Once upon a time poems told stories about people. Think of Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” about a wandering old farmhand “worn out” and “asleep beside the stove” while a farm wife and her reluctant husband debate letting him stay for the winter. Though the poor fellow never wakes to say a word for himself, we learn enough from them for him to become a memorable character, a masterful hay bailer too simple to survive among our machinations. And who can forget Edwin Arlington Robinson’ s creation of Richard Cory? “A gentleman from sole to crown” who was “rich—yes, richer than a king” “one calm summer night,” he “went home and put a bullet through his head.” In sixteen lines Robinson seemed to write a novel.
George Drew still writes these kind of poems. In one he tries to explain “Richard Cory” to a disbelieving schoolgirl. No doubt raised in the pop psychology of our times, which offers medications and reassuring theories about suicidal depression, she doesn’t buy the darker truth of this poem from more than a hundred years ago.
She’s sweet, sixteen, and knows I’m a teacher.
Will I help her with this poem? It’s more
than just her gray, imploring eyes.
I have my pride. Of course, I say.
I start with facts:
he’s rich, has everything he could ever want,
and makes people’s pulses flutter like dollar bills.
her eyes the vacant lots I played in as a child.
Exactly, she agrees—then why would he go home
and blow his brains out? He must be nuts.
Her dimples flare. I’m thinking, She
could’ve been the girl he never had, or had and lost.
I say he is a lonely man. We lean across the page,
our shadows grappling.
How? How could he be so lonely?
Imagine, I say,
how an astronaut must feel when he first walks
across the moon, his legs so used to
being anchored to the earth.
What’s wrong with that? It’s fun.
Yes, I agree, at first. But then it’s not.
What up to then he could count on is gone:
he is alone.
Lips part, and like eyes after an eclipse,
hers widen. Vacant lots drown in the light.
The calm summer night begins to squirm.
She gets an A. I’ll never forgive myself.
This gem appears in George’s new book, The View From Jackass Hill, winner of the 2010 X.J. Poetry Prize from Texas Review Press. (By serendipitous coincidence the 2009 winner was Joshua Coben, Michael Perkins’s son-in-law.) What impresses me so much is the voice of honesty in these poems. In some George addresses us directly. In others fictional characters share their tales. But in every case the speakers know what they think. No cleverness, no evasiveness, no irony to avoid the confusion or the pain. “Irony is too easy,” appears as an epigraph in one poem, a quote drawn from Baron Wormser, a poet from Maine and George’s friend. Indeed, what matters most to George in this world that is both beautiful and broken are his friends, both those he knows well and those given to him through poems, such as John Keats. The examined life that has taught George so much is the life of someone he respects. The book concludes with a long elegy to Hayden Carruth of Vermont, surely an inspirational figure for George’s own hardscrabble New England pieces, and it begins with a series of elegies to other poets, including a three parter to Jack Wiler, whom George knew at the annual Frost Place poetry conferences in the White Mountains. I, too, learned of Jack Wiler while at Frost Place, but grew enamored with his poems because he’d been a Hoboken exterminator, a position which in that city of my young adulthood would have been like being a church deacon.
Some poems are told by personas, including a nameless member of the crowd who narrates “Blessed” and “ Cursed” about “Jimmie Crocket” and “Joseph Crocket,” two characters out of Richard Cory’s world. One is a wealthy miser who detests the Salvation Army sidewalk bell ringers at Christmas time. The other is a death row inmate who can’t stop smiling. Both poems seem to play on a movie screen in 1930s black-and-white. Elsewhere, though, the book brings us into the present by challenging the brutal follies of Iraq. And for a lighthearted change of pace, one piece wishes that Andy Warhol had applied his talent for the Campbell’s soup can to the bagel. “Whether glazed with margarine and honey,/ paved with peanut butter, or best of all,/ battered with gobs of thick cream cheese,/ they should turn the tongue hot and horny.”
Yet death and darkness predominate in these poems. Now 70ish, George has seen many good people pass, including his first wife when she was 51. But he doesn’t let sadness get the best of him. The title poem, “The View From Jackass Hill,” could be read as his credo. Jackass Hill is a real place, by the way, that he discovered while out for a run in Colorado.
The View From Jackass Hill
Tell me, why must you remind me things
are going to Hell and us along with them?
The idea of Hell scares the hell out of me,
which is why I’ve come to Jackass Hill.
From the top I can look west and have
an unobstructed view of the mostly brown
and pine tree-speckled green foothills
and farther west the snowcapped Rockies
gleaming in the sun like the odd new world
Milton’s archfiend lusted after. Sure,
I know the paradise the settlers imagined
somewhere on the other side is nothing more
than the punchline of a cosmic joke and that
the archfiend’s wings will overspread such
rosy vistas, but the temporary view beats
the hell out of a worm-riven, funky apple,
out of an archangel thug throwing us out
of some over-evaluated piece of real estate
and into everything that is going to hell
in a hand basket woven of spiders and snakes.
Imagined or not, I’ll take an Elysian Fields
anytime, and if like Milton you’d rather a
raging sulfurous Hell of dark angelic agony,
then you, my unfrocked friend, can go to hell.