Book Review

Beauty and Truth, Laughter and Memory

The title of Morri Creech’s third volume[1] comes from a terrific Goya etching featured on the book’s cover, which shows a man asleep, fierce owl-like creatures hovering above his head. Goya’s full title tells us that the sleep of reason produces monsters, and Creech brilliantly probes the fears, horrors, and anxieties that lurk just below the surface of our waking everyday minds. In an early poem “The Dream of Reason,” the speaker doubts Descartes’ “ergo sum / of consciousness,” affirming that all is flux: “Dust spins its bedlam universe / in my mind for days. I’m tired of certainties.” There is nonetheless an elegant and reasonable structuring throughout, and Creech’s willingness to live in uncertainty with regard to ultimate questions automatically evokes John Keats’s notion of negative capability.

Sure enough, ten poems into this magnetic collection, we come upon “Song and Complaint,” a wonderfully humorous takeoff on “Ode to a Nightingale.” The speaker is an educated workaday guy, but someone with little time for other worlds or the opiate release of poetry:

Beat it, bird. We’ve heard enough about
the charms of elsewhere. While you poured forth your soul
like a poet hidden in the light of thought,
blithe spirit, we grew tired of the whole
immortal business; each of us has drunk
from the cup of sorrows and of boredom, too.
So I’ve wandered out here onto the front lawn
half-dressed, picked up a chunk
of gravel, and I’m aiming it at you.
A nice tune, but we’d rather you were gone.

Taking pains to reproduce Keats’s stanza patterns and rhyme schemes, Creech has his speaker continue the argument with the bird for seven more sections, telling him, among other things, that it’s “tempting” to believe in a perfect world if you don’t pay attention to guillotines, Gettysburg, Waterloo, car alarms, and breaking glass: “The world you sing about is not the world.” He admits the bird has comforted a few, like “Bonhoeffer in his cell,” but his song is as irksome as a dripping tap that keeps the speaker awake all night. Yet, once he’s finally thrown the rock, it’s suddenly “so damned quiet” that he thinks: “Maybe I’ll pace / and listen awhile. As long as I have time.”

Toward the volume’s end, in “Cold Pastoral,” Creech brings back the nightingale to speak from a realistic bird’s-eye point of view. Sometimes alluding to Keats’s poems, he describes London streets, brother “Tom’s foaming cough,” as well as the deathbed days in Rome where the poet is “Still dreaming of some undiscovered country!” The bird tells Keats that the essential struggle is against flux and futility:

Go on and write this down if you feel like it.
It won’t turn out the way you want it to.
For all you know, posterity will strike it
from the page whose permanence is like the blue
revisions of the surf off Margate’s coast.

These lines are interestingly reminiscent of the poet’s famous epitaph: “Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water.”

One of the best poems in the book involving nostalgia and the waking dream is “Apples of Recollection,” rich in Edenic associations. The speaker stumbles “into the twilight kitchen, drowsy, leaning above / the ripe fruit on the countertop,” seeing the curtains stir in a breeze, hearing only a moth bump against the overhead light, and has a vision. He walks down a path into his grandfather’s orchard and finds his father, only twenty-six years old, on a ladder with a bucket of picked apples. Sun slants through the branches. Somehow he knows that his mother has been dead just a few months and will never make a pie from these picked apples. One falls from his father’s bucket and rolls toward his feet. He knows intuitively that if he picks it up and takes a bite, this radiant, magical moment with his father will be forever lost:

And then I woke. I stood there alone in the fluorescent light
of the present, in the kitchen, holding the unbitten apple in my

Creech’s poems lyrically meditate on photography, painting, a Nazi cigarette lighter, midlife, banks, a night-blooming cereus, birches, and Hamlet. The implied monsters of the book’s title lead us memorably to “Landfill,” a poem that contemplates the ecological consequences of materialism, fashion mandates, rabid consumerism, and a throwaway society. Another monster is war, and “Countryman of Bones” is a moving elegy in which Creech speaks to a friend killed in action far from home. He speaks to him at a river where they used to go swimming as teens and within view of the spire of the Baptist church they attended for fifteen years. In “Lullaby,” the speaker describes the greedy, warlike world his sleeping daughter will inherit, a place where “The crooks who caused the market crash / resign with pocketfuls of cash.” These are masterful, rewarding poems.

