Review by Carmen Germain
THE LONG VIEW JUST KEEPS TREADING WATER
by James Doyle
c/o Katerina Stoykova-Klemer
P.O. Box 910456
Lexington, KY 40591-0456
2012, 91 pp., $12.00
It’s the middle of October in northwest British Columbia, fog burning off the Kispiox river by 2:00 p.m., sky bouncing light off the bright yellow of the bush, goldengrove unleaving. No phone, no Internet—our battery-operated radio bringing CBC’s The World at Six, focusing on the National Hockey League strike. The hellish mosquitoes have retreated to their swamps, and the tiny black flies are furious, the rich dish of my face screened by fine green netting while I’m outside working. I’ve packed The Long View Just Keeps Treading Water, by James Doyle, all distractions that get in the way of deep reading left behind in another place. I’ll spend quiet evenings in a cedar-walled house a deep and muddy klick from the main road, and I’ll get to spend some of those nights reading these poems.
The Long View Just Keeps Treading Water was chosen by Katerina Stoykova-Klemer as the Editor’s Choice award winner for the 2011 Accents Publishing International Poetry Book Contest. Stoykova-Klemer is an editor I was familiar with through an anthology published in 2010, Bigger Than They Appear: An Anthology of Short Poems, each piece consisting of fifty words or less. How many of us have received a contributor’s copy with a handwritten post-it note saying, “Dear (your name here): I hope you love these poems as much as I do.” I appreciate that kind of close attention. I knew the Editor’s Choice award would be decided by one who loved her work and wanted others to read work she loved.
The Long View Just Keeps Treading Water takes the measure of human history against geologic time. The book is organized so we aren’t staggered by the imponderables—how we take our place in line. In the sequencing of these lyrical poems, we have room to breathe. Lighter interludes diversify the collection, as in “The Devil’s in the Details” where book lust lives up to its name, or “Taking Tea,” where the stereotype of the English fusty class is described in beige passion. There are coming-to-terms poems, such as “Directions to the Afterworld” and “Fossil Rooms.” The poems balance each other, and the Great Wallendas don’t collapse.
What nags some poets on interminable constellation-wheeling nights is which poem should begin a book. Which should serve as the introduction to the work? The surrealist-collage artists had the right idea, for surrealist-collage artists, and perhaps some poets: let the strings fall on the canvas as they will and work with the serendipitous. And we could argue that how to order poems is an invented problem; positioning doesn’t matter. “In the Woods,” the beginning poem of The Long View Just Keeps Treading Water, subverts logic (“Underneath / the mascara, the wallpaper crawled with clowns”) and is a retelling of literary forms in a contemporary milieu. It’s enjoyable, but a different choice would have better served as prologue.
The poem comments on the recycling of our pairings (brothers and sisters) and couplings (mates and lovers) familiar from popular fiction, folk tales, and literature (Hansel and Gretel, Dick and Jane, Helen and Paris), “a trail of apple cores / behind them as far back as the beginning.” The first poem thus introduces readers to the long view—looking backward, looking forward, how “It’s one big circus in here all the time,” and we’re not out of the woods yet. Richard Collins writes about Doyle’s work, “It is not so much that the humor is dark; rather, for Doyle, the darkness is humorous. The laughter is the key,” but a different key would have clicked better to open the book.
A few poems later, I was rewarded. “It’s Still the Same Old Story” reminds us that no future is certain, that happiness is tied to luck, and that happenstance determines a random maybe-it-is, maybe-it-isn’t future:
A sailor props his bicycle
against a tree and swims out
into the only ocean within arms’
reach. The exact lady for him
is starting out from the opposite
shore. They will meet by chance
in the middle. In the place called
Neptune’s Gold Teeth, where sunlight
crusts in the mouths of sharks.
The opening lines reveal an unfolding story, one that keeps us reading, and where the sailor and his lady meet, no matter how lucky the meeting, there is no peaceable kingdom. “Crusts” also describes the light as crisp and hard, as threatening as the jaws of sharks.
They will hold hands and tread
water together. The waves will lift
or lower them 50 feet at a time.
