Jonathan Galassi: Left-Handed; John FitzGerald: The Mind; David St. John: The Aurorasby Galassi, FitzGerald, and St. John (Omnibus)0000
“Men at forty,” as Donald Justice wrote, learn to turn their backs, or close doors—“softly”— on youth and long-passed opportunities as part of their accommodation to a life of mortgages, the body’s increasing betrayals, and other failures of middle age. Perhaps the most painful of these stem from love and marriage, as well as the domestic life that sometimes confines men as inescapably as it does women, though the emotional content of poems that are mirror-images of Justice’s abound too—just pick up any journal and let your eyes fall on lines exulting in “parenthood at fifty.” (Or sixty.)
Not that my gender is innocent of producing lame, unmusical domestic anecdotes. I suspect that we see fewer such efforts in print because male and female editors laugh them off the table, whereas their response to The Male Mid-Life Crisis Poem, and the resultant period style, tends to be more respectful. Sir Stephen Spender has remarked that such periods have shrunk from twenty to five years—ten at most. I won’t bore you with the litany of “movements” that have occurred since the middle of the last century, but will only warn that the speed at which we are living often precludes reading anything but the newest, and our sense of history is disappearing.
While all three of the poets under discussion here—Jonathan Galassi, John FitzGerald, and David St. John—are obviously conversant with the work being done in our own time, each offers a solution: looking beyond it for predecessors to infuse, confuse, or reject. In the case of Galassi’s Left-Handed, we read of a wrestling match akin to Jacob’s with the angel, and a double-header at that: the longtime presence of Eugenio Montale in the life of a man renowned for translating him, among other things, but not for publicly wrangling with his own heart’s desires and their mutability. In “Leaving a Dove,” subtitled “Ely Cathedral,” for example, Galassi tells us that the bird
…has landed me
among headstones, under spires where the sky nests.
Dawns and lights in air: I’ve loved the sun,
color of honey, now I crave the dark
I want smoldering fire, this tomb
that doesn’t soar, your stare that dares it to.
(Collected Poems, 1999)
Note the riven longing and lyricism, and also the use of rhyme, both perfect and slant. “Spire,” “sky,” and “air” urge us upward, as if toward the title’s dove—which, perversely, has “landed” the poet—or magnificent Norman Cathedral’s towers themselves, but “fire,” “stare,” and “dare” plunge the reader toward that tomb, earthbound and yet potentially transcendent if . . . if what? Here lie, so to speak, already the central urge and urgency of Left-Handed: a love that “dared” not speak its name for many years, and then with results many of us could not withstand; yet Galassi also “dares” repudiate the man who done him wrong: “You never knew me and you never will,” he writes in the opening section “A Clean Slate.”
Descent to the demotic—among my favorite half-rhymes in Left-Handed appears in “The Scarf,” where the dream once held dear becomes a “contraption / for unhappiness”—doesn’t negate the highly serious nature of Galassi’s choice: “Lie to yourself about this and you will / forever lie about everything,” writes Frank Bidart—one of those Galassi has published during his long and estimable career not only as translator but editor—in “Queer.” Galassi’s decision to cease deception about “everything,” and to publish the poems that read like a fever chart of throbbing between erotic enthrallment—which is hardly portrayed as liberating except as an act of truth—and family life results in a book of closure and disclosure, but nothing “sinister”—the archaic term from heraldry that refers to the “left-handed” side of the coat of arms, at least from the bearer’s point of view—in the sense of inhuman cruelty or evil appears here. And what must be born[e], and result from that difficult carriage, is ultimately Galassi’s cry toward the heavens that Montale’s cathedral arches toward.
If John FitzGerald’s earlier work shows Berryman’s influence, he comes strongly into his own with The Mind. Like Galassi’s third collection, its has its own tomb-like depths and angelic heights. The book indicates FitzGerald’s early in saturation in Rilke, one of whose New Poems  is titled “The Cathedral,” and has a flight and plummet not dissimilar to “Leaving a Dove.”
FitzGerald’s sensibility is riven not only between the here and the not-here, the concrete and the abstract, but also ancestry. While his name draws the very map of Ireland, Italy once again enters into the equation, as do, so to speak, numbers: these, not titles, which are given only to the book’s eleven sections, identify The Mind’s poems, which gradually reveal, sometimes litanically, the age of his father and his grandfather at death, his own terrifying experience with a collapsed lung, and even rules. In “Sixty,” he writes, they are “dreams,” and “like everything, [grow].”
