Animals and Other Poems, New and Selected
By Michael Creagan
Dragonflyer Press. 164 pp. $15.95
The Violent and the Fallen
By James Matthew Wilson
Finishing Line Press. 29 pp. $14
Does She Have a Name?
By George Witte
NYQ Books. 73 pp. $14.95
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
These very different collections have a couple of things in common. Each displays an acute awareness of how much the world has become a place of instruments and gadgets - whether in the emergency room or just tooling along McKinley Avenue in Mishawaka, Ind. But each also gives the sense of a presence in the world of something greater and more vital, something strictly personal.
Sometimes, they nearly echo each other.
In "A Note For Ecclesiastes," James Matthew Wilson, who teaches literature at Villanova University, wonders
. . . How does one stir
A dull eye to the poignancy and gift
Of all the things that are but need not be.
And here is Michael Creagan, an emergency-care specialist, telling about a boy named Jacob who meets a dog named Sadie:
Sadie came to Jacob. He stroked her fur.
He seemed to be waiting for her to talk to him.
I wanted to tell him that someday he would know
that there is a world and we are alive in it
is more amazing than a dog who talks.
Creagan's medical specialty forces him to take in stride a degree of discomfort most of us would go far out of our way to avoid. When I reviewed his previous collection, True Love Stories and Other Poems - much of which is included in this volume - I said it often seemed "a grim chronicle of death, divorce, and loneliness." I know that because the phrase appears as an epigraph to "Sad Poems," one of the new ones here, which tells of learning "to accept the blessing and the curse/ of turning my existence into verse." He notes in the poem that his friends, when they read his poems, often think he was depressed when he wrote them:
This irritates me. I am sometimes depressed,
but never when I write. Almost never.
And when he "gently" asks his friends,
. . . Are you happy with your life?
They pour out their troubles. Then they begin to cry.
Then I console them with sad and bitter poems.
There is a rough edge to Creagan's latest poems that, while certainly present in his earlier work, is now more front and center. No caution - or even much discretion - on display now. Many of the new poems are raunchy and profane, employing language most unsuitable for a family newspaper. This is not meant as censure: The words are the proper ones in their proper places.
Underlying all is a religious sensibility painfully faithful to St. Paul's admonition that we "think on these things." Death and the sexual dimension of love figure prominently, both unsentimentally. "Sad Night" lays out the premise:
I am alone, and feel my only friends
are silence, darkness, Bombay gin, and smoke.
To which the riposte is this, from "After Reading Wittgenstein":
Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.
To this I bow my head and answer, Yes.
This is poetry and life neither shaken nor stirred, just straight up.
Turning from Creagan's jagged, bittersweet take on life's slings, arrows, and enchantment to Wilson's smoothly crafted verse may initially prompt culture shock, but it soon is evident that Wilson's poetry is made of stuff every bit as stern as Creagan's. The classical poise evident throughout casts a poignant light on routine contemporary rituals. Take, for instance, "The Mishawaka Cruisers." The speaker watches as
A line of weekend cruisers, mufflers loose
And loud with bragging, makes its measured circuit
Along three blocks of neon fast-food chains,
The darkened panes of auto dealerships,
The Checks-Cashed, and the boarded dollar stores.
This is Main Street as a tributary of the River Styx, and those three blocks turn out to cover a lot of interior territory: "two girls hop out/ From a green pickup's cab to join the crowd . . . // In search of something worth the endless waiting." And "in their restless still-becoming rests/ My own dread of the bare, the incomplete."
Marriage seems to have eased the sense of incompleteness, as the concluding couplet to one sonnet attests: "Then you came - stare, cure, and word - and brought/ A new life where none was but one was sought." Family adds a sense of proportion that puts even poetry in its place. A sestina titled "A Prayer for Livia Grace" notes that
The TV news shows that, because they're childless,
Exercise, and avoid cigarettes and liquor,
Modern consumers live a life of poetry:
Controlled and self-absorbed as fits the office
Of sonnets or sestinas; their only daughter
An iPod or such ephemeral techno-language.
The poem's conclusion requires no gloss:
My daughter's teething, needs her gums rubbed with liquor,
Which stops my language, calls me from my office.
I go. May I have more of this child, and less poetry.
The next poem recounts a visit father and daughter make to a public swimming pool. The lifeguard grabs Dad's attention right away - "The lifeguard stretches to pull off her tee shirt" - and holds it nearly to the end:
The tanned, bikinied lifeguard stared at me,
The soft dark of her thigh another lure . . .
I clutched my daughter, but my eyes searched her,
And dreaded what, a moment, I could wish.
Sexual urge as an occasion of sin - it just shows how transgressive classical poise can seem.
In Does She Have a Name?, George Witte, the editor in chief of St. Martin's Press, explores the antiphony of birth and death. The first four poems chronicle a nativity that is also a grave medical emergency: " . . . she drowned inside you . . . he cut," the title poem says, "digging through your ravaged garden/ then lifted her our daughter limp and blue. . . ."
Two poems later, in "Do Not Resuscitate": "The unit doctors counsel paperwork / absolving them and us: It's for the best . . . / We sign the DNR. . . ."
Only Helen, as she has been named, is not on board with the decision: "Your levels pause above the danger zone, / as if you hear and turn to follow us / . . . You choose to be what we would not abide."
A few poems later, we encounter, in "Atlas," someone "Face down upon the kitchen floor" and are told that, "Post-stroke, you practiced this for hours alone . . . Wedge hand and knee for leverage, then tear/ from earth and shoulder up the weight of air."
The someone is evidently Helen's grandmother, a crusty matron not given to "going gentle" into anything, let alone "that good night."
Grandmother ("left arm and leg deadweight, brain seared/ by errant surgery and strokes") and granddaughter, whose "Misshapen hobbled words emerge/ through awkward lips and tongue, her brain/ short-circuited by voltage surge," encounter each other in "Revenants," "their mirror image strange, undone/ but recognizable."
The battles recounted here are every bit as epic as any celebrated in another poem featuring someone named Helen. Witte has done something extraordinary here. At once terrifying and heartrending, Does She Have a Name? demonstrates unflinchingly that what lies at the heart of faith is love. It is a great and important work.
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. - The Epilogue.