Issue > Book Review
David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of, most recently, This Much I Can Tell You (Black Lawrence Press) and a translation of Dante's Paradiso (Salmon Poetry). Black Lawrence also published his recent Not Alone in My Dancing. He is contributing editor for The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "Swift: New & Selected Poems" by David Baker

Swift: New & Selected Poems
Swift: New & Selected Poems
by David Baker

160 pages
W. W. Norton & Company


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The fifteen new poems of David Baker's Swift: New & Selected Poems continue in the key of his admirable 2015 collection, Scavenger Loop. The overlapping, elliptical style of evidence in that volume signified an enlargement of Baker's capacity to square poetry with experience, which comes at us, you might say, at all times (and from all times) and leaves most of us bewildered, picking over the options available for sorting, feeling, evaluating, and expressing. Baker is aware of the simultaneity of our involvements. We are all in the business of containing multitudes, but how the multivalent facts lend themselves to voicing is a question as vexing as it is real because every choice represents, as well as its subject, an accompanying mix of aesthetic, political, and ethical aspects. Baker tunes his ear to these voicings, from the inner words we say to ourselves and our intimates to the babble that paves the way to Babel. And therein lies the implied warning that "Something is coming more than we know how," behind which follows the optative mood, the counterfactuals of "if only."

Baker is a poet of the Midwest, the same Midwest that formed the imaginative ground for the early and middle work of his precursor James Wright. But whereas Wright saw Ohio as "hell," the habitat of "drunken night watchmen," and wrote of the consequences of industrial and economic blight, while exalting both the reduced dreams of workers and the mostly baggage-less serendipity of the natural world, these he set in contrast to the "heaven" of Italy, or at least an Italy of the spirit. Baker has declined to accept the premise of Wright's world. Instead, he has pursued a stylistic evolution that evokes regional transformations set within the framework that such transformations imply: the degradation of "natural resources," the opportunism that masks cupiditas as scientific management, the destiny of singular lives, the consequences of splintering. Nothing that is out there is not in here. At the same time, this is not an approving poetry. Baker does not write from the duck blind of bien pensants or drop the mic at the end of his poems. What he does do is simultaneously place his poems in time: the history of towns and families, the time signature of one's life, the almost imperceptible milling of deep time, of nature folding and unfolding.

Baker's new poems touch, several times, on a point Lowell raises: "Why not say what happened?" This direct (but hardly straightforward) question from "Epilogue," the opening poem of Lowell's last collection, has haunted more than one poet. Baker will be counting on the fact that the complexity of "what happened" lies counter to "something imagined." But Lowell's worry brings with it the anxiety that goes with wishing for "the grace of accuracy," if for no other reason than "we are poor passing facts." Lowell's line, too, recalls Larkin's dour confession that we take upon ourselves impossible missions, cockeyed beliefs through the lens of magical thinking, "if only that so many dead lie around." Baker has little use for magical thinking (he prefers the concurrent natural), but the sense that we are poor passing facts is strong, as is the imperative to be accurate, hoping that accuracy will yield its own sort of, well, grace.

But with accuracy comes difficulty, and one of the things one senses immediately in Baker's work is the poet's acceptance of difficulty and complexity as the price a poet must pay for any sort of "grace." He has himself noted that his poems have grown more difficult over the years. I take that to be a good thing, as it means, in his case, that he has engaged more and more complexity—I am tempted to say 'the complexities"—the glancing engagement of which limits the range of too many poets. This he has done both in style as well as subject. In an interview, Baker addresses the connection between complexity and difficulty: "If my poems are sometimes difficult or opaque or possessed of multiple possibilities, I hope they are this way in order to create a valid, authentic expression of the difficulty, opacity, or ambiguity of every single moment of every single life. If they reach clarity, I hope they reach clarity out of those moments of difficulty, too. I do not want my poems to evade, but often I do want my poems to suspend our need for certainty or stability."

