The afternoon rinsed in the scent
of pollen and exhaust,
my father sweats above the rusted chassis,
his tools scattered in the freshly cut stubble
of pasture grass. The engine stutters.
Pistons fail to fire. My mother steps from behind
the dense lace of the hydrangea,
herself a new hand at failure:
sixteen years old, unmarried, she knows
in a few months the car will drowse
beneath a blanket of woodchips
next to the split pine and kindling,
though she says nothing, stoops to retrieve
the lug wrench my father has mislaid
among the brambles. Already, formless
as her own reflection in the windshield glass,
their child drifts inside her, taking shape
first in the handful of trembling words
she will release when she breaks the news to him
days later. But now she is silent,
continues to watch my father,
who is adrift in the languorous shade
of his own boyish distraction,
who pauses, turns his face
briefly toward her, and smiles, as though
a simple gesture were enough
to fire the lonely engine of the heart.
This poem, written over twenty years ago, was the first that I felt genuinely proud of, that I thought sounded "like me." My writing has changed over the years, but as a twenty-five year old in graduate school in Lake Charles, Louisiana, I felt that I had finally found something like my own rhythm and cadence. And found, at last, my subject matter, too: after muddling through endless attempts at a variety of subjects, none of them successful, the drama of my family and origins seemed rich, inexhaustible material to dig into. The poem was written in reverse--I came up with the last line first, then wrote toward it, a method Frost would certainly disapprove of ("no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader" etc.).
The photograph itself is a fiction. Yet it attempts to portray accurately a moment I have imagined again and again: the one when my mother became, psychologically speaking, an adult--burdened with the awful knowledge that she was going to have a child, leaving my father, at least temporarily, to the childish preoccupations that she could no longer share. My mother was fifteen when she became pregnant; my father was seventeen. Growing up in South Carolina in the late sixties, they must have faced a great deal of scorn and judgment as a result of their decision to have their child. My father still managed to go on and complete both college and law school, working sometimes as many as two jobs--not including his work as an intern in the State House--while parenting and trying to navigate the difficult straits of a new marriage. My mother, stuck with a baby and no life apart from her domestic responsibilities, eventually grew restless; she had moved from her father's house into a husband's single-wide trailer, and had no idea who she was on her own. She moved out when I was four, taking me with her. She got her GED and a dental hygienist's degree at a local community college and eventually left me in the custody of my father, who raised me.
Tied to my early interest in family was my interest in theology, in Biblical narratives, and in the nature of God. Raised in the First Baptist Church in the rural south, I had, as a young man, a complicated relationship to faith that I wanted to explore in my poems. I was agnostic but felt deeply drawn to the ethics and spirituality of Christianity even as I was repulsed by the repressive, dogmatic structures of the church itself. I was fascinated by the darker implications of scripture, and excited by thinkers like Simone Weil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And I was also particularly moved by the work of religious poets: John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins (whose Terrible Sonnets I adored), and the crabbed, austere poems of the Welsh Anglican minister R. S. Thomas. "Testament" is an early poem, a dramatic monologue, which explores some of the religious themes that interested me:
What could we have done, those of us
who stood judged from the beginning,
judged in the lengthening shadow
of the tree of our fathers? So we planed
the wooden beams, bound them together
and planted it, tree of the covenant,
in the firm soil. We forged the nails
and inflicted each requisite wound,
rent the soft veil of flesh that obstructed
our entrance to the kingdom.
When we had finished, some of us
built small fires to illuminate the dark.
We gathered to witness the consequence
of perfection. What else could we do?
We understood the rigorous mercy of God.
Only those who have sinned shall be forgiven.
After completing what became my first collection, Paper Cathedrals, I experienced a two-year silence. I wrote nothing. I have always wrestled with the silence immediately following a new poem: will this one be my last? Not a writer who conforms to a schedule, I have always trusted my intuition to guide me toward sitting down to write. I never have ideas for poems; only a tingling sense that I should write. The poems seem to come out of a struggle to say what is on my mind; or, rather, to find out what I have to say (to paraphrase Mark Strand). I simply stare off into space until a line or an image comes to mind, painfully at the mercy of a muse who can neither be coaxed nor bullied into production.
