Wednesday, July 27, 2011

`Clean Abstract Poems in Plainest Style'

It’s a lesson rooted in long experience: When you come to suspect that all the good writers are dead and only mediocrities thrive, that contemporary literature is a vast Ponzi scheme run by con men and fools, rely on the taste of a reader you trust. Helen Pinkerton has sent me a chapbook, A Garland for John Finlay, edited by David Middleton and published by Blue Heron Press of Thibodaux, La., in 1991, the year Finlay died. It collects work by twenty poets, including some of our best – Pinkerton, Edgar Bowers, Janet Lewis. Helen writes on the title page:

“For Patrick,
Some mighty fine poems in here.

She’s right: Poems by Dick Davis, Turner Cassity, Don Stanford, Dana Gioia, R.L. Barth and others whose names or work are new to me, including Middleton, Finlay’s friend and posthumous editor. His contribution is “For John Finlay,” which includes these lines:

“Truly a man of letters who could love
Blunt Johnson and the nuances of James
And ask how that which says `the mind is weak’
Can state its law and yet transcend the same,
You wrote clean abstract poems in plainest style
And sensuous descriptions charged with thought,
Probing toward the source and end of intellect
That marks our place in all the Maker wrought.”

I like “Blunt Johnson,” itself a blunt phrase that sounds like the name of a forgotten blues singer. Middleton collects the poem in Beyond the Chandeleurs (Louisiana State University, 1999), which also includes another sort of garland, a wreath of flowers, “Embertide in Advent”:

“They waited beneath the cold December snows,
Late flowers of the fall, the folded rose,
The angels’-trumpet crumpled in the mold,
Daisies of Michaelmas, the hidden lily curled
In dust of goldenrod and marigold,
Old matter’s liturgy, a pregnant world
Out of whose star-of-Bethlehem arose
A Roman hyacinth, sweet-olive of the snows.”

In the library I found two other collections by Middleton, both published by Louisiana State University Press – The Burning Fields (1991) and The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet (2005). That latter is a beautiful piece of book design, with a reproduction of Millet’s “Little Goose Girl” on the cover. To Helen I owe my discovery of yet another good poet. Here is “Epigram,” her contribution to A Garland for John Finlay:

“And Who is God? The Is of Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob, self-begun I Am,
Actual source of act, to-be of being?
Or Eros, fluent in our veins, decreeing
Action and passion, will, truth or its sham?
`Love’’s ambiguities prevent our seeing.”

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