The jacket of Sydney Lea’s eleventh book[2] has a gorgeous photo of a pair of cedar waxwings eating berries. Though his poems are a bit less formal than those of Creech, more narrative than lyrical, Lea also has an interest in Keats, birds, memory, and beauty. The impressive title poem has the speaker listening to Charlie Mingus’ Tijuana Moods while contemplating what Plato and Aquinas say about beauty, and how it has “faced grief since the day / that somebody named it.” Then he recalls the previous evening when he attended the lecture of a “noted professor,” a man convinced his “learned jargon” could end the capitalist exploitation that, ironically, “pays his wage at the ivied college through which he leads / the impressionable young, soon to be managers, brokers, bankers.” The professor quotes the well-known Keatsian phrase “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” and smugly chuckles. Beauty, he explains, leads to “loathsome politics.” Nonplussed, the speaker looks out the window, where “the incandescent snow / of February sifted through the quad’s tall elm trees” and recalls a dead logger friend’s description of waxwings seen in mid-autumn: “well-groomed little folks.” Not eloquent, he admits, but there was passion in the movement of the old man’s “work-worn hands” as he thought of beauty, which, according to the professor, is nothing but another form of opium that Marx would banish. Still listening to Mingus, the speaker splendidly closes, remembering first the professor’s eyes:

eyes that must never once have paused to behold a bird,
ears that deafened themselves to the song of that bird or any.
Beauty’s a drug, he insisted, from which we must wean the poor,
indeed must wean ourselves. But I was thinking of beauty
as something that will return—here’s Curtis Porter’s sweet horn—

outlasting our disputations. I was thinking it had never gone.

With a strong sense of place (Vermont), many of the engaging and brave poems in this collection bear witness to loss and the unsettling changes that age inevitably brings. In “Unnaming,” Lea writes: “All is dispersal. Childhood / best friend John has lately dropped / dead on the trail, his snowshoes a snarl; / it turns out Willie’s heart was infracted, / the marathon runner now the moldered corpse.” Other poems remember a sharp-shinned hawk snaring a sparrow from a roof ridge, ravens feeding on a roadkill hare, a blind doe thrashing through underbrush, pictures of daughters grown up and gone, a house burned down, but Lea doesn’t want to become a prisoner of memory and/or nostalgia; he wants to inhabit the present more fully. In “Not Like Silvio,” he writes, “In older age I tire of memory, / don’t want it to be, like his, my liveliest asset . . . / . . . / To hell with habitual reminiscence.”

But memory has its own unpredictable schedule. In “Small Jeremiad,” Lea wisely chooses the villanelle with its refrains to flesh out an experience he’d rather forget: “I killed a catbird once when I was young.” He says he’s done more terrible things, so why does the catbird keep returning while he listens to jazz or at other unexplainable moments?

Yet I’m sunk in lamentation: things I have done,
Ones I’ve left undone. There’s that old feeling . . .
I killed a catbird once when I was young.

We find the mystery of memory’s workings again in “Fathomless,” in which the speaker recalls a “nasty redneck” with a pickup full of dead skunks at a country store. Why keep these stinking dead creatures? Why didn’t someone punch the guy out? The speaker is full of pain, his brother recently dead of an unexpected aneurism. “I’ve failed for years to fathom the death of my brother; / but it’s just as hard to understand why a scene // in an old Vermont store should linger,” like “some pains you may have thought you had forever gotten over, / but which at some odd prompting come back to haunt you.”

It’s interesting that Lea in at least half of these poems uses second- and third-person singular and first-person plural, sometimes to distance risky sentiment. He is a masterful storyteller, whether he is using third person to describe a “chubby boy” deliberately bounced from and run over by a tractor driven by a schoolmate or what it is like living in a big house with a grandmother, mother, aunts, and cousins when the father, a soldier, was away in the Second World War. In “The Vanishing,” he begins with the voice of the town: “We all insist . . . we knew he’d end up a corpse.” The man is from Central Europe but “flaunted his accent,” deliberately used a “v” for a “w” and refused to assimilate. He also had a loose mouth and foolishly called a “mammoth marine” a “chickenshit pansy. That cost him eight stitches. // So we all disliked him. And then he disappeared completely, / never again to be seen.” But the disappearance uncomfortably changes the air, and a guilty first-person speaker comes to the fore. The wind has a new sound. And the river makes eloquent after-dark music as never before.

What it may be eloquent of
I’m not ready or able to say, nor can I tell you why
that edgy articulation should echo in the sirens
of cruiser or ambulance, or birds that cry in the night
and even ones that sing by day, like phoebe or dove.

