When a review copy of The Life and Death of Poetry arrived from the publisher, Louisiana State University Press (LSU), I felt a bit disappointed at first not to have an autographed copy from Kelly Cherry — a poet whose work I’ve long admired. I was relieved, though, not to have to worry about marring such a treasure when my pencil and I immediately began to carry on a conversation with the poems in the margins of each page.
Although I still do this with almost every Bible I own, I seldom scribble in poetry books now, jotting down thoughts or, in earlier days, marking rhyme schemes and deciphering patterns as I learned to tell a terza rima from a villanelle.
With Kelly Cherry’s poems, however, I perched on the edge of discovery as the book opened with the “to be” of a new genesis, a birth, a being in the poem “Which is a Verb,” where:
We fell out of eternity
into time, which is a verb.
Life was rushing past us,
and we began to rush too.
Everything was a blur.
From that chaos, “We lay down on the red grass/ and clung to the world as it whirled.”
Like Dante, we enter the poems as a wayfarer or pilgrim, but, instead of falling into The Inferno and working our way up and out, we find something of a reversal or, perhaps, a divergent path from the one where Dante began “midway in the journey of our life” and found himself in a dark wood. Conversely, “A Sunday in Scotland” begins as the “I” of the poem finds a path through the wood, “past fallen stone – a Roman wall in ruin” and into a sonnet, rather than the terza rima pattern Dante employed.
The life of poetry, however, consists of more than clothes, and so the poet casts aside traditional patterns for such poems as “Fields with Shrew,” where “…every living thing/ inscribes itself on land, sea, or air.” But then, in the next poem, the writing, the being of poetry begins, interestingly, with the realization of death.
In “Field Notes,” the bee is silent and bird flat on its back, so one cannot help but wonder if the shock of death, the knowledge of death, the awareness of death that separates us from the clueless creatures of the earth provided the first instance of poetry.
Despite the initial reminder of our own mortality, the poems practice new verbs of music (“melody/ heard only by the bees”), imagery (“blue jay in the snow” as a “text/that cannot be read”), repetition (“The Loveknot”), chant (“Night Vowels”), and a medley of the many aspects of language to be played with and explored.
The sounds and music of language and its silences continue in the sequence “Welsh Table Talk,” mid-way in the journey of our book reading. Accompanied by couplets, sonnets, free verse, and mad friars, the lines lay out the uniqueness of story as the topic each of us must consider in reading poems by other poets or in writing our own inimitable poetry.
Kelly Cherry not only writes hers with skill and levity, she shows us the life of poetry, culminating in the final section, “What the Poet Wishes to Say.” With wit, musicality, and wisdom, she tells her students, “A writer with nothing to write/ is in danger of falling into/ one or more of four/ pitfalls: drink, drugs,/ adultery, and translation.” She then concludes the long poem with a penetrating question each translator must surely consider before stating, “God help you now” – advice I take literally as a fifth route into prayer or, perhaps, as an antidote for the other four options.
The remaining poems of this highly recommended book continue to offer good counsel, insight, and interesting experiences for poets, poetry students, and poetry readers, reminding us in the end that “Poetry’s just poetry.” Nevertheless,
Is as helpless as a reed,
But it has a heart
A poem can move to love.
©2014 Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer
The Life and Death of Poetry, paperback
The Life and Death of Poetry, Kindle e-book