Swift: New and Selected Poems (the title from a line of Edward Taylor's "Make Mine Affections thy Swift Flyers Neate," which also serves as the volume's epigraph) opens with "Pastoral," and that poem is a good example of Baker's mature method, as well as his evolving sense of traditional genres. "Pastoral," of course, calls to mind the ruminations of shepherds in an idealized, rural landscape. Although the poem itself is a kind of idealized field, Baker works against the grain of this tradition. Let me first quote this brief poem and follow up with comments:

Here at the center of a field of green

leaves waving center of a grief I can't

see far enough to tell how it will ease

it will not ease it goes on and on now

as yours does in sunlight and in rain

holding hands with her in the last minutes

sky so vast hear the wheat roar

The "here" is the center of a situation, not just a field. In pastoral terms, the field is the site of both dialogue and reflection, but in Baker's pastoral, there is no dialogue (although there are characters), except the speaker's words rejoined by the the rain and the roaring wheat. The situation is an admitted but unspecified grief of private origin but distanced and branching out, as if in appeal to the reader. In the narrative, the "you" holds hands with "her in the last minutes." How to picture this exactly is not given. Such specifics don't belong to the reader: we can't own it. In light of this fact, the poem may be read through several lenses simultaneously. The poem itself is a "field," of course, and the center of this field is not only the characters but their situation, which makes up the emotive center of the poem. Graphically, the poem also works according to a traditional figure-ground arrangement. There is the actual ground and the figures within; there is also the ground and the wheat. The complexity comes with the layering. We can't say with confidence to whom the poem belongs. Bits available to one are not available to all, including the reader. And yet, this is as if to say, in Elizabeth Bishop's sighing phrase, "life's like that./ Also death." But the result is not a muddy account of leave-taking and the grief that pursues, then overtakes it. Rather, it unfolds by way of contrasts and shifting perspectives, asking us to grant the wholeness of the private scene, even as we seek likeness within our own experiences, with or without referencing the template of genre. Speaking of which, pastoral here moves, as if by extension, toward elegy, as if to suggest that pastoral prepares the way for elegy. The one-on-oneness of the field and the temporal dimension in which it provides a setting feel timeless, whereas we are passing through. The wheat roars to the inner ear, and that over-the-top word—roar—signifies its own self-assertive force. The poem's imagined sound is a construct, fortified by custom to assert and carry its singularity. It is, you might say, an example of the objective treatment of a subjective event.

"Why Not Say" takes up the Lowellian challenge in a poem about the poet's father, who has "Fallen:/ and ripped aortal stenosis" and is "bruised torn bedridden taken to the brink." The poet, like James Dickey in "The Hospital Window," has "just come from my father," a descent that evokes an evolutionary brink, a point of passage from one identity to the inevitable other. There he encounters a hawk ("Of the genus Buteo, as B. harlani, as Harlan's red tail") attempting, with difficulty, to lift off from the side of the highway. What at first seems an unclear cargo is revealed to be a snake, "tubed" like his father. The difficulty of ascent with such a cargo conflates the father with nature, art with life. They are not identical, but the similarities are there, to be arrived at by the observant eye and the associational mind.

Evolution, much on the mind of the poet, is not only an evolving outward, or less plausibly upward, but a tearing. Thus, extinction, too, takes evolution ironically by the hand, as in "Early May" ("It's torn apart. it's all coming apart"). Quoting Elizabeth Kolbert, he writes, "we don't call it/ extinction...," but that's not just the politesse of euphemism. Rather, "we" don't call it that because the longer perspective and the variety of natural perspectives and layers, renders extinction, with its heavy blade, too finite a term, too unyielding a concept. Life swarms around, within, and through:

... he broke apart this volleyball-sized

chunk of coral and found living inside

more than fourteen hundred polychaete

worms belonging to 103

different species

The poem, ostensibly about dogwood petals, finds its intelligibility manifested in something remote. As Kunitz put it, we "live in the layers/ not on the litter." That said, we live in a time when litter and layers merge around us and finally, in poems. Baker's awareness of this process provides an optimal and powerful armature for a subject that would otherwise overwhelm contemplation.

This framework is very much the case in Baker's recent work, where evocation and exactitude, which have hardly been on speaking terms historically, are finally aligned. His frequent, documentary-style use of scientific taxonomies and terms only underscores the point. This approach also suggests how the regard for forms, to which he has been drawn throughout his career, evokes a sense of interchange, rather than abiding by the more conventional policies of subject and address that form otherwise implies and expects. There is no  obeisance to convention, although tumult and violence make their way through the poems.

