|Apr/May 2004 Book Reviews|
Swallow Press (2003) 48 pages
Vermont has its exemplary poet, however little it knows him. Like too many exemplary poets, his worse poetry (and there was a great deal of it) is the work that generally influences the poets who look to him. His single great volume of poetry, North of Boston, was published in 1914, long before he was popular, and wasn't much to the taste of later readers. With each successive volume that followed, Robert Frost became more and more a parody of himself.
Norman Williams—the author of One Unblinking Eye—is also a Vermont poet, and, however much he may not seem to, he resembles few poets as much as he does his fellow Vermonter, Robert Frost—the Frost, that is, of North of Boston. Much has changed since that time, of course. Williams makes no attempt at a New England idiom. With our mobility there may not be any such thing as a regional idiom anymore.
Williams is a highly respected lawyer, as well as a poet, and, like so many upper-middle-class professionals, he has purchased an old farmhouse in the Vermont countryside. Or so the poetry would seem to indicate. Despite living in a farmhouse, Frost had less claim to be called a farmer than appearances might seem to indicate and Williams has none. One Unblinking Eye manages to be both cosmopolitan and securely anchored to everyday life. Its poems are located in Spain, the West Indies, Russia, Ireland, Vermont and the greater U.S.; they are peopled throughout by common men and women.
The reader attracted to the parody-Frost is shocked to open North of Boston for the first time. Quite probably, he or she closes it and does not open it again. It is replete with chaos and perversity. In 1914—long before Freud's work was read outside of psychoanalytical circles—it is filled with exact, highly nuanced descriptions of depression, obsession and a wide range of disfunctional behaviors, such as this description of clinical depression from the dramatic monologue "Servant to Servants" (ll. 7-15):
I can't express my feelings, anymore
Than I can raise my voice or want to lift
My hand (oh, I can lift it when I have to).
Did you ever feel so? I hope you never.
It's got so I don't even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There's nothing but a voice-like left inside
That seems to tell me how I ought to feel,
And would feel if I wasn't all gone wrong.
This New England countryside is not picturesque but dark and troubled.
While the word "Dostoievskian" may come to mind concerning the characters, and Frost read Dostoievsky even before entering Harvard, there has been an evolution of sorts. These are not transplanted Russians. Nor are they landowners, in the Russian sense of the word, steeped in a greater cultural decadence. Instead they bear a striking resemblance to the characters of Knut Hamsun, the novelist of peasant life about whom John Updike has written:
Only the Russians can match Hamsun's feel for the inconsistencies of the human soul, its quantum jumps through the rather irrelevant circumstances of life. As in all his fiction, small inanimate things—registered letters, a sack of eiderdown—animate the human landscape, and pantheistic bliss surges through the remissions of coping.
The quote could just as well begin: "Only Hamsun can match Frost's feel..." This review could almost begin: "Only the Frost of North of Boston can match Norman Williams's feel for the inconsistencies of the human soul..."
Much has changed since 1914. Frost's volume is largely made up of blank verse monologues (ala Browning). They are generally well over a hundred lines in length. Williams's poems must remain under fifty lines or risk not being read at all. As it is, he is naturally a lyric poet. Occasionally he works in forms—and it is clear in every poem that he is well schooled—but he is careful not to draw attention to these aspects of his work. Since Frost's time, the U.S. has become unimaginably wealthy and powerful and impatient of those who portray common Americans as dark or perverse.
This can only affect the tone of Williams's work. Happily, he is a remarkable poet. Regardless of the greater restrictions he must work within he has written poems that are somehow light, spare and attractive. The word "fineness" has already been applied to these poems and it is this fineness that prevents the perversity that peeps out of the poems from seeming in the least morbid. In this regard he reminds the reader more of the early James Merrill or a less angst-ridden early Geoffrey Hill. There is no attempt at the folksiness of Frost.