Not writing anything for such a long stretch, though--not having that intuitive urge to put words together--gave me intense anxiety. I struggled with self-doubt, wondering if I had said all that I had to say. It is not uncommon for first-book poets to dry up afterward; would I be one of them? I spent much of my time reading other poets, contemporary and dead, in the hope that something, anything, would trigger that old tickle in the gut and send me in the direction of a new poem. I dithered and moped. I spent a lot of time in my pajamas.
This was not the last time I would go through a fallow period. But what seemed a dreadful time of inactivity turned out to be a crucial opportunity for re-thinking my style and subject matter. I was no longer the same person who wrote the poems of Paper Cathedrals, so why should my new poems too much resemble them? I wanted to do something different, since the poets that interest me most are the ones who evolve, reinventing their styles to accommodate changes in their lives and attitudes. Also, I was frankly bored by writing exclusively about my childhood and God. And free verse had become a dead end for me.
The last poem I completed for Paper Cathedrals pointed the way toward something different. "Engine Work: Variations," which I also included as the first poem of my second book, Field Knowledge, was composed in rhyme and meter. I had begun to feel frustrated by the fact that, though most of my favorite poets wrote in form, I could not. In terms of technique, there was a whole dimension I was missing. I suspected that I was writing from limitation rather than from conscious choice. My first book had been almost entirely made up of free verse, and a more formal approach appealed to me as a change in style, as well as a vehicle for breaking the writer's block I had suffered for so long. It was a chance to learn something new. Here is the poem that marked the transition from my first to my second book:
ENGINE WORK: VARIATIONS
June Morning. Sunlight flashes through the pines.
Blue jays razz and bicker, perch on a fence post
back of my grandfather's yard. His stripped engines
clutter the lawn. And everywhere the taste
of scuppernongs just moments off the vines,
so sour that you would swear the mind has traced
a pathway through the thicket, swear the past
comes clear again, picked piecemeal from the dust--.
Or else it's late--September--and the shade
thicker than I recall: those cardinals,
finches or mockingbirds still haven't made
a sound all afternoon, though ripe fruit swells
on vine, or branch--or bramble. Thus the frayed
edge of recollection slowly ravels
away to nothing, until that place is gone
where the heart would know its object, and be known.
All right. Not to begin with those backlit pines,
those scuppernongs, the jay perched on a branch
of sweet gum--no, oak, I think. With what, then?
With my grandfather holding a torque wrench
or ratchet? Some old engine's stammer and whine
before it starts, or doesn't--a house finch,
singing or silent? Language, too, seems wrong,
though it's all I have. Grandfather. Scuppernong.
To fix him in some moment, word for word,
that man who taught me gears and cylinders, sweat,
precision of machinery--the hard
love of assembling things.
I know the heat
all summer hung like a scrim where pistons fired
and the boy I was watched in the raw sunlight.
Spilled oil rainbowed in its shallow pan.
One birdcall, maybe; fruit on a trellised vine . . .
Impossible not to change things, move the words
from here to there. It's late now. Nothing's settled--
not engine noise or the sound of one far bird
the mind sings true. Which version of the world
should I believe? This morning in the yard
scuppernongs hang and sweeten. Pine boughs yield
some fragment of the blue jay's call, a sound
the resonant air repeats but cannot mend.
Admittedly, "Engine Work: Variations" resembles much of the material of my first book, Paper Cathedrals, in its conscious exploration of family themes. My maternal grandfather was a mechanic who worked at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston, SC, after completing his stint as a tank driver in World War II, and precision was essential to his job; how, then, to write a poem that places him in a particular moment with the same precision as he practiced in his profession, when my tools--memory and language--were so unstable? The poem is an attempt to dramatize that instability, using words and a conscious effort at recollection to point up their own hopeless insufficiencies.
In my work, engines have become a recurrent image, a metaphor for assembling language into poetry, deriving from both of my grandfathers' facility with gadgetry and repair. I still remember coming home from school to find an engine hoisted on a chain from the bough of an oak tree. When I think of my grandfathers, I think of tractors and old Buicks on blocks in the driveway. I can still smell the engine grease on their hands.
