérieur de l’Oude Kerk à Delft” (1660-1670), begins not in the halls of a haute couture museum but amid the gleefully garish pop art of folks celebrating Halloween along a neighborhood grid:

Already (my birthday, falling in mid-October,
a week away) pumpkins on stoops
and witches with brooms and gauzy spooks
asway on wrought-iron railings. These
disturb the grid that is at dusk
our habit to walk, a grid of blocks— (11)

The “habit” of a daily walk reflects Havird’s emphasis on practice, on order that allows—indeed inspires—improvisation. We shift deftly from the seemingly mundane to the realm of high art, as we enter into the soaring perspectival grid of Van Vliet’s painting, pulled “as through the eye of a needle” (11) into its astonishing “receding lines that aim as though at God” (11). Though the two arts described seem worlds apart, Havird, per usual, offers a mutual vanishing point: across both the “disturb”-ing Halloween decor and Van Vliet’s labyrinthine church interior, death is acknowledged as part of the grid of life. In a lovely final turn, we come back down to the quotidian, as the separation between art and life crumbles, the dog in Van Vliet’s painting materializing as an afterthought: “…She bristles / the dog does. A long, low growl / inches me up on whatever is new to sniff” (12). “Vanishing Point” is about convergence. It’s about tightening our ability to attend and attune to various converging lines, artistic-visual as well as poetic-aural. Art is the ability to cleverly “disturb the grid”—that is, through studied practice, to carefully perceive and in fact help create an order to things (the street grid, the church interior), aware that any structure is necessarily in flux, any field altered by the energy the perceiver adds into it. For Havird, we never quite get to an ultimate reality—which is always “receding” from us in some way—but visual and poetic arts get us close, offering a glimpse or echo of the sublime while we record and willfully distort received forms/grids in order to heighten experience and “aim as though at God.” The poem, like Havird’s other ekphrastic pieces, is a testament to an artful life. One might rightly ask, then, if the poem—and the collection overall—might be too much ensconced in the life of the mind. Absolutely not. What the poems in Weathering yield is not simply a reflection of an artful life, but a life-filled art. There’s a high-mindedness to Havird’s work, to be sure. But there’s equally an open-heartedness. His poems are populated with the real, with how body often must be bruised to cultivate soul or piqued consciousness. To remind us of our own materiality, of how deeply we are bound to our bodies, in Havird’s poems about high literature and art, dogs or cats (or birds) often get the final word—offering humbling rejoinders to would-be human hubris.

An early poem, “Downriver with Uncle Paul,” closes Weathering and further reveals Havird’s capacity to subtly link the everyday with heightened experience, the personal with the exceptional, if not epic, without coming across as self-indulgent. The poem begins with a line worthy of Dickey, in its grand scope and powerful compression: “Now winter plants its pickax.” However, the poem eases up after this opening hammerstroke, shifting into the speaker’s personal remembrance of the Accutron wristwatch he inherited upon his uncle’s death. Eventually, the motorized humming of the digital watch smoothly transitions to a larger field, as the intone of the watch is echoed by the outside drone, apparently, of a transformer:

Another sound
augmenting, then diminishing that tone—
outside the house a hum that comes and goes.
Believe in God, and it won’t have to come
from any mere transformer; for tonight
sounds carry an eternity. I make

believe it emanates
from God’s own tuning fork. Try as it might
to keep the music of the spheres on pitch,
it cannot now (122)

The speaker may only make believe that that hum outside emanates from God’s tuning fork. For Havird, there is less stress on belief—that is, on trying to outbelieve existence—as, say, in Dickey’s verse. Havird’s poems argue instead for the value of practice. As the image of the tuning fork suggests, it is more about attuning oneself to our conditions. Attend and attune, might be Havird’s credo, especially in the practice of art. The practice of tuning in to the sonic consonance of the mechanical hums of the wristwatch and transformer allows the speaker to escape time and deathliness for a spell, and opens the cascade of memory as he recalls in living detail a boat trip with Uncle Paul down South Carolina’s Saluda River to Lake Murray, and back. The return trip is not well planned, and uncle and nephew get trapped on the river in the darkness; the descriptions effortlessly transfer from the very real into the near mythic:

……….The outboard knocked
against the muffling whine
of midges, while my flashlight bent its beam
to sweep aside the dense bug-haze. At last
the river shut its mouth on us,
and we became the river’s word unsaid. (123)

They stay the night on the river, with Uncle Paul’s then-new Accutron offering aural recourse to the past in humming “a luminous green song of time” (124). “Downriver with Uncle Paul” suggests that the rhythms of memory, captured through the practiced cadences of poetry, are sounds that can “carry an eternity”: these sound memories can reform time as long as they are re-experienced. Yet we don’t necessarily end on a high note:

But I, sleep’s orphan, huddle now
within the drone of gravity itself,
the gravity of a collapsing star
that tugs its neighbors from their certain rounds,
that hum which tunes the orchestra of stars
to its off key. (124)

Entropy, it appears, is the way of things. Still, we have the ability to tune into a larger scale (“the orchestra of stars”), even, or especially, if our approach is “off key,” even, or especially, if we are co-producing the order we see there in the stars. On Havird’s watch, the music of the spheres is made more compelling, more artful in that tugging off from certain rounds, that disturbance in the grid, that off-key scale—as in the draw of a collapsing star, if you know where and how to look. Havird points us in the right directions.

