November 15, 2008

Review by Janis Lull

OLD MAN LAUGHING
by Robert King

Ghost Road Press
5303 E. Evans Ave #309
Denver, CO 80222
ISBN 0-9789456-3-8
2007, 76 pp., $13.05
www.ghostroadpress.com

Robert King’s Old Man Laughing is divided into three parts: “Old,” “Man,” and “Laughing.” The epigraph comes from a poem by Shih-Te: “an old man laughs at himself when he falters,” which also describes the gently self-mocking tone of King’s book. The first section begins with a look back at the poet’s happy childhood, “What It Was Like Those Days”:

Even the dead, I thought then,
grinning as I biked around town,
were happy in their own dead way.

The “I” of these poems continues to roam around town and (especially) country as an adult, in a car instead of on his bike. He finds himself “West of Oglalla, I-80, by the feedlot,” (“West of Singapore”), “east of Cheyenne and Eden,” (“The Singing of Bob and Charlene”), driving past “shattering yellow butterflies,” (“The Whole Time”), or down the Missouri Valley (“Driving Home, Wherever That Is”). Often, he’s listening to his car radio, skipping from station to station as the signals fade and swell:

I also think that what’s electric in the air
is all our lives. Driving we escape into them
again and again, pick up the pieces of ourselves
we’ve denied. (“West of Singapore”)

Whether he’s behind the wheel, or in a raft headed downriver, or just sitting at a sidewalk café in San Francisco, the poet is always on the lookout for pieces of himself, yet he’s always moving on:

Should I stay in Potter, Nebraska,
the requisite forty days
and nights, I might know something
about the unhowling wilderness
of my own mind, but I decide to drive (“The Singing of Bob and Charlene”)

At least once, I thought the speaker might be denying a little too much. In “Another Memento Mori,” he recalls trips in the family car, listening to his parents warbling “On Moonlight Bay.” I couldn’t help wondering if they sang the version where they “could hear the darkies singing,” or the one where they “hear the voices ringing.” The poet may not want to remember that part.

Still, the kid who becomes the old man in these poems often circles back to look at something again, as when the first poem in the last section echoes the one that opens the book: “What It Was Like Those Days” changes to “What It’s Like Now”:

I thought old men would know more
about earth or love or mornings than I do,

standing at sunrise in my own backyard
married for years, dazzled at my own ignorance.

King’s persona is never going to attain an absolute knowledge of anything, and by now, that’s all right with him. In another sidewalk café, reading Japanese poetry, he feels “not too well pleased with myself, / everything being an accident, / and not like a cheerful cloud / but, this afternoon, not damn far from it” (“Accidentals”). It’s not that King doesn’t write about sorrow, but that he takes it for granted; it’s just there, like light. In this book, he chooses instead to emphasize snapshots of contentment: “One day I was sad, / the next I wasn’t. Everything grew leaves around me, singing. / It was not eternal like sadness but yearly, like joy.” (“Sadnesses”)

As these snippets show, most of the poems in Old Man Laughing are divided into stanzas, often with alternate lines indented. These patterns make the poems look formal, as if matching lines should also have a matching number of syllables, for instance, or rhymes, but they don’t. This is free verse restrained by the memory of traditional forms–restrained, but not confined. One needs to think about stanza breaks as well as line breaks, although not too much, because mostly they seem to coincide with a comfortable place to take a breath. It’s easy to imagine this poet reading his work aloud. Maybe his voice is a little raspier than it was when he was younger. Or maybe not, I don’t know:

And isn’t that our glory? Sprawled
in the mud, tripped up by a log,
half-in the river, bemused
by nature temporarily
until we’re bemused forever.
What’s not to love? Snow in our faces,
we shrug, shake our great heads, and grin.
Especially old, especially alone,
I laugh as, walking, I falter. (“Faltering”)

____________

Janis Lull is professor emerita of English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  She has published scholarship on Shakespeare, George Herbert, and John Donne.  Her poems have appeared in The Little Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Northwest, Epoch, and elsewhere.