The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
Nothing in the air to call me here--
Trees recede into the dark circumference
Of the hill and everything's reduced
To the chilled circle of its lesser self.
No muddy spoor, no red sleeve of a fox
Against snow. But things accumulate
As if from nothing. Nests of broken glass.
A frozen mess of feathers, kicked, upturns
The bird intact, the tiny beak a rictus.
Once, when I lived near woods like these,
I followed older boys who stumbled
On a child's body wrapped in wool--nothing
Left but sinew tangled with bones.
What's this? Sycamore bark that's flaked
Away like skin. Trees shift uneasily--
A hawk, wings too lofty for this wood,
Descends to look at me; its head turns once
Before the branch it rests on breaks away.
Then nothing. Silence thinning on a hill
Too low for speculation on our lives--
There's nothing here I don't already know.
So more than anything, more than the slow,
Determined beat of wings, I'm on the lookout
For the bone, the skeleton half buried
In leaves, the body sprinkled hastily
With dirt and sticks, the open hand, the face
Disheveled and no stranger than my own.
Everything I've heard about heaven is true.
Italian landscape hazy with the blush
Varnish takes above an egg-wash sky.
Except the faces. Not with parted lips
And golden hair but like a child's face,
Like the one I know, still grimy, unprepared.
Each night, hovering above the shape
That heaves its perfect breaths, hands
Unclenching from an object, lost or found,
No less important for not being there,
I make some useless gesture, smooth a blanket,
Brush my lips against dampened hair:
This is the origin of angels, all
Of providential history turning back
To our first parents, Adam's fingers twisted
In a knot of grief above the silver corpse
As in The Death of Abel by Bonnat,
Eve wondering how it could be--
With everything we know about heaven,
That children understand the means
And ends of suffering before their parents do.
It's when I'm on the verge of sleep
That I can see their faces as they scamper
Through a backlit meadow, unaware of me.
One by one leaves go limp and scatter
On the trout pond, a few of them escaping
Down the mossy sluice that separates
Whatever has been built here from the forest
With its tall scrim of dilapidated birch.
Unsuffered, all the years of letting go,
Houses and the children or the words
Of longing and regret that what we spoke,
A language almost foreign, never could
Accommodate. But as they skim across
The river to open shore, whatever sings
Most loudly in the rushes--everything
Unsaid, untouched, even undesired
In the life they gathered up before--
Is what the body will remember most
Tenaciously, what takes its place before
We're swindled free of everything we think
Of as ourselves, a leaf's arterial display.
The fish, mouths open, larger now,
All drive their sleek, long bodies
At the dark spot floating on the surface,
Thundering at once before they whip
Themselves into reverse. And even you,
One of the lucky ones, know only where
You've come from, nothing of the sunlit
Undecipherable air beyond the line.
I'm walking where ocean thins to nothing,
Unaware of what I'll leave behind--
The cure I'd find in footprints, shells,
Or better, in morphology
Since there are shells enough but little cure.
No house inhabited that is not paid
And dickered for. No desk arranged
But by an order making sense to someone,
Even disarray. No pillow that won't hide
The stain human effort can't disguise,
No matter if I've scrubbed until
The pattern dwindles and fabric frays,
Accumulating value, in a way--
Nothing to be squandered, lost or saved,
Unless by wandering a harbor so demure,
So manicured it's unaware of how
Elements that made it could dismantle
Any structure, large or small,
I'm loosened from the daily surge
And summoned by a legacy:
A perfect body in a soapy blur--
A hummingbird surveying the submerged
Geography, the small interstices
Between water and rock, distinguishing
The shadows from the solid forms
Until it pierces mine, and disappears.
It must be human, what we lose
That never can be found again--
A soul, but it's only here,
Stem turned brown, the hose
A listless trickle at my feet,
That I imagine any meaning
For the word, thinking of
A wilderness of stone in Paris
Where a woman lights a candle,
Places it among a hundred
Other flames and watches tears
Of wax congealing on the floor.
I could see there was nothing
For her, not the stone, the candle
Or the flame, no arms that held her,
Cradling her body like a child's--
Nothing that could bring it back,
No matter what she could believe,
No matter how each spring would come
To haunt her, dormant roots,
These tubers sending up a single flag
As if to test the atmosphere,
The shallow light that coaxes
And deceives: all clear, all clear.
The poems "What You Find in the Woods," "The Origin of Angels," "The Lucky Ones," "My Other Self," and "Yard Work" are from Threshold, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1998 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Creating a Landscape of the Mind
What books, I wonder, does a literary heavyweight choose to read aloud to his children? Particularly if he happens to be married to an equally heavy hitter in the world of letters? Do they start the kids right off with, say, Shakespeare or Shaw?