Just when they are getting to know
each other, they will drown.
The lines echo the book’s title: if treading water means keeping above the waves, floating, not sinking, treading is surviving. But Doyle doesn’t let us take this for granted. The monosyllabic “they will drown” slows our reading to emphasize that nothing is certain. Other possibilities are always plumb: “But/ the couple, of course, can’t see/ the future, so they keep going/….And maybe they/ never meet, just miss as so/ often happens in mid-ocean.” The poem asks us to consider the chance we won’t find who (or what) will lead to the most satisfying life we could enjoy. How would we know what life we’ve missed?
. . . They each
emerge on the opposite shore,
lie around on the sand a few
years like driftwood, open a curio
shop. They think to themselves
how rich their lives are, how
nothing is missing. Then one day
each walks into the other’s shop.
Which is it—a life that could have been or a life that is? If we believe we are content, does the distinction make any difference? If the lines “They each / emerge on the opposite shore” are glossed over, the poem reads like a more sophisticated version of Sleepless in Seattle: two people find each other, at last. But here, they don’t. The sailor’s shop is on one coast, an ocean away from the shop of “the exact lady for him” on the opposite coast. The irony of the ending is enhanced by the poem’s title, a lyric from As Time Goes By. “Play it, Sam,” Ilsa asks. And Rick can’t believe what the gods arranged: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” as random as two people swimming the ocean toward each other. A case of do or die.
In “Pacific Warfare,” the ocean is the keeper of war memorials, harvesting bones of the war dead, both sides lost in that sea who perished taking or defending those islands “tentative / as a bead of smoke, enduring as a shard of marble.” The poet recounts “every marine who didn’t make it to shore.” I think of stories my father told me, how terrified he was, farm boy from the Upper Midwest dangling above the ocean off Papua New Guinea, horizontal to the troop ship, heavy pack hanging off his shoulders, seasick to death. An unseen sailor leaned over the side of the deck, called down to him, “Keep coming, keep coming, keep coming—you’re almost here,” the voice that saved his life.
And Doyle has journeyed to these islands—Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Guadalcanal—as a pilgrim:
I walked the beaches of World War II, white
sand now, a twist of dark clots then—abandoned
guns, limbs, shells. The indentations in the sand
seemed to me the hand and knee prints of some
marine crawling over his own body toward
a random bivouac of driftwood or bone.
Each image stands as testament to all this death. “So many,” my father recalled, “they had to load them in 6 x 6’s,” and the enjambment following “guns, limbs, shells” forces attention to the human lives entangled in the hardware of war.
I swam in currents where the enemy soldiers
used camouflage nets as seines for fishing,
where every marine who didn’t make the shore
still treads water forty feet down,
where troop carriers and helmets have been cooling
into their twisted molds for sixty years now.
Treading water no longer ensures staying afloat, keeping stable, keeping life. Underwater move the dead, in the current of more than half a century. Other images merge Japanese soldiers and Japanese fishermen, the troops using camouflage nets for fishing, previous lives rising through the fog of war. We thus learn the reason for Doyle’s journey: “On the flight home/ from my pilgrimage, the ocean beneath my plane/ never seemed to run out. Everywhere it held/ the cells of my grandfather in trust for me.” The grandfather, then, is one of the citizen-warriors, alive when the time was out of joint. His grandson, now at an age beyond war fighting, comes as witness.
Tonight I listen on my radio to CBC’s Ideas. Fifty years ago sociologists taught that as secularism in the modern world became more prevalent, religious ideation would wither away, but in fact, the opposite has happened. More thinking people, notably those at least a twenty-four hour plane trip from here, are embracing multiple traditions and using what works best from each, religious thought becoming more flexible, more open—a view of the world that can be placed beside other views as equal. I was reminded of Doyle’s title poem, “The Long View Just Keeps Treading Water,” how stagnation set in when “The priests nailed down the island/. . . turning the years/ around the pole/ of the long dead,” the salted keepers of one-way tradition sleeping through their own demise, not noticing “residue/ of hymns worn thinner and thinner/ by the constant trade winds.” For belief to survive and thrive, the priests needed to open their faith beyond isolated-island thinking. History, then, is the narrator of the poem: “Decades passed. God/ appeared occasionally . . . . The priests expired one/ by one, carelessly/ let the island grow over them.”
