by Christopher Patton
Vehicule Press 2007
Reviewed by Scott Hightower


The Willed Form of a Steady New Voice


patton cover

Unlike many souped-up books where the language of the poems is over-modified for higher performance, Christopher Patton’s new book Ox is artful, intelligent and substantial. It is a refreshing and generous first book from a very steady-eyed, steady-handed, steady-minded new poet.

Though decorously undecorated, Patton’s poetry is carefully constructed. He begins with heaps of interesting, carefully selected images of the usual physical world.  He then segues out into the realm of a zenful consideration.   But the point of view here is substantial to the poems, not a mere stylistic decoration.

Poetry is the domain of transformation.  In one valence, the Concrete world gets shifted into images and into the vowels and consonants of human speech.  In one of Patton’s poems, red maple leaves become the residual red paper confetti of an inauguration; a weeping willow becomes anthropomorphized into a disheveled queen searching haltingly through her sorrows to tell her tale to her chastened, emerging buds.

In another valence, the Abstract world also gets shifted into the human abstraction of language. 

Both the valences (the Concrete and the Abstract) undulating, separating, and braiding together make up poetry, a reflection of the broadband of human Reality. Patton does it very well:

                        the dull green bud
           that comes, father blares
    blood-red alarms, though his war
                is over. Rose, a cousin,
                visits, but not often.
           After she has cleaned and cooked
    for them, she spreads a lurid whorl,
           then full, seeding hips; when he invokes
                a military rationale,
                she slams her farewell.

                                …the heart
                that was hurt, will hurt.
                                                         (from “Hawthorne”)

Patton circles and hovers over the existential profundity of human passion.  Abstract human emotions like Grief and Love exist in the moment, like the poison of a bee sting or the yellow streak of newly minted pollen. Abstract and concrete gestures are assembled; and, through thought and language, disassembled. The reverse is also true.

A singular bee is not merely gifted with venom as a defense mechanism. 

In another scale, a bee is a poison-loaded predator who hurts and gathers game that her hive’s hexagons might be filled and the offspring there flourish. In time, her being, too, will be another desiccated corpse impassionately cleaned from the hive:

            A bee moves with a lone soul’s
    ease: like a pendulum unhinged undulates
    back to the hive. And it will hurt, as
            a flame hurts the edge of a chart
            of shoals, when one who was apart
                comes to fill his prison’s
                paper hexagons
                    with nectar the cells
                    will hold, though it kills.
                                            (from “Poisoned”)

The imprisonment (by paper, by geometry, by received forms), the burning hurt, the chart of shoals is rife ground for Zenful, poetic mediation. 

Patton also visits the zen tropes of worms and oxen; lambs, lions, and eagles; gardens, fields, seeds, and weeds; wine; rivers; journeys, fences, and gates; flags and bells.  In this sample, a spade striking a rock forms the bell:

         Death-knell in a hole-wall. Rang the spade bell, two,
        three, chring of rock in soil. Treeplanting.
        Levered load up and bore
        a bit to left; turned, heft fell.
        Knelt to sleuth for a lost self. No self. A worm-
        half laughed. Felt-soft burns in the leaf-halls. A form
        falls away in a spall
        of lame or will––I follow halting to––see it through––

                                                                   (#21, “Weed, Flower, Mind”)

Ox is a first-rate first book from a steady-voiced, capable new poet.