Review by Alex Andriesse
AND THE WEST WAS NOT SO FAR AWAY
by Brad McDuffie
Des Hymnagistes Press
P.O. Box 41271
Lafayette, LA 70504
2009, 64 pp., $12.00
Maybe it’s a truism but it’s not untrue: American poetry has never been much known for its poetic “movements,” or for what the French call “schools” of poets as though they were talking about schools of fish. I think Borges once elaborated on this, and he decided that he envied us.
On the one hand, this freedom might indeed feel liberating. After all, “movements” are often paradoxically stagnant. On the other hand, it means a reader never knows what a new poet is going to do with the language. Picking up a first book of poems—especially, perhaps, a first book of poems from a small press—is a shot in the dark, and sometimes real violence seems to be done. In this case, however, the surprise is a pleasant one.
Brad McDuffie is an unusually American poet and his first book, And the West Was Not So Far Away, speaks with the inflections of Robert Lowell and Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey and (perhaps, most of all) the Methodist Hymnal. But these poems don’t simply borrow voices; they blend them into something new. McDuffie’s voice is truly contemporary, but its high lyrical, high lonesome style is not a style we’ve come to expect.
So I could easily make a long list of the tired “poetical” subjects that these poems wonderfully do not engage. I could point out, for instance, that McDuffie does not use the word “revenant,” nor does he write poems about Sigmund Freud or overuse Latin words derived from botany, nor does he have many poems that take place in bed. But it’s probably better to offer some positive form of praise.
Better to say, maybe, that McDuffie’s lyricism drives this book into open country—into places that I haven’t heard from in a long time. He isn’t afraid of the American language or its deeply personal music, its weird mixture of the popular, the vulgar, and the allusively abstruse. The opening lines of “Cross-Examination” sound like an old song coming on the car radio late at night:
When it comes to sadness, darling, plead
no contest, I know God’s jealous heart by heart.
I memorize the starless nights like scripture
reciting their blank
verses to other lovers in visions…
While the poem “Gethsemane,” with its wonderful opening landscape colored by memory and desire, give a touch of Dylan Thomas to a Hudson River scene:
The lights on the suspension of the mid-Hudson
Bridge mottle like candles on the black waters
Throughout, And the West Was Not So Far Away is tapped into the spirit of place, ranging from the Hudson Valley to the French Mediterranean. Many of the poems take place as a starting point for metaphysical meditation, and leave the reader somewhere new and strange at poem’s end. Even the book’s cover (among other pleasures, the West is attractively designed) makes a collage of a Mediterranean Village and what looks to be a New England beach.
It won’t surprise anyone that “the West” is a major motif of the book. Though McDuffie’s “West” appears in unlikely places—as much in the sound of Emmylou Harris’s voice as in a certain slant of light as in “the lunar plains of Nevada.” In
“A Meditation on My First Tour de France,” we find the West very much abroad:
In Saintes-Maries we carry you into the sea
and you dive deep beneath the Old Church
keeping watch on the horizon,
the gold waters shimmering in the West,
the relic of the setting…
McDuffie’s finest poems move like this. We seem to be watching the daily world with a calm eye when suddenly a metaphysical trap is sprung. First the ordinary:
Driving in grey silence down Hudson, we fol-
low you on through to Sundown, rivers attend-
ing our way up Rt. 28A.
And then a sudden lyrical blast:
mariner of time needles over the neck
of the West in every direction, cracked
like crystal over
This is “On Through to Sundown” (one of the book’s finest poems), but such flashes of recondite lyric brilliance are everywhere, as in an image of “Sir Walter Raleigh weighing smoke on scales” or, in a poem for Ansel Adams, a mountain slope shadowed “like a woman before she’s known.”
The West is filled with such daily intimacies. Many poems feature the names of friends and family members, idiosyncratic people and places. Usually, I would find this irritating, but somehow it works wonders for McDuffie. “Visiting Coney Island,” for example, ends with a moving picture of the poet’s children (and a subtle self-portrait):
On the edges the serpentine Cyclone haunts
The silent frame, paused as before the dead
Fall of the coaster clacking down the tracks
And the screams of delight cast over the sands
Where Anna and Jonah make small pillars
And I chase the screaming gulls.
With eyes to the sea one might imagine
things never change
As the book progresses (assuming you read it in some vaguely linear order), the reader gets to know these names, gets to know the poet’s corner of the world, and the poet’s idea of the West.
Yet even if McDuffie seems to favor flights into high Romanticism—into the overtly well-wrought metaphysical turn of phrase—the poems that I have so far found myself rereading and retaining are the simplest ones. Particularly, “Staining the Adirondack Chairs in Late July,” a great mid-summer Hudson Valley poem. To quote in full:
My children are spondees
running through the fresh cuts
of our front lawn. As July sets
with the sun, I am on one knee
staining the Adirondack chairs
under the oak tree, just off Phillies Bridge.
The days are endless with summer,
but thunder clouds line up beyond Shawangunk,
a horizon of shadows beyond the Catskills.
Switching knees, I stain all visible
angles. Glossing a stranger’s initials
knifed into the wood, their voices call
as those in day-dreams, bewaring the distant rumbles.
Rain and fumes mince black clouds with westwinds.
Certain passages in “Grace Rituals,” too, about the death of a friend’s father, are gripping in their exact simplicity:
In his notebook your father
marked the weekly catch
with a hand steadied in resistance:
A simple “—” for nothing,
and an even simpler notation
of size and weight
for the days on which a trout would rise.
Or, in another passage of ordinary exactness, a passage in a poem called “Fidelity”:
At dawn we watched the blue jays at the feeder
making clothesline dives from the Holt’s white crape-myrtle
tree, winged ribbons
they hide in the silver stars of the live oak.
In such sketches of small things, I find McDuffie is at his best. They’re the sort of poems that bring us back to the world without being merely humdrum records of the poet’s everyday life.
Rather, with Warren and Lowell and James Dickey as models, McDuffie seems to see poetry as a way of engaging in language with what it is to be alive—a sentiment I don’t think the poet would shy away from. I might say: It’s all so intimate, but without the slither of intimacy. Or I might quote the poet Donald Junkins, who writes of him, “Brad McDuffie has the knack of getting real emotion into his poems because he is willing to be intimate, and his words come out of the intimacy which is beyond emotion…it is a huge and life-sustaining thing.”
Alex Andriesse is a translator and a poet. He currently lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.