Old Heart

by Stanley Plumly
W.W. Norton 2007
Reviewed by Mike McDonough


John Keats, Meet Ted Williams 

old heartThe poems in Stanley Plumly’s National Book Award nominee, Old Heart, are a series of masterful suspensions. I don’t mean something static. I’m thinking more structural, like a bridge where tension and compression are held in such balance that the only possible movement is vibration. It’s as if the forward push of the ego were momentarily shocked by an encounter with time, transfixed or impaled like a hooked fish, or in this case, a shot crow:

                        The killed crow fell the sixty feet in seconds,
                        less, though in the while it took
                        to find it, it had moved. My mother,
                        alive in the machine, becalmed on hard white sheets,
                        the narrative of legs, arms, animal centers stilled,
                        some starlight in the mind glittering off
                        and on, couldn’t tell me
                        whether or not to leave her.

Crow, mother, and son are all transfixed by their encounter with time. The mother is stilled but unable to die. The son cannot reach out to his mother, as he can find nothing of her to hold on to. In the face of such shock, only the crow is able to move, to hide (even already “killed”!) The speaker is not as much cold or removed, but suspended, unable to move but very much ENGAGED. It is a situation so fraught that any overt judgment or summation would seem unwarranted. Emotion is not brooded over, but held taut by the poet’s solid attention to the bedrock of nature. Plumly’s poems witness that we are shocked out of ourselves by the fact of mortality. For Plumly, as for Stevens and Keats, “death is the mother of beauty.” But Plumly modifies the Keatsian “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” by reminding us, “truth first, then beauty.” Or, as Mark Twain put it, “Meat first, then spoon vittles to top off on.”

Ever since Keats alerted us to the idea of negative capability, western poetry has been troubled by what Pound called “the lyrical interference of the ego.” It keeps English majors busy, but to me it’s a truism that, as Keats put it, “we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us” and that we dislike “to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist.” Plumly has taken Keats’ classic strafing of Wordsworth to heart. He strives for a hopeful disinterestedness without resorting to a trendy use of Buddhist or overtly religious tropes, or sounding too self-satisfied. No journal entries here. Plumly is pretty sure that much of his daily life is not worthy of poetry, but his irony is not the corrosive, self-deprecating cocktail bar John Berryman variety. It has all of Keats’ seriousness about the world as the “Vale of soul-making,” and much of Keats’ reverence for beauty. Plumly’s regard for “the spiritual world the negative of this one,” and the idea that “the soul must live / in space constructed out of nature” is sincere. For Plumly, metaphor is belief, but everything ain’t coming up roses.

“Fishing Drunk” with his father and uncle, Plumly describes two coolers, “one for fish, and one for beer and baloney,” and how the fish not kept alive for campfire consumption are “pulled in and hammered hard with a mallet” by his uncle who later “sleeps off what little’s left of the / stoned afternoon.” We are not spared the unflattering details, but Plumly doesn’t need to push the obviously vulnerable perspective of the child to ask, not without humor, “when did we fall out of the boat?” and to say at the end, in the only use of the first person in the poem, “I’m thinking we could die out here.”

In addition to the lingering death of his mother, a recurring theme in Old Heart is the early death of Plumly’s father from a heart attack.

            He went down, like a building, on his knees.
            I sat in the dark inside the feeling
            I was turning into stone, or, if I turned
            around to salt, salt crystals diamonding
            the blackouts. Silence is what you hear,
            the mouth a moon of o’s black filling up
            the body with its blood. I listened.

Again, feeling is suspended. The ego is shocked, clubbed like a pickerel into salt crystals or stone, a vibrating, drowning silence. There is none of the defiant, desperate release of the final line of James Wright’s “Saint Judas:” “I held the man for nothing in my arms.” or his revelatory redaction of Rilke: “I have wasted my life.” For Plumly, revelation comes in under the radar, the product of the attention each of us unavoidably gives to nature’s silent truth. No religious props are necessary, since as the existential blurb says, each of us “faces death alone.” The ego moves forward when the poem stops—and art or nature is not a simple consolation. As Plumly writes in “Audubon Aviary,” “art, again, indifferent to the life / inventing it.”:

            nothing will hold the moment
            save the kill. Audubon’s silences,
            his dark articulate stillnesses
            are what we have against what
            we’ll remember.

Although we seem to have traveled a long way from Keats, the distance might not be as great as we think.. Take a minor Keats poem, “In drear nighted December” (I hear you groaning, but stay with me for a moment). “The too happy, happy” brook’s

            Bubblings ne’er remember
            Apollo’s summer look
            But with a sweet forgetting
            They stay their crystal fretting,
            Never, never petting
            about the frozen time.

Keats wishes it were so for lovers:

            But were there ever any
            Writh’d not of passed joy?
            The feel of not to feel it,
            When there is none to heal it,
            Nor numbed sense to steel it,
            was never said in rhyme.

Plumly’s silences, stony or stoned, can be read as an effort to supply this kind of lack. And the best part about Plumly’s poems is that the same impersonality that turns emotion into salt crystals ensures that the compensating beauty is often described with a remarkable and refreshing lack of fret. Plumly’s poems make it easier to imagine the kind of poems Keats might have written if he had the luxury of growing old. “Greensboro Campus Sonnet” describes a gentler moment when the ego is startled, or simply embarrassed into the moment:

            those seconds that the couple’s kissing lasts,
            an embarrassment of riches, so you look away,
            then back, until by itself looking makes its
            judgment: joy, then awkwardness, some sentence
            in the mind interrupted.

Again, the speaker is alone, but not alienated. The personal reaction to this loaded scene suspends without comment (the poem’s in the second person after all). Even judgment is an interrupted sentence. The moment when an aging man might vicariously regret his embarrassing loss of passion and power is put aside. Only then can the poem work back to what it finds at hand:

            first crocuses and the lavender called redbud,
            stunning girls with Walkmans wired and skating,
            and heraldry of diamond shapes of birds against
            the shielded, shielding brightness of the sky.

Here are Keats’ Attic shapes who are still “friend to man,” even “When old age shall this generation waste,” as the poem works toward a hopeful tone:

            And old and loving rain thinking of starting,
            whose scent is on the air, invisible flowering,
            And yellow, then the red dress of the sun.
            Love’s cracked, healed-over cup full at the lip.

This is as good an update as any to “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I particularly like “Love’s cracked healed-over cup,” because nobody can get through Love’s battles without a split lip and lots of Superglue. As good as he is, Plumly never flaunts profundity.

There is a lifetime of low-key mastery here, and by the time you read this review, Stanley Plumly may already have won the NBA. When I think of the kind of work that should win such Oscarish awards, I tend to look for something that, without pandering to trends, insists on being heard RIGHT NOW, like Christopher Logue’s War Music, his ambitious adaptation of The Illiad. Since I don’t see anything that earth shaking in the list of nominees, I’m not going to pretend to have the inside skinny this year. But work as appealingly modest and well crafted as Plumly’s could lead me to recalibrate my seismometer. It may already have done so.