His words are so carefully chosen—so fine, in fact, that the reader could easily be left with the impression that our perversities are objets d'art. An Irish father pushing his daughter on a swing above panoramic sea-cliffs "as though to loose her on/That long descent" perhaps forms too poetic and too convenient a scene for the observations that follow:
Return, the young girl cries out her delight,
Then girds once more against the peril there:
As though she knows no child is desired wholly;
That there is not a mother, dreading birth,
Who does not sometimes curse her recklessness,
Nor father, yoked to press or forklift truck,
Who has not brooded on the chance of some
Yet who could deny that, under more mundane circumstances, the intrusion of such thoughts is more common than we choose to admit—under circumstances, that is, that our present strictures do not allow?
More legitimate are poems such as "Our Station," in which we are reminded of the unaccountable joy we feel at seeing a hawk take its prey, and "Horror at Hoosick Falls," in which the narrator wonders what were the thoughts of a young boy "just short/Of puberty" who discovered a raped and murdered corpse near an old millrace. But, still, they are not as successful—a fact in some way itself perverse—as "Prayer for an Irish Father."
Yet at times Williams manages to go farther than his restrictions would seem to allow. In "Taking Panfish," a poem about fishing with his father, the circumstances are entirely mundane. The narrator's "bobber dips, dragged bottomward/By unseen fear." He has caught a crappie. He thanks "God/For not permitting [him] to fail" in his father's world. The fish is brought aboard:
And motionless, the crappie mouths
A final prayer which, if heard, is not
Allowed. My father whacks it, sheathes
The knife, then, squaring for a shot,
Flings it toward the Evinrude. All day,
As the fish grows slowly stiff and curled,
It fixes one unblinking eye
On me, as though I made this world.
The victim being piscine we have some distance from it. The personification keeps the distance as little as possible. For a moment here, our ability to be inured to the cruelty of life, and our part in it, is shocking. The terrifying nature of the cruelties that may await us—whose desperate prayers may also someday be ineffective—surely helps to explain the defenses and the distance we interpose, the slow corruption we cling to. This poem quietly succeeds on many levels. Every word does precisely the work it is called upon to do.
Appropriately enough, there are poems with other themes. An independent contractor attends to his work with a dedication that leaves Williams thoughtful. The poet has written a series of poems—which are extracted in One Unblinking Eye—about climbing a mountain, which ends with a simple and affecting word of celebration. Two young lovers are delicately drawn in the poem "Delicate Repose." Youth, nature, and dedication to one's work, that is to say, seem tenuously to counterpoise our troubled minds.
There are the more admissible convolutions of our daily life. "Pegging Out"—about a cribbage game—is particularly fine in this vein. Irish sheepherders, farmers, rail-yard workers are glimpsed as they go about their honest toil each living in the twilight of a dying way of life. In the poem "In Pavidus" there is another kind of celebration, as the first signs of spring arrive:
How lightly we've escaped. No scare
Of cancer staggered our routine;
No madness mocked our courtesies.
It is a sentiment that needs no explanation.
One Unblinking Eye took fifteen years in the writing. That in itself is enough to suggest a mystery. But the mystery of Williams goes far deeper. A successful lawyer, owner of a fashionable old farmhouse in the Vermont countryside, dressed (on his book jacket cover, and, as it were, in his poems) from an L.L. Bean catalogue, still something about who we are haunts him. Over the long years—between the affairs of what must surely be a busy life—he has painstakingly written these 32 poems to give us an unusually fine account of what that "something" is.
What could have brought Williams to linger over the perversity in our natures that we are so intent to ignore? In the case of Frost, it was his brief acquaintance with Ezra Pound who was suggesting the old psychologist, Robert Browning, at the time, to anyone who would listen. Surely, Frost's own reading in E.A. Robinson and a now little known short story writer named Hamlin Garland played no small part. Pound had influenced more than one great book of poetry. Generally, the quality of the poets in question diminished after their "Pound-book." Three great poems appeared in each of Frost's next two volumes: Mountain Interval (1916) and New Hampshire (1923). They were arguably his last.
In Williams's case, perhaps he picked it up piecemeal from reading his fellow poets' less guarded utterances or perhaps even from Frost. Perhaps his experiences as a lawyer are the major influence. Regardless, his book is a volume of excellence for it.
One Unblinking Eye is a deceptively simple, a deceptively slight book. Where its poems may seem slightly imperfect, or strangely discordant, from time to time, the reader should be warned to reread. Where they seem perfect, they are. There is an unusual mastery in them.