is lyric poetry at its best’. I always understood ‘lyric’ meant poetry that
was lyrical; poetry that sang on the page; poetry with a strong metrical
rhythm. Well, this volume never employs rhyme, nor any of the
traditionally-recognized verse forms; though maybe approaching some at times.
What it does have in many of the poems is a lyrical energy - so I
suppose that that is what the blurb means to convey. And at the heart of this
lyrical energy is a singular love. It seems, at times, almost as if the poet
is writing a single love poem to one woman: an extended poem sprinkled and
dispersed throughout most of the other poems. While the other feature that
stands out, and often relates to this on-going love poem, is that the poet
circumvents the primary ‘I’ of the lyric by slipping into various voices - something
of Coleridge’s ‘ventriloquising for the truth’.
David Baker is a poet whom Marilyn Hacker (her name seemingly misspelled on
the cover) describes as ‘the most expansive and moving poet to come out of
the American Midwest since James Wright’. And certainly those who know
Wright’s work won’t quarrel with that. Wright, too, was a lyric - if not
always lyrical - poet who wrote of that gasoline-flavored
but essentially pastoral world of which Baker also writes. But, also,
Hacker’s word ‘expansive’ suggests an even greater influence on Baker among
earlier American poets, namely, Walt Whitman. Whitman brought a unique sense
of democratic openness to American poetry that fitted perfectly with a
frontier, pastoral, plainsman’s landscape that, yet, spilled over into the
great burgeoning cities of the USA. There is that feel too to the work of
David Baker. And although there are no big city, urban poems here, ‘The Truth
about Small Towns’ hints at a poet who would be quite at ease with the
Whitman (of whom he writes) ‘stopping.../to stroll the Bowery running with
dock boys/ and street whores...’; and a poet who brings the same Whitmanesque
clear-eyed observation of people and place:
stops raining. The water tower’s tarnished
left damp in the widower’s hutch.
If you walk
slow (but don’t stop), you’re not from nearby.
All you can
eat for a buck at the diner is
on sourdough, blood sausage, and coffee.
The preacher before this one dropped bombs
in the war
and walked with a limp at parade time.
burned, the old depot was a disco.
A cafe. A
card shoppe. A parts place for combines.
Randy + Rhoda
shows up each spring on the bridge.
If you walk
too fast you did it. Nothing’s more lonesome
(Who says shoppe?) It never rains.
Or this from a poem entitled simply ‘Patriotics’:
little girl got slapped to death by her daddy,
work, alcoholic, and estranged two towns downriver.
hard to get your attention politely.
the beautiful night is about to blow up
and the cop
who brought the man down with a single shot in the chops
hands, dribbling chaw across his sweaty shirt,
cars across the courthouse grass to park....
But back to the question of the lyric-al. Baker may be a poet both out of and completely
within the tradition of free verse, but the sweet (a favourite word of his),
tender power of his writing - its feelingfulness - brings that
free verse musically alive:
your head lolls in my lap, lightly,
shoulders soften with the talcum of sleep,
not a breath
stirs the fern at the window, not a breeze,
muted, underwater blue of the TV
sell back my soul, all self-love and loathing.
when I hold still enough, you reach
regions of sleepers and whisper a moment
I love, soft twitters
sipping, or a sigh,
landscapes of jabber in phrases so clear
I think you
are singing. I want to go where
to lie so purely at peace.
That was from the somewhat saccharine-titled ‘Our August Moon’; but note the
gentle alliteration of that first line. Of even more exquisite beauty is this
passage from ‘Cardinals In Spring’, a poem subtitled significantly ‘after
Whitman’ (poet’s itallics):
stand, as we must, when the silence
calm settle over us all, as surely they must,
and the caps
come off and our hands flutter up
to our felt
hearts, when we begin to sing
in a voice so
singular it redoubles, echoing off the sky,
ourselves proud and pulsing, and the music,
organic truth, throbs through our veins and temples,
and over the land of the free, over the
vendors and hawkers,
and umps, the fireworks blossom
smoke-puffs and thunder like the storms of creation.
Though David Baker can be said to align himself with the Romantics - there are
poems here to Shelley and to Emerson, for instance - realistic matters get frequent treatment
in his poems. This is a 14-liner called ‘Stroke’:
In the lilac
light, in the lengthening pulse of sorrow
it was nothing, a numbness, she settled
one foot for
the last time in the brickway dusts.
This took no
time at all. Shadow and substance
the lightening moment so near to evening.
There is a
terror that starts low in the throat
out even itself. It is clear or conclusive -
the way her other foot followed
as if to confirm,
heart’s two beats complete and imprinted.
She will take
this step every moment for the rest of my life.
She will not
walk from the porchlight and spring again.
There is a
long calm that settles every crisis.
There is a
bubble in the blood, tiny and clear,
through the stream on its way to the brain.
Like Bernard O’Donoghue’s poem ‘The Weakness’, this brings out the essential
drama of the dying moment. It also emphasises, in its way, the link between
the lyric and the dramatic.
Of the more realistic poems in this volume, ‘Still-Hildreth Sanitorium, 1936’
seems to me the finest. Too long to quote in full, it begins:
wasn’t on rounds, she was counting
and bedpans, the pills in white cups,
their beds, or she was scrubbing down
streaked with faeces and food on a white-
wash of hours
past midnight and morning, down
quickened with shadows, with screaming,
of cheap disinfectant....
time I saw them strapped in those beds,
sores, some of them crying
up coal, some held in place
Perhaps in some ways one of the most surprising and - dare I suggest it? - unusual
things about this poet’s work, despite its several dialogues with literary
figures of the past, is the total absence of any traces of academic
obfuscation. This, despite the fact that he has considerable experience of
working in academia. The only other living American poet with whom David
Baker has affinity in both his agrarian background and his non-academicism is
Wendell Berry. There may be others, of course? Ted Kooser may be another? But,
certainly, there are not many poets who spend a deal of time working in
academia who are as free from its influence as David Baker. His writing
motivation, so to speak, is best expressed by Edward Hirsch who wrote, ‘These
beautifully-shaped poems are fuelled by a deep human desire to rescue the
transient moment and memorialize feeling...’; and though I am tempted to
quibble a little with the phrase beautifully-shaped’, I whole heartedly
endorse the rest. And commend the book as a whole.