My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I admired these poems more than I loved them. Though that may say more about me than about the poems. Believing with the Konstanz school that the work of art is an event occurring only when an object is encountered, reviewers should probably preface what they have to say with self-critique, admitting that, after all, every act of criticism is disguised autobiography, or at least disguised desire. (How else to account for the different ways a person takes a book in the course of a life—thrilled in youth and bemused or embarrassed in middle age that we took the time once to be enthused.) In that spirit I should say that I was tired when I read these poems, and more tired when I read through a second time. It also likely didn’t help matters that I had read through Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” earlier this week, a collection that left me feeling shaken and undone, as if in counting her losses she had fingered the raw places left by mine. Finally, it may be that in the recesses of my brain I’m carrying the memory of Cairns visit to Messiah College several years ago, delivering a reading that I felt was both profound and down to earth, deeply serious while also good-humoured.
By comparison, these poems seemed to me this time around more accomplished than moving, as if written while attending more to other poems than to readers. This is not to say that there’s not a lot to admire or that there is not a great deal of accomplishment. Indeed, it a poet’s great advantage that if even half a dozen poems that strike the anvil, an entire collection will have been worth the reading. By comparison, fifty good pages in a novel otherwise full of dreck leave me infuriated that the promise in those pages had been such a tease. Cairns is at his best in taking the old, old stories and finding the new thing. His curiosity presses the “Why?” and “What if?” Why, after all, did Lot’s wife look back. Could it have been something like compassion? And, if we were truthful with ourselves, won’t we admit that we are, in the lurid eye of our imaginations, looking back too at smoldering Sodom? What if Jacob slew Isaac after all, the story of rams and angel a good tale to give God a little cover. Perhaps the most moving of these to me was his rendering of Joseph, long after the successes of his life and the moral triumphs of his forgiving spirit, never quite forgetting the terror of that adolescent grave he’d been assigned by his brothers:
“And in succeeding years, through their provocative turns of fortune—false accusations, a little stretch in prison, a developing facility with dreams—Joseph came gradually into his own, famously forgave his own, pretty much had the last laugh, save when, always as late in the day as he could manage, he gave in to sleep and to the return of that blue expanse, before which all accretion—accomplishment, embellishment, all likely interpretations—would drop away as he found himself again in the hollow of that well, naked, stunned, his every power spinning as he lay, and looked, and swam.”
This is old hat defamiliarization. But it is also really good stuff. How absolutely true it must be, or at least could have been, about Joseph. We want triumph without memory, and redemption without regrets. This and other poems like it tear Biblical and historical figures out of the thick mask of their necessary reputations, places where, as Cairns puts it in another poem, they are “all but veiled by chiaroscuro and the prominence.”
All of this is praise, and it may say something that I find myself admiring, and even liking, these poems the more I write about them in this review, writing, after all, an act of thought, an exercise of the imagination on the idea of poetry and literature and these poems and this literature. But in the reading I found all this just a little distancing, as if the manner of these poems was too far from my need. While the technology of the poetry was to make remote figures human for me again, to, as the title of the collection suggestion suggests, give testimony to the “recovered body,” the poems’ achievements seemed primarily intellectual or literary or interpretive, rather than visceral. Someone said they wanted poetry that made them feel as if the top of their heads had been taken off, and I tend to agree. But again, perhaps that only speaks to my own needs, my own place, my own embodiment, the facts of my father’s gradual descent in to dementia and my mother’s grappling with depression, that I miss and worry anxiously about my daughter away at school, or fret and feel tired already at the sense that the past summer never actually began and now it is all but ended. So perhaps it is not surprising that the poem I liked the most in the collection was also clearly the most lyric and personal. The one in which Cairns, remembering the death of his father, struck me as a person more than an imagination:
As we met around him
That last morning—none of us unaware
of what the morning would bring—I was struck
by how quickly he left us. And the room
emptied—comes to me now—far too quickly.
If impiety toward the dead were still
deemed sin, it was that morning our common
trespass, to have imagined too readily
his absence, to have all but denied him
as he lay, simply, present before us.
This poem–unlike the others, all occupying their own form of goodness–made me say Yes.
The somebody was Emily Dickinson; I’d be curious to know what you think of her poems. Hope you’ll give my old book another “go” when you’re more rested; better yet, hope you’ll have a look at the newer work sometime. Thanks for looking, in any case.
Thanks for the comments, Scott! As I say, I think responses to literature may often be about the reviewer more than the work. As it happens, I’m reading through Philokalia now and am, in fact, enjoying the “New Poems” a good deal more, though I haven’t been able to put my finger on what it is about them or me that makes that so. I do enjoy Dickinson, though better in short spurts. Reading a lot of her at one time leaves my ears a little numb, Like rifle cracks one after another. It’s also the case that counter to the usual turn, as a young person I loved Dickinson and found Whitman tedious. Now I find my self responding to Whitman’s incantations in a way I never could before, and I can take Dickinson only in small doses. Perhaps I no longer have the energy to observe minutely the gyrations of a fly, and its easier to let Whitman wash over me.
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