I must admit, the three prose pieces in Weathering caught my most immediate attention. The autobiographical essays recount Havird’s interactions, personal as well as poetic, with luminaries of modern poetry: James Dickey (with appearances by Warren and Allen Tate), Robert Lowell, and Archibald MacLeish. In no way do I wish to diminish the considerable force of Havird’s verse brought together in Weathering. If you have been heretofore unfamiliar with his poetry, familiarize yourself. That being said, these essays alone are worth the price of admission and should be required reading for those interested in any of these figures. The prose accounts read like excerpts from three extraordinary literary biographies, told from a remarkably balanced first-person perspective. Havird serves as ethnographic participant-observer, conscientious about his own biases as he records campus visits he hosted for Warren, Lowell, and MacLeish when he was an M.A. student at the University of South Carolina in the mid-1970s, all in the company of his mentor and family friend Dickey. Havird’s memories of these long-past events seem crystalline. His attention to detail is perspicacious, and one feels as if we’re there with him in the moment. Rarely do you see a poet so aware of one’s place as Havird, who generously gives center stage to the other writers surrounding him.

The three essays are episodic, following the form of living memory, a synthetic flow from one remembered moment to the next, beautifully weaving in readings of various poetic passages sparked by the accounts. In lesser hands, this loose, wandering structure would be cause for concern. Havird’s style is affirmed through the clarity of his memories and the luminous, unlooked-for connections he creates between episodes and passages, as though energy is being transferred synaptically from moment to moment, memory to memory, passage to passage. To glean but a few moments in order to give an idea of the fascinating insights and idiosyncrasies of the whole, we hear Tate’s worrying over his old friend John Crowe Ransom’s worrying over the quality of Ransom’s early work, wishing to erase these poems from public memory. Or Lowell grumbling about the lack of good hot mustards in England (rather obsessively) and after his reading complaining that he was seated next to a madman. This odd episode speaks to an undercurrent throughout Havird’s recollections: the link between poetry and mental illness, which seems to touch Lowell, Dickey, and MacLeish, and, through Havird’s vision, does not necessarily diminish, but often quickens their artful response to the world and others. Or Dickey, in one of his characteristic turns treading the fine line between maximum creativity and fanciful (or boorish) absurdity, asks M.A. student Havird to show up on the final day of a graduate poetry workshop costumed as the mysterious poet “SS” (i.e., Silver Skin), a non-traditional student allegedly from the South American silver mines who will appear in a pair of outsized huaraches, a purple-fringed suede jacket, and silver life-mask of Dickey himself. There’s much to unpack in this episode. Suffice it to say, though, that Dickey clearly showed a deep interest in his young charge. Despite his sometimes egoistic behavior, Dickey showed signs of genuine avuncular concern for Havird and respect for his talent. We get the sense, without him ever saying it, that only Havird would be given the “honor” of wearing Dickey’s life-mask, in parody or straight-faced. Havird, for his part, sincerely appreciates Dickey’s gifts, but knows enough to lift off the mask, to create and develop his own persona.

While he is often surrounded by larger-than-life figures who at times may overplay their roles for effect, Havird remains clear-sighted and understated. He inserts himself when he has something to say. For example, when riffing off Lowell’s family connections with the South, Havird recounts his own familial tales of the Civil War and thereafter, which are of the I don’t hate the South I don’t hate the South variety. He is clearly not cultish about the “Lost Cause”; instead, he’s curious and critical. Another memorable turn occurs near the end of his prose recollection of MacLeish’s visit. Havird’s spouse, Ashley Mace Havird, an accomplished writer herself who has a poetry book forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press, makes a cameo. The young writerly duo form the “two sweethearts” whom MacLeish treats to breakfast on the way to the Columbia airport. In retelling the young couple’s interaction with the octogenarian poet, Havird offers us a marvelous synthesis of consciousness, a revelation of his intuitive connection with other poets, a cinematic dissolve between two times, the present interposed with imagination working on the past. In a letter back to Havird about the Columbia visit, MacLeish wrote of David and Ashley: “I can see you both at that table” (103). That’s remarkable, and remarkably generous, to be remembered by a world-renowned poet. Perhaps what’s more remarkable still is Havird’s decades later response: “and since he could, I see us there as well” (103). Notice the shift into the present tense. MacLeish’s kind words are returned in kind, creating for Havird another crucial instance of prosthetic memory, of narrative recreating the past in the present. That breakfast became a launching point for two further full literary lives, entwined: “I see it as a feast, a wedding feast of sorts, that binds us aspiring writers to a life of writing, which becomes a marriage of continuous critique-as-courtship as I make my poems and Ashley Mace Havird makes hers, her poetry and her fiction” (103). This shared life of writing (and critique), in hindsight, indeed seems one to be feted, no regrets.

Across the three prose recollections, one might wonder if there is any residual disappointment on the part of a young student and poet who held incredible promise, yet never ascended to the upper pantheon of widespread acclaim like Warren, Dickey, Lowell, or MacLeish. This, of course, has more to do with vast changes in the poetry business and literary marketplace than anything with the individual talent. If you doubt that, just refer to the quality of writing in Weathering. Havird’s accounts, however, are never marred by bitterness or petty spite; instead, honesty and an admirable other-directedness shine through.

Many writers must answer to the charge of having published “too much.” We might arraign Havird for having published too little. One guesses that he himself is his most scrupulous critic and gatekeeper. No histrionics, nothing in excess. What one gets from reading the whole of Weathering, the five decades it holds of poetry and the equally exceptional prose, is a true sense that, among those noted literati he chronicles, Havird holds his own. He belongs in visionary company.