Sometimes literature, like love, comes with gratuitous unexpectedness, at first or second sight, at precisely the appropriate moment. On my desk are three poetry collections by David Middleton: The Burning Fields (1991), Beyond the Chandeleurs (1999) and The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet (2005), all published by Louisiana State University Press. Here is a poet rooted in place – his native Louisiana – and in tradition. Often Middleton dedicates his poems and books to relatives, friends and mentors – Andrew Lytle, Donald Stanford, Eric Voegelin, his parents and grandparents, John Finlay and R.L. Barth. I’ve written before about the Alabama-born Finlay, who died of AIDS in 1991 at age fifty, and Middleton’s editing of Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay (1992). In it, he notes that among Finlay’s “heroes of the mind” were Odysseus, Oedipus, Solon, “the exiled Ovid,” “a Benedictine monk,” Johnson, Audubon, Henry James and Sherlock Holmes -- a worthy gathering. In Beyond the Chandeleurs, Middleton includes “For John Finlay (1941-1991),” a moving tribute to a friend, fellow poet and friendship itself:
“I met you on Good Friday at the wedding
Of a friend, and struck by your strong voice, broad
Forehead, wiry build, and penetrating mind
Determined to know you better.
In Baton Rouge, we read each other’s poems
Testing the rhythms, images, and rhymes,
Struggling to master this greatest of all crafts,
Craving the grace of one perfected page.
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.
Both natives of the South trying to reclaim
Something of Greece and Christendom, we’d walk
To the Union from our desks in Allen Hall
Talking of Homer, Dante, Winters, Tate,
A `Stanford’ or a `Simpson’ Southern Review,
Finding ourselves as poets and as friends
There, at LSU, in those sweet-olive days,
Summer seeming endless in sunlit colonnades.”
This confirms my experience of friendship – its serendipity and unlikelihood, never a goal to be sought but a prize freely given. Often poets are savagely competitive, less sensitive plants than unmannerly carnivores. With Finlay, Middleton says, he shares a dedication to “this greatest of all crafts.” They crave “the grace of one perfected page.” Perhaps “the mind is weak” is a reversal of the customary old saw: “The mind is willing but the flesh is weak.” And how often do we meet someone who prizes both “blunt [Samuel] Johnson” and “the nuances of [Henry] James?” See Middleton’s remembrance of his friend published in his church newsletter last April:
“His mother told me that in his last moments he seemed to see a figure coming from beyond this life as a guide (like Dante’s Virgil) to lead him home to God. His last word, spoken as a question, was `Plato?’ Those of us who knew the depth of John’s Christian faith and who also knew how much he loved Greek literature and thought are convinced that `Plato’ was sent as a guide to take John, not to the Greeks’ Elysian Fields but to Christ Our Redeemer in Heaven. (Raised a Southern Baptist, John was an Episcopalian from the early 1960s until 1980, the years of the beginning of his maturation as a poet and an essayist. He was Roman Catholic from Easter of 1980 until his death.)”