Andrew Hudgins, like Lea, is a narrative poet, and in his eighth volume[3] also writes about beauty, memory, and various aspects of mystery. In fact, “Mystery” is about solving a mystery. Master and Mistress of a palatial estate are found dead with broken necks. Inspector Smythe suspects the maid and butler, but the maid has palsied wrists and fingers not strong enough to break anyone’s neck. On the other hand, her husband, the butler, is a powerful man but has an airtight alibi— “tossing back stout and swapping smutty stories / at the monthly meeting of the Butler’s Club.” Smythe, searching their rooms, finds BVDs in the maid’s closet, skirts and hose in the butler’s. Ex-actors, they have swapped roles to commit the murders. By the way, the names of the two are “Trudy” and “Booth.” Inspector Smythe concludes:

Reality, he said, is not the same as show:
“Trudy is Booth, Booth Trudy—that is all we needed to know.”

Forgive me. Had I named them earlier, you might have seen the punch line coming, especially since Keats figures into the work of the two previous poets.

Hudgins has few equals when it comes to comedy. In an engaging memoir, The Joker (Simon & Schuster), also published this year, he describes himself as a compulsive joke teller and how the impulse has gotten him into trouble over the years. His Baptist military father once knocked him from the dinner table to the floor for an ill-chosen joke. Closer to the present, at a writer’s conference, he tells an off-color story to Richard Wilbur who forces a polite chuckle, then excuses himself, leaving Hudgins full of shame, wildly angry with himself. But he has come to realize that the world is divided into “laughers and non-laughers.” The Joker and A Clown at Midnight nicely complement each other, the former giving us access to raw material ultimately transformed into poetry. Jokes are a way for Hudgins to define himself, to “make sense of the world,” to rebel against what he calls in one poem the “cramped certitude” of a religion he’s left behind. The memoir brilliantly probes the psychology of laughter, drawing upon Goethe, Freud, Baudelaire, Hazlitt, Bergson, and Bakhtin. Mark Twain as well: “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in heaven.”

The volume’s opening poem is “A Joke Is Washed Up on a Desert Island,” a wildly original narrative pasted together from classic setups, characters, and punch lines, irresistible from title to its darksome closure. Alone now, the joke thinks about himself, and “believes he’s kept the sacred / sacred by profaning it.” But “thinking’s a nuisance,” and people start to wash ashore: first Natalie Wood, then an armless and legless guy named “Bob,” “Art,” or “Matt” depending on where you place him. Naked blondes wash in as well, one asking “Is that / a banana in your pocket?” The joke sees himself whoring for laughs.

And all at once he gets it:

The human cost of laughter. It pains him.
The people he’s offended,
they’re human, unlike him, a concept
he’d never comprehended—

In addition to “A Clown at Midnight,” a bitter and angry villanelle about being misunderstood, perhaps the most insightful of the poems about laughter is “The Humor Institute.” The Institute advertises itself as a business that will help you “lighten up the office when // a senior partner kills himself, goes broke, / or leaves his wife for Bob in shipping. . . .” They promise “no morbid jokes,” “crude buffoonery,” “cherry bombs or wedgies.” They truly want to help. The poem closes with a woman alone who has wept herself empty and now lets out a haunting laugh in the autumn dark.

She laughs because there’s nothing else to do,
because there’s worse beneath the worst she feared.
The Humor Institute has work to do.

Despite the book’s title, not many of these poems are laughers but are more about life itself as an existential dirty joke, Hudgins drawing us into arresting and unforgettable moments and situations: the experience of visiting an old love whose mother is dying, his hometown’s bloody racist history, a memory of ditching police in a teenage car chase, the unacceptable sermon at his father’s funeral, an uncomfortable evening at the expensive house of greedy friends, or guilt at harvesting a dead neighbor’s garden at night. Poems in this volume progressively move toward death, the frightening reality which laughter absurdly tries to tame. “In a Distant Room,” the speaker’s house is haunted by the smell of something dead that sparks intrusive memories. He throws lime into the crawlspace, then scrubs the baseboards on hands and knees with bleach the way he did as a military brat when the family moved into new lodgings. Now he asks friends and visitors if they still smell the odor. Some say yes, some no. Robins bump against the windows. A cricket under his bed keeps him awake all night. In the morning newspaper he reads about bees swarming in the flue of a house, “a yellow stain spreading / down someone’s wall . . .” The yellow stain is but one of many inescapable triggers:

Then at a margin of the mind,
in a room where she was smoking,
drinking coffee, and worrying
about worry—all the things,
the many things that must
and will go wrong—my dead mother,
as she often does, died again.

In Grace Schulman’s seventh volume,[4] “Chauvet” ponders the question of what drew the earliest nomad humans into dark caves with flickering lamps to paint “rhino, bison, aurochs, stories on walls.” Some thinkers say it was religion, the cave and animals sacred, but she says:

. . . I think the task
was to get it right, the horse’s leap,
the faun’s terror, the lion’s charge, knowing
that in a life of change those animals
would stay. They have. The ibex glowers.

