so it goes: poems
by Eamon Grennan

St. Paul, Graywolf Press: 1995
83 pp., $14
ISBN: 1-55597-232-2

Review by Chris Lott

I picked up Eamon Grennan's latest book through almost sheer chance, stumbling across the volume looking for something else and taking it home only because the name seemed familiar. I later realized that it was from seeing his name a few times in the New Yorker.

Being a New Yorker reader for many years, I've been somewhat sensitive to the appelation "New Yorker Poet," as if the magazine keeps a stable of such people for exclusive use within its pages. I personally believe this label to be a misnomer; at one time or another most good poets write poems which one could imagine in the pages of the venerable magazine. If there is any truth to the idea at all, it would be more applicable to prose authors, such as John Updike and crew, who appear in practically every issue. But even this seems less than productive, since so many of these writers are so good.

All of this preamble is a preface to this simple fact about Eamon Grennan: judging from this volume, he is very much in danger of joining the mythical ranks of the New Yorker poet. This book-- apparently his fourth-- is full of competent, 20-40 line poems that are good, though not outstanding and verbally interesting, though not engaging (though all of them are a cut above the common stock of literary journals)-- in short, the style of poem that is predominant in not only the New Yorker, but Harpers, The Atlantic Monthly and most of the most prestigious and least innovative magazines.

Grennan is at his best writing poems which work their way from small objects outward, beginning with a salt-shaker, a statue or a trapped firefly. In the latter, for example, following an eqxuisite description of, and a short meditation on, a blinking firefly trapped in a screen, Grennan successfully widens the scope of the poem:

But for those moments it inhabited the dark
wired border zone between us, it seemed
as if it could be looking back at me, making
between my breath and its uncanny light
a kind of contact, almost (I want to think)
communication-- short, entirely circumscribed,
and set in true perspective by the static-riddled
big pitch dark, but still something like the way
we ourselves might telegraph our selves
in short bright telling phrases to each other:
on-off-on, then stop, the whole live busy night
a huge ear harking to the high notes
of our specific music, and to the silence that
contains it as the dark contains the light.

But these successes are, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. Too often, Grennan befriends abstraction, and the rescuing power of his undeniable linguistic skill is only enough to bring the poems into the realm of the less than lively kind of work I spoke of earlier. Even worse are the (fortunately quite rare) poems in which abstraction and prose length lines and phrasing combine to lead the poems devastatingly wide of their mark:

What's to be done with this desperate balance, this pendulum
to which even lovers are strapped in passion and doubt,
clocks ticking and seedpods clicking off our minutes? There is
no life I can put back into, Ma-- with your lipstick and rings,
your flans, fried cod and floury potatoes ...

Grennan writes of his now-dead mother in a manner that is sadly dead itself, and then proceeds to outdo himself with a crude nature-link at the end of the same poem:

... Now, here,
a sudden storm starts to clear the air, turning trees
heavy, impenetrable, with a novel green light, and I see
there's neither going back nor going forward, only this
running in place as usual, trying to see more deeply in.

The idea of the poem is moving, but the language and execution doesn't move at all.

These moments occur often enough, though by no means do they predominate. In fact, it may be that these transgressions seem so severe because they are often sandwiched between some truly accomplished pieces. The real danger lies not in any specific failures, but in the fact that there is an audience so hungry for good work that even these poems will suffice; people are so bombarded nowadays with poems that are grossly incompetent, that even Grennan's poorer efforts are superior, particularly with only a quick read. This kind of uncritical acceptance is not specific to poetry... in music, artists who are very dexterous and technically outstanding on their instruments garner large audiences, thus reinforcing the production of work that lacks true artistic "feel" or "heart," or any of the things which make the products into arts rather than crafts.

It would be a great loss of a poet as fine as Eamon Grennan were to get lost down that path-- which might lead to continual publication and even considerable acclaim but, ultimately, much less in the way of lasting artistic achievement.

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