Even with “all that faith to shore it up,/ daily missionaries, imported/ statues fresh from Easter Island,” they still brought doom to their island: “Those great stone faces, barely/ above water, now. Wild/ new gods crowding the death beds.” The image is reminiscent of Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” And as with some of Yeats’ poems, island imagery and desert imagery weave among poems in Doyle’s work; here sharks blend easily into their skeletons “with the same intent eyes dead/ or alive.”
Doyle’s work frequently reminds us that we move our skeletons through the space our living bodies occupy, but this is not a reason to dwell in dark hours. He gives us an alternative: even if one thinks she’s not a gambler, to live a full life is to gamble with risk.
We see this view most strongly in “Joshua Trees.” The first stanza, a cumulative sentence rich with the games we play against ourselves, draws us in:
It is easy, romantic,
to toss small hikes
into the desert, and play
you are rolling dice on a felt table
of sand with no edges,
even when you go no farther from the edge
than three or four hours
and make sure that edge, your way in and out,
is always a fleck
at the corner of your eye, as crisp
and readable as a compass arrow,
though all else—rises of scrub brush, dunes,
Joshua trees kneeling at prayer, acre after acre—
disappears into heat’s gelatinous sculptures.
The beginning lines are seductive; the drama of potential danger is pleasurable if there is no risk. The ragged, longer lines, however, push into the physical space of the page, and if read aloud are a thin warning about the game—there is only one way in, one way out. We lose sight of this at our peril. The desert images that close the stanza are fluid, distant, unreliable, and “gelatinous,” but at the same time, the Joshua trees take shape from a familiar world as they appear “kneeling at prayer.”
But this is playing, not gambling.
in a gully once
I came across the skull
of a large animal. As I bent
to pick it up, I stopped myself.
My fingers were peeling
in the heat and I had the sudden dream
they would stick to the bone
and the desert would let neither of us go.
I immediately turned
and started hiking out, ashamed
at the sliver of terror
that had worked its way too far under my skin
to dislodge, but also a little proud
at going deeper into the desert
The horizon has been temporarily lost, and along with it, the safety of pretense. The desert-dry skull rests in a gully that isolates the speaker from the romance of flirting with danger. His fingers have almost grazed the bone he will become, and this is his terror. But he also confronts his personal annihilation:
If I go farther
next time, and farther the time after that,
it will be to follow
the Joshua trees. When they finish
their rosaries, they will rise
and walk into the distance,
one after another, like a line
of hooded monks at vespers
moving towards a monastery
that won’t come into sight
for days or weeks. If I walk
far enough, the shapes
of the southwest—the flagellants
peeling off their own skins
layer by layer, the hermits
with no skins but rust
or vinegar—will become clearer
and clearer. I will walk
finally into the skeleton
which has been waiting patiently for me,
because there is no death in bone,
only sun and marrow
and a grin that endures.
When and if the speaker is reconciled with his place in the continuum of history, his own “rust and vinegar,” will he follow the Joshua trees, the apparition of monks, because he believes in the final destination of that faith, which is peace? Or will the desert desiccate all questions, all answers—the final purification? Regardless of the answer, he will “walk / finally into the skeleton” because this is the way of all life. The only way.
The Long View Just Keeps Treading Water is at times jocose and irreverent, serious and complex in its play of emotions. As with all collections, not every poem is memorable, and a few of the reconciliations Doyle forges between living and extinction feel too much like whistling past the Evil Forest, but it’s a book I’m glad I brought with me. Doyle’s poems are world travelers, a gathering of wit and wisdom reminding us to keep the long view, all of us in this story together.
Carmen Germain lives in the Elwha river valley in the other Washington. Cherry Grove published These Things I Will Take with Me, and poems have appeared in Natural Bridge, New Poets of the American West, and Bigger Than They Appear, among others.