I pose this question to James Longenbach, the Joseph H. Gilmore Professor of English at Rochester. A certified literary presence, he enjoys an established reputation as a critic, to which he is adding growing recognition as a poet. (His first collection of poems, Threshold, was published last fall to praise from, among others, America's poet laureate.) His wife is Joanna Scott, a broadly acclaimed novelist who is his colleague on the Rochester faculty.
Longenbach smiles at the question and cites what Kathryn, 7, and Alice, nearly 3, have been listening to most recently. And it develops that even literary parents don't necessarily get to dictate their children's reading tastes. "The Berenstain Bears," he replies, making clear that it's the girls' choice, not his own. But then he mentions Harriet the Spy, "a profoundly beautiful little novel."
And then, gazing off to the side, he confesses something. "I didn't read much as a child, so I don't have any of my own childhood favorites to share with my daughters." Instead, when he was growing up in New Jersey, Longenbach focused on music--playing and studying piano. It was only at college (Trinity) that he discovered reading, and then writing. "With the piano, it was always public," he muses. Making poetry demanded just as much hard work as making music, he found, but it was an internal and private enterprise that afforded a creative outlet for someone who styled himself a "recluse."
Although he started writing poetry as an undergraduate, as a professional Longenbach turned to literary criticism to establish himself before he reached the point when "it was time to change the balance."
And establish himself he did.
Over the last 15 years his criticism has been published in such august places as Southwest Review, The New York Times Book Review, and The Yale Review.
He is the author of four much-admired books of literary criticism, one of which, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism, was named Best Book of 1989 by the Irish Times. The most recent, Modern Poetry After Modernism, was heralded for its fresh discussion of American poetry, in which the author challenges conventional divisions between modernism and postmodernism and traces continuities among American poets over the past 40 years.
Fellow critics cite him in their own articles. He has received grants and fellowships, including a Guggenheim award.
Now Longenbach can begin adding to his C.V. with honors for his poetry, which first appeared in print in 1991 and has since been published regularly in magazines like The Nation, The New Republic, and The Paris Review.
Since its publication last fall, Threshold, his first collection, has won praise from Pulitzer Prize-winners Richard Howard and Anthony Hecht (Deane Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric and Poetry at Rochester).
Said poet laureate Robert Pinsky of the volume: "James Longenbach's Threshold stands out among first books of poetry for its intelligence and thematic coherence. This is a book about fear, particularly the fear that outside of a charmed circle of normality disaster waits. The subject is treated without melodrama on one side or complacency on the other."
Changing the focus of his work from criticism to poetry hasn't been easy, Longenbach admits.
"Poems happen here and there," he says, with themes and phrases arising from reading and from personal everyday experiences. Images from a solitary walk on Rochester's Pinnacle Hill, for instance, appear in "What You Find in the Woods," the opening poem to Threshold. His daughter's sleeping form inspires the meditations of "The Origin of Angels."
But with criticism, Longenbach goes on, "there's always something to do--rewrite, work up footnotes. It's easy to be busy, and I like to be busy." On the other hand, whenever he finishes a poem, it's done. In a way, he says, "it's like the end of a millennium every day."
Longenbach already has the seedbed for a second collection. Undiscovered Country, he says, grows out of Threshold, but it's "more mysterious, more dreamy, more a book of consciousness than of exterior places." He's still exploring landscapes then, but creating metaphorical landscapes of the mind.
The landscapes of this writer's work are testimony to his own favorite poet, Wallace Stevens. "He's the poet who's most important to me because he developed a way of writing about the mind by writing about the landscape outside," Longenbach explains. "His work is ethereal but in the world at the same time. His poems are mysterious, and that's crucial."
Mystery is the signal poetic quality for Longenbach. The poems that interest him are the ones that draw him back, confound him with different nuances, and elicit new questions on each rereading. It's a way of looking at poetry that he promotes to his students.
"I try to teach them that there's something better than mastery. Mystery is more important than mastery."
But for Longenbach, the ethereal is grounded, too. As a poet, he says, he can't profitably worry about his audience. He has to be true to his work, and hope that it will speak to people.
And then he adds matter-of-factly, "Poetry can have a role in our lives, but cooking and movies are wonderful, too." And that, after all, doesn't seem such a surprising opinion for a literary heavyweight who can appreciate Harriet the Spy along with Stevens the poet.
Copyright 1999, University of Rochester