What? Did you think the rules never changed?
Well, I might bend them before your eyes.
Rules are something I can get into.
Collections of words are my forte.
Some might come up again a little later.
But for now, by choice, I still abide.
Choice is also easily numbered.
The two choices here are delete or revise.
FitzGerald is far too intelligent not to know that “forte,” a term from fencing, is pronounced with a silent “e”: there is much silence in The Mind—note the white space between the tercets—and as for “forte,” think of where the angels came to visit Rilke. Duino Tower was originally a “fortification,” of course, yet what FitzGerald longs for are the angelic visitations that wrested the famous “Elegies” from the former poet and might beat back into unconsciousness the demonic fears that “manifest in body.”
My favorite two poems in the book are the duo of endings: both offer hope chastened by experience. “Eighty-eight” and “Eighty-nine” limn the the possibility of new beginnings, which yes, is intertwined with terror in Rilke’s angels—”inasmuch as hell survives, we grow attached to other people”—but by this point, we know that FitzGerald’s salvation has been found in earthly form, and if part of that “form” is human, the other art is poetry of the highest—and bravest—order:
Regaining the center is anticlimactic, like finding the end of a rope.
A complication of untangling.
Lost remain the only way to find.
But no need to search for a known location.
Simply go back the way you came.
Except on return the path looks different.
So, run off and start your own religion,
wherein mindsong can make a tree sigh just in passing.
Let us question each verse till it shows us.
St. John’s newest collection, arguably the strongest of his career—his first, Hush (1976) was selected by Galassi to begin Houghton-Mifflin’s New Poets Series—bears a title that flickers to mind Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn”: his aurora borealis, snake-like “form[s] gulping after formlessness,” threaten any imaginative construct the poet might hold against the “autumnal,” i.e. mortality. But consider also their resemblance to celestial or demonic harbingers, and St. John’s The Angels Come Toward Us (White Pine) in which his own flight takes place in circular and musical through essays and interviews, each revelatory of the fragments he has continued to shore against horror and doom.
I have seen the Northern Lights once, in late-August Vermont, where I met St. John nearly thirty years ago—Justice, St. John’s teacher and mine, was present as well—and immediately recognized myself to be in the presence of a two modern masters not only of the art and craft of poetry, but also of pedagogy. Their sources? An attunement to beauty, whether literary, visual, or musical; listening to people; and travel—especially the latter in St. John’s case, with Italy still a strong presence in The Auroras. Its suns are blistering, Mediterranean, and hang over Eliotic deserts replete with dry bones; the nerves of the women here, one suspects, are always “bad tonight.” From Eliot to Dante, between them the ghosts of Botticelli, Pasolini and, just up the road in the south of France, Scott Fitzgerald. These last two rev their engines off-stage with a hearse driver.
Three poets. Thirty years. But, gods willing, no final collections here, St. John’s a definitively ongoing look, divided into a trio of sections, ending with the twelve-part sequence “The Auroras,” punctuated and ending with a complex message:
If death has a form, it is the form of departure. If death has a form,
it is lit by darkness. Everything we’ve looked for all these years,everything together we’ve called necessity of invention, any syllable & symbol, everything penetrating and luminous or prodigious desire,every carved line on every page has emptied into this flesh, this flashof revelation, this form which has no memory, which is our dark, the form
of dark, & darkness in its final form.
“Departure” implies arrival. “Lit by darkness” implies our human trinity made one when an entire six-line sentence aboutwriting follows: the flesh, soul, and heart re-filled by what it is has “desire[d] to make, i.e poesis. Ink—of the purest ebon—and not brushstrokes are implied; but if among the few of St. John’s loves who doesn’t appear in The Auroras, Caravaggio continues to be absorbed into St. John’s body of work. Chiaroscuro, anyone?
Diann Blakely is the author of three books of poetry as well as an editor, essayist, and reviewer. She has taught at Belmont University, Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, Watkins Arts Institute, and also served as the first poet-in-residence at the Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tennessee. A Robert Frost Fellow at Bread Loaf, she was a Dakin Williams Fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Blakely has been anthologized in numerous volumes, including Best American Poetry 2003 and Pushcart Prize Anthologies XIX and XX.