On the one hand, there is the memory, the nostalgia, for the golden Midwest, but such images that we might expect from the Heartland he now finds under natural and human-made stress—even siege—with the coming, for example, of conglomerate agribusiness. This stress and siege play out in the recent poems by means of layering, juxtaposition, and incompletion. The focus shifts, is hard to pin down, until you realize that focus is itself an imposition, a will-to-see, whereas events are better understood as multiform. This is especially so in the poems in which human leave-taking, via death and divorce, for example, query the focus that is foundational for so much first-person poetry.

"Stolen Sonnet," part pastiche, reminds us not that a sonnet is a 14-line poem (although there are 14 more or less discrete double-half-lines), but that it's a "little song," steeped in feeling and desire. The songs quoted here belong to the Johnny Mercer of "I Remember You" and to the Jo Stafford ("see that pyramids") of "You Belong to Me," although I must add that I oddly hear this song in Bob Dylan's recent version. In either case, we are dealing with separated lovers, which accounts too for the half-lines. The final hemistichs of the poem are taken (as the helpful notes tell us) from Miller Williams ("Which is I stood and/ loved you while you slept—") concluding a poem that begins with a roundly wistful "And when my life is/ over." The opening is immediately corrected "[hush he said]"—such over-voice self-corrections appear elsewhere. It's notable that the poet reaches for another poet's lines to complete the poem, and, as one might say, the circuit. He is at a loss and brings us into the presence of that loss, not only with regard to the fact that makes the poem's occasion, but toward his own expression of it. Baker often seems to bring alternative voices (second thought) into play. Is he ambivalent? Perhaps, but only to the point that last words represent a desire more deeply understood than does the judgment that Auden numbered among the poet's duties. It's the virtue of polyphony that it registers differing voices, whether in dissonance or harmony, toward a collective end. What's more, it seems to get subjectivity right. It is to his credit that he doesn't step away from the issues surrounding representation and authenticity, with what he calls "all our needs, our goods, our ghosts."

The recent poems are of this type, instances of presentiment and loss, not set down, but placed in motion in an actual world where nature and the quotational mind trade places. In an interview from 1996, Jorie Graham refers to the "cloud chamber" effect that constitutes our manner of encountering the world, where encounter and resistance make up a dynamic that stands in contrast to the formal expectations of certainty-as-clarity in the lyric poem. Baker would have his ideal reader suspend certainty and stability in favor of the braid, the helix, and the network, all within the framework of duration, of time which "passes," not attempting to lift the poem into timelessness (which would be another name for magical thinking). This is not to suggest that he has taken leave of clarity as a goal, as the earlier work represented in Swift attests. Rather, clarity reveals itself dimensionally.

Baker's previous collection, Scavenger Loop, presented Baker in a new key, although I can't help but think it was a direction toward which he was already headed. In ambitious, interconnected poems and sequences, he set out to make work that resonated with awareness of the poet's burden to bring into relief the contingent realities of place and time, while ceding obligation to sort out their sweeping significance. They are poems where presentation supersedes representation. The long title poem is both an elegy to the poet's mother and scavenging of things, images, and notations of the changes wrought by the transformations brought on by agribusiness, with their attendant erosions to the common framework of sustenance. In this poem the wheat roars because it's on steroids and due to the radical thinning of biodiversity and habitat fragmentation, combined with often minute but nevertheless sweeping (and often incompletely understood) processes of death, decay, and disease. The poem is attuned to the great range of diction by which we disclose and conceal the conditions of ourselves in relation to the surroundings we inhabit (including our own bodies). One of these registers involves the embedding of scientific terms and often the pseudo-scientific jargon used to obscure the more disquieting features hidden in the small print. Baker contrasts the (often) self-exonerating role of dry denotation with the plain and plaintive, more immediately painful expression of personal human loss. Yet the poem begins with a town-wide rummage sale and one entrepreneurial soul who turns up a day early to "score" enough prizes to fill the maw of his CRV. From that establishment shot, the poet turns immediately to the three subjects with which he triangulates the poem: the ebb and flow of natural forces, his mother's passing, and the ascendancy of agricultural conglomeration in the Midwest. Braiding these three strands throughout reveals their strange, almost documentary interplay. Each has a "voice," and the voices alternately weave an image of a place in history, coincidental in many of its effects, yet aware of consequences each has with respect to the others. Much of the poem is quotational, as in this:

When we reduce biodiversity by breaking up the forest for our

backyards, we accidentally free undiluted disease organism[s]

to operate at full strength...