Though the new poem covered old ground, a new project, proposed to me by my graduate school mentor, John Wood--who was also the editor of the photography book series 21st--widened my range as a writer. He suggested that I collaborate with the photographers Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison on an art book that would include eleven photographs, with eleven poems inspired by the images. I was thrilled. A project with a deadline was just what I needed, and the photographs pushed my work in directions I had not anticipated. The project eventually expanded to include two books--Listening to the Earth and The Book of Life--and the poems from those books became a major part of Field Knowledge, my second full-length collection. In fact, Field Knowledge is largely an exercise in ekphrasis, though only readers familiar with the ParkeHarrison books (rare, expensive editions that are hard to come by) would be aware of it. I was determined, however, to make poems that stood on their own, that didn't merely describe the photographs but rather explored similar themes. "The Canto of Ulysses" is a poem that came from my collaboration with the ParkeHarrisons. Though it is only tangentially connected to the photograph--the picture's title, "Second Harvest," suggested to me the ways in which the past can overlap the present--the poem resulted both from my response to the bizarre, harrowing image and from my reading of Primo Levi's book Survival at Auschwitz:
THE CANTO OF ULYSSES
Primo Levi, in his apartment in Turin, reading The Divine Comedy. February 1987
Drowsing, head propped above the eighth circle,
He feels the present shifting like a keel,
Takes his bearings by the toss and swivel
Of snow in window light--though still less real,
It seems to him, than that thick Polish snow
Which, tumbling in his mind, begins to wheel
Like Dante's leaves or starlings, like the slow
Stumble of shades from an open freight car,
Or from an open book. All night, the snow
Whirls at his window, whiting out the stars.
We sailed now for the stars of that other pole.
Leafing a thumb-worn page, he tries to parse
Those lines he once struggled to recall
For a fellow prisoner, who'd hoped to learn
Italian as they scraped rust from the wall
Of an emptied petrol tank. The greater horn
Began to mutter and move, as a wavering flame
Wrestles against the wind and is overworn--
Although, oddly enough, the lines sound tame
Now there is no one to explain them to.
Nor words to write. His own canticle of pain
Is, after all, finished. The past is nothing new.
And the present breaks over him like the dream
Of firelight, plush eiderdown, and hot stew
A prisoner will sometimes startle from
Who has lost hope of returning to the world,
Blowing upon his hands the pluming steam
Of breath, in which a few snowflakes are whirled.
Or, nodding above the passage where Ulysses
Tells how the second journey ended--hurled
By a fierce squall, till the sea closed over us--
He feels at the moment like that restless king
Home from Troy after twenty years, his face
Grown old and strange from so much wandering,
Who broods all night over the cyclops' lair
Or Circe's pigs, the shades' dim gathering,
Then falls asleep.
He leans back in his chair.
It all seems now just like it seemed--the snow;
The frozen dead. They whisper on the stair
As if he'd called their shades up from below
To hear the story of Agamemnon slain,
Or paced out the long maze of the Inferno
To hear their lamentations fresh again.
Beyond his window: stars, the sleeping town,
The past, whirled like flakes on a windowpane--
The sea closed over us, and the prow went down.
Dreaming, he drops the book without a sound.
Exposure to other poets and a determination to do something different than I had done before--to move away from the childhood and family narratives that had dominated my early writing--lent my poems a more meditative and allusive quality. The images of the ParkeHarrisons nudged my poems away from those earlier subjects and strategies. Poets like Donne and Herbert, as well as more contemporary writers like Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur, led me to an interest in more elaborate stanzas and metrical patterns. As I grew older, time became an obsessive theme in my new poems, as memory had been in my earlier work:
Swift as a weaver's shuttle, time unspools
Its hours in glistening threads
And rapturous polychromes--in the arc of leaf
Or feather toward the pools
Of that deep shade to which the morning weds
Its brilliance, in a brief
Slur of red-wings above the whitewashed fence,
The sprinkler's lisp and hiss
Trailing a veil of diamond through the air--
And spins a present tense
Of such dizzying concords one is apt to miss
Much of the affair.
