James Longenbach: The Iron Key

Michele Balze

James Longenbach: The Iron Key
by James Longenbach
W.W. Norton

James Longenbach’s collection of poetry, The Iron Key, follows two previous collections, Threshold and Fleet River.  Of Fleet River, I am most familiar.  That being said, while I have studied literary criticism with the poet, I have not studied the writing of poetry with him, though I have read his work and heard him read, certainly.  In that light, this review will examine the book, The Iron Key, in a way that might be familiar.  To show part of what I have learned from my teacher, I will briefly examine three poems from the collection.  These would be the opening poem, the titular poem, and the final poem. Since this is a review, I will reach no particular conclusion here, but instead suggest that this book is the work of a mature poet who seems concerned with processes of memory and forgetting. 

The opening poem, “Knowledge,” explores a series of philosophical questions grounded in atmospheric particulars, but reveals nothing in particular, a fitting opening for a book of poetry  For example, in the second stanza, we read: 

How the sun brings day by spreading light across the sky,
How night covers the earth in darkness
To reveal the stars, the planets

The italics of the opening stanzas resolve into plain text only to state: “Here, what’s left of the lost book On Knowledge ends.”  This line bears several re-readings and evokes, oddly, the work of Adrienne Rich.  This, too, is where questioning begins in earnest: 

Where was I born?
Where was I when my mother fell?
When Gail died?

Ultimately, however, the poem resolves only into a lapse in consciousness.  The last stanza’s three lines read:

New Jersey.

Instead of answering the questions posed with more particulars, the voice of the poem shuts down, easing into a reverie that, one could suppose, engenders the text that follows.

The titular poem, “The Iron Key,” follows the first poem closely, and, like the opening poem, suggests that answers will be provided, but provides none.  The poem is essentially a narrative poem, written in what appears to be conventional lyrical stanzas, that, nonetheless turns into an exploration of the choices a poetic consciousness might make in writing such a poem.  In the third stanza, the authorial “I” interjects: 

I added things that should have been there, a harpsichord.
I deleted what seemed mysteriously out of place.
Once, after I fell against my father’s palette,
He had to scrub the paint from my hair.

While this passage seems to delve into the territory of the confessional, the poem is, for the most part, the story of “Mrs. Hunter” for whom the poetic voice expresses an imaginative interest: “Her house was where I lived in my mind” (15).  The last stanza reveals that “The Iron Key” of the title, if it is a physical key, never belongs to the speaker of the poem.  Instead, as the last two lines state, “I stepped into my mind. /I bought Mrs. Hunter a key” (15).  Consequently, the physical key of the poem functions, not as an actual key to the poem, but as an item purchased and given away.  In the end, “the key” reveals nothing in particular about the speaker.

The collection ends with “On Beauty” which, like many of the other poems in the collection, explores the poet’s interest in the visual.  Like “The Iron Key,” this poem is an ars poetica of sorts, an investigation of what it means to write poetry.  Just as “Knowledge” was a fitting way to begin the book, “On Beauty” is a fitting way to end.  While all the poem’s stanzas are profoundly visual and use visual comparison to underscore this, the penultimate stanza comes closest to philosophy.  It reads: 

Our capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful
Survives, unlike beauty,
Amid the harshest distractions.
For white and yellow against green

This philosophical meditation, though brief, transitions into the next stanza, where it resolves back into the quotidian scene of decorating Easter eggs that precedes it.  The last three lines of the poem end the book in this fashion: 

Dip the egg in yellow dye, dry it, mark it
With wax again, clear paraffin,
Then submerge it in blue.

In order to describe the process of decoration, the poet must understand it.  Less obviously, the poet compares this process, in this poem on beauty, to the process of writing.

The Iron Key is not a key at all, nor should any book of poetry be one.  Perhaps that is why the cover of the hardback edition shows the book’s title written on a slip of paper within a bell jar.  Throughout the collection’s poems there are the expected echoes of Yeats, Pound, and Lowell.  There are also the expected references to Italy, war, and painting.  To me, at least, there are also familiar echoes of the critic’s voice in reference to the “usefulness” of poetry and the adherence to the credo that one need not make poetry do what it cannot do well.  To list these things is not to be dispassionate about the work, but to remark on the reassuring consistency of a poetic and critical consciousness that is the mark, I think, of a lasting and deserved reputation.  After all, part of the mystery and pleasure of poetry is that one can read a great deal of it and still know little about the poet himself.  There begins criticism.

Michele Balze is the 1989 winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize.  She has taught writing and literature at University of Rochester, University of Maryland, and University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

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