Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Masculine Poetics: Works, Days and Cars

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Masculine Poetics: Works, Days and Cars

Article excerpt

Masculine Poetics: Works, Days and Cars

ROBERT WELLS is A POET WHOLLY DEVOTED to memory. In this he reminds me of my friend, the late Canadian poet Dorothy Roberts, who wrote very little about her daily life as a housebound octogenarian in our college town but rather filled her poems with the world of her gentleman farmer father's homestead in New Brunswick and her childhood before and during World War I. One could not deduce anything about her present circumstances, or indeed much about the preceding decades, from reading her poetry; and so it is with Robert Wells. The structure of his book The Day and Other Poems is therefore quite fascinating because it is so wholly discursive and so little empirical.1 And the drift of the book is refreshing because it is unlike that of most of the books I read for this review, books that record only the quotidian life of the poet, from which the reader can infer more than she wants to know about intimate relations, daily habits, and a half-considered, half-digested immediate past. One problem with empiricism is the way in which it fetters invention.

The sections of The Day and Other Poems are organized by themes. The first section concerns labor and solitude; the second, friendship, especially friendship across boundaries of nationality and class, the kind that Aristotle "on friendship" cannot explain; the third, Eros and its anarchic disrespect for the forbidden, in this case the love of a young Englishman for a young Bengali; and the last, lacking a single theme, is a display of the poet's virtuosity as it reviews labor, solitude, friendship, Eros, and discourse itself in a variety of genres. The record of solitary labor might seem to lend itself to empiricism; but as in Seamus Heaney's beautiful inaugural poem "Digging," it does not. Instead, for Wells, labor makes the relation of body and soul, past and present, dissonant, and the poem lies in the musical search for resolution in the book's title poem, "The Day."

Dusk. Re-entering my fantasy of struggle

I pile the fire with cut sections of fallen trees,

Wrestle the trunks of rhododendrons to the ground.

Earth is already crisping with frost. I touch it

And lift my hand, startled, from the brittle softness.

A dark blue sky, illuminated by the moon.

But the poet is staring beyond the moon, not at it: "to be found past nightfall / Staring out at a landscape that cannot be seen . . . ," and his homecoming to a solitary cup of strong tea by the fire is uneasy: "What expectation has been trapped, what hope disowned? / It is a longing in disguise to be set free, / By shared affection, from this elemental care." The six brief poems that follow it, concluding the section, refract the long poem like prisms and work out its consequences, as in the last, four-line poem, "New Year."

The cleared hillside paler in the winter's day,

The fire melting now, single, a sobered glare:

The tangle and dead-weight are lifted away;

Stray song of birds ornaments the leafless air.

Robert Wells, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who writes regularly for the PN Review and the Times Literary Supplement, is a distinguished poet who deserves to be better known and more widely read in the United States.

I recently bought a copy of a DVD of Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf and can't help thinking that this excursion into Anglo-Saxon has left its traces on his most recent book of poems, District and Circle.2 On the other hand, he has always had a predilection for Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to French-Norman (or Latin) vocabulary: "Digging," for example, begins, "Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun." And it goes on from there through spade, lug, turf, bog, mould, peat and roots. Heaney probably always has in mind and ear an even more archaic language, Celtic/Irish; I wonder if Anglo-Saxon isn't a stand-in for it, the best he can do with twenty-first-century English, though of course an ironic one, since the Germanic invasions suppressed the Celts more thoroughly than the Roman. …

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