Think of those vast histories that have gone
Unnoticed and unseen:
Ants marching on some martial expedition,
Defending their Babylon
Of mounds and chambered catacombs between
The posts of the Crucifixion,
Bees building their honey in the walls
At Jericho or Troy--
Whole catalogues of kingdoms and empires,
Spenglerian cycles of health and slow decay,
All lost in the spangled fires
Of daylight, the rich flux of hours and years.
Amid such dense detail
It's easy to miss the moment when Atropos
Bends close with her shears
To cut the taut threads, until their tensions fail
And time's grip turns loose;
Easy, in Eden's commerce of sunlight,
Wild fruit and stippled wings,
To miss the cormorant bristling on the bough.
So once a man lost sight,
Near Pompeii, of history's beginnings,
Caught in some lavish now
Of appetite--the flush of sex, the steam
Rising from his bathwater--
In all that languor failing to note the wind
Stir the trickling streams
Along his flanks, the mountain sound its thunder,
Or those first warm snows descend.
After completing the poems for my second book, Field Knowledge, I experienced another silence, this time for three years. Everything I attempted to put on the page seemed wooden or stale. I simply couldn't push my words in the direction of poetry. My life underwent enormous changes in the period during and following the writing of that book--parenthood, divorce, a new love--yet my one comfort, words, seemed to have abandoned me.
Eventually and mysteriously, the poems began to come again. It was like someone had primed a pump: first a cough and trickle, then a steady flow of new material. The poems I began to write formed the seed of my third book, The Sleep of Reason, and reflected the profound instability of this time in my life.
The Sleep of Reason is, for me, a deeply personal book; more formal than my first, more direct and intimate than my second, it also deals obliquely with a subject I had thus far avoided in my writing: the painful psychological struggles that had unsettled me for over a decade. The chronic insomnia that I suffered during this period--what turned out to be a protracted bout of mania--became the central metaphor for the book, and suggested its architecture and themes. I had long gone through periods of anxiety, then depression, then a strange, outgoing exuberance that contrasted with my "normal" introverted tendencies. When I was up, my writing blossomed. I went from wallflower to life of the party, depending on the whims of my temperament. And, occasionally, I experienced a peculiar mélange of depression, exuberance, and anxiety all at once, accompanied by anger and unpredictable behavior. It never occurred to me until my forties, though, that anything was seriously wrong. "The Trouble" captures a sense of my anxiety, insomnia, and self-destructiveness:
It seems these days you've had enough of order.
For months you harried the blackbirds from the yard
With a pellet gun, clatter of pie tins, an absurd
Straw-stuffed overcoat, and gave no quarter,
Chucking lit fireworks, once, to chase them off
The laundry poles and apple trees. And now?
The pump gun leans against the table saw
In your garage, the clean shirts billow and luff
In mild suburban peace, although the change
Has quite unsettled you. It's true the lawn
Looks clear, the trees untroubled. But at dawn
Sometimes you hear the creaking of a hinge,
A swing set or a screen door, and you wake
Thinking they might be there. Of course, they're not.
They linger at the margins of your thought
Like a dream you had once but can't seem to shake,
And now you wake so often that each time
Wind sifts the limbs or flaps the empty sleeves,
You want to tear them down, scatter the leaves
You spent all season raking into prim
Heaps near the road, then stand out in the cold
Beneath clouds of a slowly changing weather,
And watch the pale sky darken to a feather,
Until the meaning wings down and takes hold.
I wanted to write poems for my third book that came directly from personal experience but that dilated to include the larger world as well, to include the sense of historical dread that haunted earlier poems like "World Enough" but with a more contemporary point of reference. If my personal life was fraught with change and trouble (a move to a new job and city, a new marriage, a second child, and the endless whirligig of a mood disorder) there had been more than enough--terrorism, two foreign wars, and a banking collapse--to signal a grander historical sense of unease. I was after formal poems that combined the personal with the historical, even the political, and that fused my life and worldview with what was happening around and beyond me:
LULLABY: UNDER THE SUN
My daughter, sprawled out on her blanket,
Turns over once, then dozes off.
She knows that there is time enough.
Above, the sun bobs like a trinket
Through a vagrant scrim of cloud
That softens noon to a green shade.
