Wednesday, July 18, 2018

'Don't Let the Dead Exact Grave Cost'

Based on what they’ve already written, we come to have expectations of writers. There’s no harm in it, unless we’ve given up on the pleasures of surprise. How startling it would be if a newly discovered Nabokov novel were set in the Chicago stockyards. Given that it was Nabokov, it would likely be superior to Upton Sinclair and might prompt us to reassess his work. Every poem I have read by R.L. Barth has been about war, usually the wars in Indochina. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam. This week he sent me twenty epigrams he wrote in the early nineties and recovered from an old floppy disk. Only one of them makes a glancing mention of war. Here is “Nones: The Realization,” from a series based on the canonical hours. It’s addressed to his daughter:

“You’ll outlive us—hard thought for me,
Since, though I act wrong-headedly,
I’d spare you every kind of grief.
But longest years must prove too brief.
Don’t let the dead exact grave cost.
Learn from and love them. Know they’re lost.”

Hard wisdom every parent owes his kids. Obsolescence is built into our biology. We reproduce, educate the young, disappear. Loss is inevitable and love is preparing them for it. You get a taste of it when they go away to school, the service or a job.  You have never been truly vulnerable until you have children. A similar theme is expressed in “Mine and Yours”:

   “I try a book;
You play out front, alone.
   No use. I look:
My eyes are not my own.”

Bob is the finest epigrammatist since J.V. Cunningham. It’s an ancient form, one practiced by Martial, Jonson, Swift and Landor. Its virtues are concision, wit and, often, satirical bite. Here’s a piquantly justified jab at a one-man opioid crisis, “Reading Coleridge”:

“God bless the man from Porlock, poem pruner!
Only I wish that he’d arrived much sooner.”

We admire tight focus in writers, single-minded devotion to a handful of subjects. We also admire versatility, a willingness to take on unexpected themes. “Comprehension Test” straddles worlds:

“Here cardboard shanties for three nights express
Rich children comprehending homelessness.
Just so, assaulting Jap with B.A.R.,
At eight I knew I’d comprehended war.”

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