You may not be tired, but I'm tired


Night sky so fast            hear the wheat roar

But the present, heavy though it is, is not the only tense which commands out concern. There is the future, which is another name for the present's persistence.

"Five Odes on Absence" is a poem about (and not about) John Clare, the Romantic poet whose The Poems of John Clare's Madness boosted him into posthumous legend. More generally, it's a poem about erasures and codes. Clare wrote in code during his illness and his confinement to an insane asylum. He did this by dropping—erasing—vowels in letters to friends, e.g., "ppl tll m hv gt no hm n ths wrld." Baker poet quotes Mark Strand's well-known line, "Wherever I am, I am what is missing." Indeed, with "hv gt no hm," it's precisely "I" that is missing. He also references Giorgio Morandi, the Italian minimalist painter of nature morte, who approaches subject erasure in a slightly different way:

Morandi paints a bottle by painting

everything around the bottle but not

the bottle. That is how it always is.

Clare disappeared from view—and popularity, having been lauded at a young age as a peasant poet whose "wood-notes wild" led to the patronizing suspicion that he was a naïf, although in the course of his delusion he claimed to be Lord Byron. Described as "full of many strange delusions" Clare has come to strike the modern reader as supremely on point about the complications of the self—its splintering and erasures, both in terms of identity and in the course of our social lives. His famous anti-credo—"I am—yet what, none cares or knows;/ My friends forsake me like a memory lost:/ I am the self-consumer of my woes"—is as vivid a cry of self-erasure as there is in English poetry. From there he turns to a young neighbor, whose hockey puck "bangs" against a makeshift garage goal

...and three dozen grackles scatter off

the ornamental crab where they had lit.

Beautiful tree to be so full of birds.

Beautiful birds whose shape maintains a three

when they disperse.

The last detail is the important one. Baker ends the poem beautifully:

Sometimes I think the birds are shadows of

some other thing—I just can't see it well—

black, then purple, then purple turning black.

You get the picture. On a better day

Clare writes, the startles darken down the sky.

But that's the price of time's erasure, too,

sad memories of a happier life.

Ppl mk sch mstks. It isn't code...

wr r... Then what he doesn't write is you.

Death, erasure, what we don't write as opposed to erasing what we do, extinction, memories replacing moments—these add to the complexity Baker manages. And like the birds who maintain the tree's shape when they disperse, they make a figure, which is the poem. And after the poem?

Some years ago, I wrote a review of Baker's Never-Ending Birds, and I tried to draw attention to the ways he tries, what with all the layering of voice, register, image, and time, to arrive at something intelligible. This has been, in some important way, his task all along: how to wring the sense out of skepticism. In "Ditches for the Poor," he invokes the philosophers,

Language is, in itself,


skepticism, writes Levinas.

That would seem a repugnant conclusion were it not for the (virtuous) fact that the poem provides a footing, even when (sometimes especially when) we slip up, lose our place, misplace our keys, find ourselves unable to hear or to follow, juggle pain and attention. It has been the mission statement of poetry to chisel away at such loose and dead ends. Baker, by way of contrast, incorporates these things into his work and so they become facets, if not facts, of intelligibility. They accumulate, and he holds them in their relativity like an astronomer contemplating the bodies of an orrery. They are both what they are and what they might be construed as, according to the moving patterns and the values that underwrite the patterns. It is, I find, a deeply intelligent way of reconceiving the ambitions of poetry to account for the realignments under which we live and think. And worry and love. And feel. Keats' felt that a life of sensations was preferable to a life of thoughts. And yet, Baker is as thoughtful a poet as anyone writing today. It is as if his thoughts grew out of his sensations, not the other way around. The difference is a difference indeed, and Swift is a testament to its possibilities.


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