Tempting, to sentimentalize
A day like this, a child this small--
No humming gnats or sparrow's fall,
No thunderhead crowding the skies
To mar the general accord;
While God looks on, profoundly bored.
Elsewhere, of course, it's business
As usual: the sweet and sour
Of passion, preemptive acts of power,
Some Passchendaele or Austerlitz
That has or hasn't happened yet
And history will soon forget.
I've read too many books. I've seen
Towers toppled, regimes dragged down;
Seen heads of state raised to renown
While warplanes strafed the TV screen.
The crooks who caused the market crash
Resign with pocketfuls of cash.
And yet the carpe diem theme
Is old as either love or war.
It will all go on as it has before--
An idiot's tale, a play or dream.
My daughter sleeps. Made on such stuff
The lovely world seems true enough.
COUNTRYMAN OF BONES
Michael, what of this river where
The stars lie scattered here and there
Like jacks tossed on linoleum
And left after a finished game,
Wind wrinkling those waters stretched
From bank to bank that, finely etched
With the moon's faint strokes from overhead,
Glimmer with all we might have said?
Some old Greek knew this place to be
All time needs of philosophy--
Although, of course, he never stood
Near this particular seaward road
Watching his own reflection stay
While limbs and leaves hurried away
Downstream to wash up God knows where.
And, truth be told, you didn't care
Much for the jabbering in books,
Preferring to jackknife from the rocks
And thrash around a little while
In the strong current. It's just as well.
Words fail anyway, grown hoarse
With worn-out feeling or--what's worse--
Cloying with the confections of
Sentiment. Well, you had enough.
Besides, what words or waters reach
Across the blinding miles to fetch
You back now? Umpteen tons of sand
Slipped through a narrowing glass to land
You on some road where a Humvee spins
Wildly toward our public ends
Nothing can negotiate
Such distances. It's getting late.
Better to dwell on other things--
The moon-slicked river, osprey wings
Rowing across the empty air
Beyond the Baptist church's spire
Where once a week for fifteen years
We both sang hymns and made our prayers
To God and those eternal laws
That are themselves effect and cause,
Or the warped pier where, classes done,
We'd worship the oblivion
Of whiskey, Zeppelin, pungent hash
Bought two miles out beyond the marsh
But grown in some exotic place
Whose desolation makes our peace,
Then strip our shirts and disappear
In black depths to resurface here
Where I look now. In a different year.
Things are much as they were before--
Headlights solve the general dark,
Kids still come here to neck and park
Their cars, stoke fires in trashcans, grow
Up as we once did years ago,
Full of the same boredom and rage
That dead-end, or dull to middle age.
Too old for childish stuff, I'll drive
Home bored and angry (still alive
That is) past banks, schools, hardware stores,
These houses that our foreign wars
Keep safe, and, one of the elect,
Lie down to sleep, my doors unlocked
While night--far from all harsh alarms--
Takes the republic in its arms.
I also wanted to address the theme of romantic love. I had met the woman who would become my wife during that turbulent period between books. Falling in love gave my writing a renewed momentum and trajectory. What good is a poet, after all, if he doesn't write a love poem? I wanted to set that relationship--as I did with the poems about my children--against the destructive forces at work around me. Perhaps my favorite poem from The Sleep of Reason is a sonnet I wrote for my wife, a poem about our first meeting.
I still remember walking by Sarah's house in the late summer of 2005 to find her standing on her front lawn, watering the plants in a yellow sundress. We had been briefly introduced at a party to celebrate the new year at McNeese State University's MFA Program. The circumstances of our meeting hardly seemed propitious. She was a fiction student; I taught the poetry workshop. She was dating someone, and I was in the middle of a divorce. Still, I invited her to join me and a friend for billiards and drinks at a local bar, and she accepted.
It would be February before we spent time together again. One afternoon she showed up at my house, German shepherd in tow, to ask if she could use my washer and dryer. What started out as a routine chore turned into an evening of powerful connection. We stayed up talking late into the night. It soon became clear that we had both been thinking about each other for months. Half a year later, we were engaged. Written two years into our marriage, "The Choice" interrogates the extent to which we are in control of the powerful forces of attraction:
What chose us? Just as well to ask what chose
The chinaberry and wild olive and close-
Cropped weeds in the friend's yard where we met
Or the noise and traffic of whatever street
Had brought us there. Wind made the pattern of
The yellow sundress you were wearing move
A little, in a larceny that took
Possession of the light and made me look.
