The Happiness of This World

By Karl Kirchwey

G.P. Putnam. 105 pp. $25

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Reviewed by John Timpane


It has been such a comfort, such a pleasure, to have had this book at elbow the past few weeks.

You can read a book of poems from cover to cover, if you want - there are no rules, no police. You find yourself reading large stretches, then revisiting some poems, dipping in here or there, reading the page that chances to fall open.

However you choose to read Karl Kirchwey's The Happiness of This World, it will repay you with handsomely realized poems of history, family, and clarity. The book offers four sections of poems; its latter half is given to "A Yatra for Yama," a memoir of travel, time, and quest.

Kirchwey, who lives in Wayne and is director of the creative writing department at Bryn Mawr, is securely grounded in the classics, devoted to form in the best sense, and he wields a lovely iambic line, loosened just enough to let the air in, yet disciplined and focused on real, concrete things and what they can tell us. A central example is one of my favorites, "Russell's Store," in which a woman goes into a tumbledown general store in the Catskills for some Motrin. She doesn't find any, but in the crazy, thrown-together jumble of stuff, "straight pins and Yahtzee, Velveeta and thimbles," she gets something better: she comes away "grown wiser than Erasmus."

Like any poetry that's any good, Kirchwey's can sing when it wants to, as in this illumined stanza from "Dandelions":

My daughter, who is nine years old today,

in her spontaneous delight

returns from the unkempt front lawn to say

the first generation

of this year's dandelions is done,

all gone to seed-heads overnight,

which she with one short breath can blow away.

Only someone who has read both George Herbert and William Wordsworth could have written a stanza that feels like that. But Kirchwey lives and speaks in 2006, as we see in the way he rhymes the stressed syllable of done with the unstressed final syllable of generation. With some poets, this practice can seem showoffy or self-conscious, but here it's sweet, graceful, in keeping with subject and sense.

A classical tone - one of passionate control - pervades much of the verse, a tone of elegance and emotional precision. The book's title piece is a version of a 16th-century French poem, a quiet list of things that make for modest happiness: "to content oneself with little, to hope for no attention / from the great; to scale one's plans to what is manageable." I get a strong sense that this poem stands for the virtues Kirchwey hopes for and admires.

One of the sections of the book is titled "Renditions," a word with many meanings, one of which is "translation." Kirchwey often begins with echoes of great poets of the past - the Odyssey, the Rig-Vedas, Suetonius, Rilke, William Carlos Williams - to nourish an insight, drive the imagination to a moment. That moment is often loaded with irony ("Here is the war. Where is the enemy?" - a line for our times) or self-deprecation (as in "Chases in Arras," in which the speaker is awakened by a drunk playing the trumpet in the middle of the night at the Jersey Shore).

Very often, we are in the presence of elegy. Much of this book rummages through drawers, gazes at pictures on mantelpieces, considers ancient artifacts of lives long over. In "A Yatra for Yama," Kirchwey visits Saipan, site of a terrible World War II battle - and also where a long-dead uncle died in his fighter plane. The speaker faces history, loss, and his struggle to become a better person and understand mortality. ("A Yatra for Yama" may be translated "A Pilgrimage for The Lord of Death.") He goes from Saipan to Cambodia and to India before returning home, describing a long meditation on a brother's life, a father's death, his own death.

Beginning, middle, and end, we are told of the love of home, of living with family in a house with not too many cares. "Unlike both my uncle and my brother, I am a Householder. That is my place," is how "A Yatra for Yama" ends. The book gives us a lovely sense of a man seeking a grounded, content life with his own in the midst of history, loss, and delight. In the best lines in the book, Kirchwey lets us know that home is healing, a sense of return, a sense of welcome: "after all / to repair is also to be called home."

John Timpane is associate editor of The Inquirer's editorial board and editor of Currents. Contact him at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com.