Review by Barrett Warner
STONE AND SKY
by Larry Gavin
Red Dragonfly Press
307 Oxford Street
Northfield, MN 55057
2011, 46 pp., $10.00
Larry Gavin is a fly fisherman who makes his home in the land of ten thousand lakes. The months spent tying feather lures; those long marches and paddles to the coldest, airiest streams; the snapping cast–all of these rituals are part of a very physical routine essential to discovery. Gavin is not interested in buying his images out of the freezer locker in the “Super America” store. He isn’t the sort of poet who waits around for something ironic to happen. Rather, he goes hunting for it, armoring up with his tackle, a compass, a pen, and setting out to find any tracks poetry might have left in the snow. His poems give us fantastic vision as seen through a steely eye which also manages to wink back at that world as if poetry and nature were accomplices in some miraculous and romantic crime.
Stone and Sky is Gavin’s third book in eight years from Red Dragonfly and at this point you couldn’t pry him out of that house with a crow bar. Maybe this had given writer and press some confidence to air it out, risking more of a psychological journey than the physical expeditions in his earlier work. “First Poem” charts the course: “Those faint tracks first noticed on new snow/ lead deeper into the forest behind/ the house as plain as the simple man/ keeps the secret happiness, and how/ that secret finds its way deeper into winter’s/ heart…Forming a history of the coyote’s quiet progress/ late at night.” Gavin’s keen sense of quiet progress pushes this book deeper and deeper, twenty miles at a time. After language—-“understanding words/ must find themselves to simply sing”–the poet’s most important tool is a clean and dry pair of woolen socks, not an iPad.
Gavin’s paradox is to learn how can he shed his own context—his personality—in the world of nature without losing his identity, his essence. In “On the Border” he writes, “My home is on/ the border, the contact zone, where/ things mix as they struggle to remain/ separate.” Part of his secret lies in embracing the disharmony, never judging it or impulsively falling in love with it but simply living with it, those long coyote nights. No matter how much more he gains access than we, there is still so much more out there inaccessible even to him. In “Remember: Friday Night” the narrator debauches himself at a dance hall, forgetting his faith: “I will fail again to inhale the smoldering/ scent of salvation.” He concludes, “I prefer the words/ of Saint Catherine of Siena who said/ All the way to Heaven is Heaven./ Perhaps she will appear from behind/ the bandstand and perhaps we will dance.”
Gavin has a “so what?” attitude that confesses experience. Being alone and dying alone and feeling broken are not so important after all. There’s probably a friendly country mouse scratching around the larder right now.
I switch off the yard light
and the stars emerge
from the shadows like mice around
a granary. They reason in dark
corners and scamper
on the edge of vision like tiny
meteors trail light
toward the horizon until light blinks
In the darkness these
creatures give meaning
to ambiguity. And
death like light also comes from above
in the noiseless whisper of an owl.
Questioning. But what is the question
anyway? Is it about day
breaking hours from now? Or about
dreams I’ve been having lately
figuratively filled with people
just like me that disappear in light.
“Think something,” I say to myself
and wander off to bed.
The action here is simple: switch off the light and go to bed. In between, we have a kind of infinity with just enough realness—some mice, an owl, a light in which people disappear—to give “meaning to ambiguity.” Gavin speaks in plain, simple voices about the most outlandish propositions. In “Where the Bones” he writes: “Where the bones come out of the earth,/ at the intersection of longing and desire;/ they don’t look like bones at all first,/ but on closer examination they measure/ the stories we hope to tell in some future.” Gavin is also lyrical in his very original images with phrasing such as “duck’s down sky” and “the wind dodged down/ the road like a small bird.”
One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Changing Owners”:
The blue sky is more vivid
like dreams become more vivid
as we age. They have a smell
almost a dream scent somehow.
Calling coyotes, if all is right,
to yip and howl up the hill,
and when all are gathered,
rush through the wood, owned
only by them, and into the deserted
streets of this town; that thinks it’s
civilized, and is owned too, by
the darkness and the dim glow
of a streetlight moon, and the sound
of something, a cottontail maybe,
or maybe a cat, suffering
for a moment before
This poem is for coyotes who make their own calls to each other, their yips and howls. We can build a thousand houses. It is still not our world. It is not our sky. It is not our water. How do we begin to mend the harmony? Well, an apology would be nice. In “Tired of What is Beautiful” Gavin observes, “Three deer slowly eat their way/ through the garden. The Cooper’s/ hawk glares at me from a low branch./ Its eyes describe contempt for any creature/ incapable of flight./ I sit here watching/ for so long this afternoon/ I feel I might blossom. The truth/ remains hidden in time as it passes./ In the shade that moves/ with the sun measuring nothing/ that matters to the deer/ or the hawk, or the basswood,/ or me. I’m sorry is all I can think/ to say, sorry.”
Sometimes it helps to substitute a word now and then. It’s illuminating to replace “sky” with “poetry” the way one might replace “stone” with “life.” Gavin’s collection, Stone and Sky–perhaps other words for Life and Poetry–brings us closer to a world that is oddly right outside our door, yet a thousand miles away from our couches. And poetry, or “sky” as he calls it in the title poem, “is our only hope/ for what will pass as salvation./ It is the vessel eternity escapes/ into.”
Barrett Warner’s poetry has appeared in Gargoyle, Comstock Review, Natural Bridge, Freshwater, Quarter After Eight, and others. His chapbook Til I’m Blue in the Face was published by Tropos Press.