You spoke. Or else I did. The past is fiction.
But I can say whatever dereliction
Of purpose conjured us together here
In these changing roles that suit us every year
We choose it as our own again tonight
Beneath the lucid tyranny of starlight.
Since finishing my third book, I have experienced another two-year silence. Instead of fretting about it, though, I have now come to see it as a natural part of my writing process. The poems following that silence seem to be a new approach to old themes. Less personal than The Sleep of Reason, less allusive than Field Knowledge, the new work is more concerned with process, the act of making language itself, and the relationship between language and landscape. I'll end by including a poem that is, I hope, the seed for my next book:
THE LANGUAGE OF PASTORAL
for Susan Ludvigson
I am halfway between the canebrake and the pines.
The horizon stretches like a bow-string, sun
deep citron over the pasture. Language whines
and lisps toward meaning, trying to get one
blessèd thing right--O wonders turned to signs:
trees shine with mold out where the creekbeds run,
wet fields brim with midges, and white curds
of foam wash up at the pond's edge in these words.
Like spells to conjure with, this verb, this noun--
three red-winged blackbirds at the pasture's edge
gleaning the grass seed have already flown
and disappeared somewhere beyond the hedge,
only to be recalled in this phrase, set down
as a part of speech. So language keeps its pledge.
I find the loss in what these words redeem,
like the sleeper who awakes to another dream.
I have come back in the middle of a sentence
in middle life: here my grandfather tended
corn and plowed the back fields, stripped the dense
kudzu before it choked the soybeans. Winded,
he'd walk along the full length of the fence
to drink cold water where the creekbed ended.
I imagine seeing him climb the distant hill.
Language sings its one song, hold still, hold still.
What I have to say turns the pasture to fiction.
Parsing the back fields, grammar and syntax fail.
Even the blackbirds are reduced to diction,
sculling through air as they do above the swale.
A world combusts to nothing in the friction
between a phrase and its referent: or the tale
persists as cadence, though the names of things
are frail as spent breath or the midges' wings.
Whom or what are these words for? Not the dead
who cannot hear them anyway. Not the wet
soybean fields or canebrake or the red-
winged blackbirds slurring the air. What slips the net
of language has no use for what is said
about it. Even I will soon forget.
Each word quarrels with silence at the close:
where speech comes from, and where everything goes.
It is dark as I write this. The fields are far away.
Maybe the pasture hums with midges, reeds
teem at my grandfather's fenceline, and a stray
blackbird lifts toward the hill, beak full of seeds.
Maybe, for all the words I have had to say,
someone sits alone in a room and reads
in silence a poem beginning with these lines:
I am halfway between the canebrake and the pines . . .
Where the poems were first published:
"Engine Work" originally appeared in The Sewanee Review and was reprinted in my first full-length collection, Paper Cathedrals (Kent U P, 2001).
"Testament" originally appeared in Poetry and was reprinted in Paper Cathedrals.
"Engine Work: Variations" originally appeared in The New Criterion and was reprinted in Paper Cathedrals and in my second full-length collection, Field Knowledge (Waywiser, 2006).
"The Canto of Ulysses" originally appeared in The New Republic and was reprinted in The Book of Life (21st Editions) and in Field Knowledge.
"World Enough" originally appeared in The Southern Review and was reprinted in Listening to the Earth (21st Editions) and Field Knowledge.
"The Trouble" originally appeared in The New Criterion and was reprinted in The Sleep of Reason (Waywiser, 2013).
"Lullaby: Under the Sun" originally appeared in Pembroke Magazine and was reprinted in The Sleep of Reason.
"Countryman of Bones" originally appeared in The Sleep of Reason.
"The Choice" originally appeared in 32 Poems and was reprinted in The Sleep of Reason.
"The Language of Pastoral" originally appeared in The Southwest Review.