Schulman, too, wants to get it right, and she does, every poem a keeper, each with her gem-like appreciations of the haphazard moments of daily beauty. Her work has a crisp visual dimension, as might be expected from someone who often writes about painting and place. Most of these poems are set in either Manhattan or the shores of Long Island. But in “Cool Jazz,” she brilliantly brings together shore and city while closely observing a night heron and remembering Miles Davis on Broadway, “shoulders hunched, horn pointed down,” playing away his sadness with sound “embracing all sounds, tern cries, wind in cedars.” She closes:

In the silence of a heron stabbing minnows
you could hear Miles, his hunger of another
kind, deeper, gnawing, harder to feed.

Applause rose up like water slapping the shore.
He lowered his eyes, muttered, “Endings just drag me,”
and walked off the platform. The heron flew.

Schulman doesn’t seem to worry about memory’s quirky intrusions and would probably nod in agreement with one of Faulkner’s characters: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Mostly written in blank verse with sections from two to four lines each, her poems are about seashells, hurricane warnings, Poet’s Walk in Central Park Mall, her father’s collection of watches, yellow stars Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis, a neighbor’s granddaughter killed by a missile strike in Gaza, the aerial ballet of two butterflies getting to know each other, Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a visit to a village cemetery, and a student who has himself tattooed with his grandmother’s concentration camp number. But her work is about praise (a word that appears at least seven times in the volume), celebration, and joy even as the process of aging takes away friends and family, and death prompts painful memories.

In the title poem, she reminds us that our stay here is brief, that “No more than geese in flight, shadowing the lawn, / cries piercing wind, do we possess these fields, / given the title, never the dominion.” Another poem, “In Praise of Shards,” reveals her own negative capability when she wonders why we reach after certitude or “completeness / when fragments are all we have?” And in celebrating the healing power of music, especially “Handel’s Messiah,” she writes,

Now horns acclaim. I don’t know if Messiah
has come, will come to save us, or will come
too late to save us, but never mind,
let the bass roar with winds that tell the story.

Poetry, painting, and music have greater permanence than ourselves. Schulman conceives of art as a universal language of praise, hope, renewal, and solidarity, both an answer to and an expression of our longing for the sacred. In one poem, she quotes Psalm 104 (how manifold thy works), but her work is neither narrowly religious nor flatly secular. In “Letter Never Sent,” an imagined letter from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Walt Whitman, we experience the beauty of hayfields and hawks, “the wren’s inscape, / God’s mystery stressed / and instressed.” But nowhere else in the volume does Schulman better marry the sacred and the profane than in “Variations on a Line by Whitman,” a gripping litany of praise:

Give me the splendid silent juniper,
grown wild on sand, calm in a rage of roses,
where terns dive and pipe-necked cormorants

plunge after whitebait. Give me the splendid
concert hall, hushed until tune-up, the conductor’s
first notes, shaping cacophony into order. . . .

Listen promiscuously
to alto, bird, and jackhammer until

boundaries fade: asphalt sand, divine
mechanical, pure impure. Bless the waters
that hurry like the morning rush hour,

praise the audience that chatters
before the Verdi starts, the small talk
lifting my heart like tidewater through stones.

I live on a barrier island and can attest to the accuracy of “pipe-necked cormorants” as well as many other shoreline details throughout the book. When Schulman goes for a walk, she’s on duty and obviously doesn’t stumble around while staring down at her cell phone.

Sometimes, like Sydney Lea, she urges herself to stay in the present and not allow memory to interfere with what is around her. In “Danger,” she is again in the green world and notices a sign saying Rat Poison nailed to a black locust tree. Other signs as well prompt memories of “chillier warnings,” both from mythology and the Bible about the danger of looking back and losing your love to the underworld, or Lot’s nameless wife looking back and turning to salt. She tells herself and her fellow walker (you perhaps) to pay attention to “the emerald leaves, honey-yellow blooms.” I’ll leave you with this:

And don’t look back, not at the kids we were,

sliding in rain. Now you step gingerly,
lame but not lost, with your own name,

taking the high risk of this morning,
one hand on your cane, the other open

to catch honey-yellow blossoms falling
just as our shadows fall on this narrow path,

bounded by poisoned grass, and yet
our boundless road up from the underworld.

[1] THE SLEEP OF REASON, by Morri Creech. The Waywiser Press. $17.95p.
[2] I WAS THINKING OF BEAUTY, by Sydney Lea. Four Way Books. $15.95p.
[3] A CLOWN AT MIDNIGHT, by Andrew Hudgins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.95p.
[4] WITHOUT A CLAIM, by Grace Schulman. Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.95p.