by David Oates
Small poetry presses are the gold dust of the publishing world, glittering yet easy to miss. And of enduring cumulative value.
Of course the Big Five publishers will pick up suitably salable, already-famous, sure-thing poets. Penguin Random House publishes Terrance Hayes, and that’s a damn good thing, a Black poet of subtlety and immediacy; and Amanda Gorman, poet of the recent presidential inauguration; and Mary Oliver, who straddles the line between “accessible” and serious with an uncanny ease and a following most working poets cannot even imagine.
Meanwhile, as my previous essay here at 3QD proposed, the small presses do the nearly-invisible work of finding and developing new poets, and giving mid-career poets their next book or two, and taking risks with weird and strange and occasionally awful poets too. They do this the way ants collect morsels in the woods: because it is their nature.
(Fans of mixed metaphors may ask: So, are these ants collecting gold dust? And I reply: They are.)
In this essay, three books from contemporary poets whose work I admire. I read them to refresh my sense of the glorious possibilities of language. And to feel that while our public discourse may be as vicious as ever – perhaps even a little worse than the (miserable) average – yet in these small books from small presses, language may be transformative, life-giving, full of surprise and truth and therefore, hope.
* * *
Annie Lighthart, Pax (Fernwood Press, 2021, 89 pages).
In the poem “How to Wake” near the middle of her new collection, Annie Lighthart poses her book’s central concern in her usual amused, alert, down-to-earth voice:
Wake the young dog with an open door, wake the old dog
with an outstretched hand. And yourself?
How will you wake that stubborn sleeper to life?
Her answers arise from many directions. Certainly she writes in the broad deep main channel of American poets in drawing essential inspiration from the natural world.
It is said that gods may make themselves known
in a burning bush, a cloud, or in a shower of light.
In this case, it was a blackbird in a bare winter tree.
I see this poem “Blackbird Tree” as a sort of ur-poem: nature moment plus epiphany. Classic. Simple to see, simple to understand . . . yet how hard to write so that it is experience, not declamation – that bane of poesy, the poet on stilts enraptured in the drone of his own explaining voice. Instead, in words on a page, to make the reader see, touch, taste , and receive the epiphany in some sense immediately. Despite the intervening medium.
Lighthart locates the moment by owning her point of view: “I heard it from a block away, over traffic . . .” and soon the event is as much ours as hers. The simple marvel of a singing blackbird: if one were to be open to that – really open – what would it mean? (What wouldn’t it mean?!) The fact of existence. The mystery of it. And . . . that it is often so beautiful.
It’s a fullness, a moment of living in deep alertness which poetry is determined to encourage and call out and demand and recreate. That great original artesian spring of American poetry Walt Whitman had it in a simple four-word phrase: every leaf a miracle. And Lighthart delivers this sense on page after page, inviting the reader to attend, notice, awaken. With her eyes and ears and heart opened by this simple event, she concludes:
It was possible to believe anything, or believe nothing
and yet stand and hear a voice in the air.
* * *
But for poets who bring this attunement to beauty and wonder, and have the gift of conveying it, there is a harder and more hidden challenge. How to locate poetry, even ecstatic poetry, within the grit and gristle of real life? Nobody needs a book of Hallmark positivity and bloodless sentiment. Speaking for myself, I need the blood. I have to see the bloody knuckles, the nights of lost faith and no sleep, the heartbreak. For that is the matrix from which all this spiritual whoop-de-do has to arise – if it is to arise at all.
And Lighthart does not fail in her skinned-knees humanity. In a poem dedicated to her son, she finds herself hopeful yet wanting: “I keep bringing my mouthfuls of twig / and in my clumsiness don’t say what I mean,” for “all the things of the world that are on fire with sadness / still go on burning.” Blackbirds or no, “here in this makeshift garden. . .all is still dearth and hunger.”
Yet on we go, Lighthart and reader, brave enough to notice the transcendent. Even on this mudball planet of suffering, greatness and heart are always arriving –
for in this warm wide open everything kisses
everything else and no one will look away
because how very great was the darkness before
this uptilted arriving immensity of light.
* * *
With nineteen titles in print, Fernwood Press is a moderately small press. Aiming to produce “6 to 12” new books a year is an ambitious target for a small operation. It describes itself this way:
“Fernwood Press promotes poetry collections that speak to the human capacity for spiritual experience.”
I’m the sort who could be put off by so missiony a mission statement. But I see that the press is tied to Quaker origins and sensibilities in the “inner light” tradition – uninterested in doctrinal lockstep but alert to individual leadings, authentically conveyed.
Pax is a handsome book with a gorgeous cover. It is deep, and clever, and wise, and welcoming. It is Lighthart’s second full book of poetry, after she won the Mills College chapbook prize for Lantern in 2017, and following her debut collection Iron String (Airlie Press, 2013).
* * *
In my second year of grad school Galway Kinnell came to give a reading. His new book was The Book of Nightmares. It’s been forty years and I can see him yet at the lectern, dressed in a brown shirt with buttons on the pockets and shoulder-straps – an outdoorsman’s shirt, Hemingwayesque. And Kinnell in middle age barrel chested, manly, confident.
Yet strangely, purely present. No posing, no egotism. How vividly I recall him stumbling slightly over a line, and pausing meticulously to jot – so he told us – the words his mouth had wanted to speak instead of the ones he’d originally written. He was listening too. He was still getting it right, attending to that thing bigger than the poet and his ego. I was astonished.
When I heard the substance of the book I was further transformed. I should say that I was a tyro when it came to modern, twentieth-century poetry. All my labors had been to root myself deep into the tradition. I’d come from rather flat middlebrow upbringing in Los Angeles and I was mad to find a soil, a human substrate that had beauty and learning and the wild glamour of the deep past. Gladly did I learn Middle English and labor nights and days over Chaucer. Happily I puzzled out the metaphors of the metaphysicals, and then accustomed myself to the brainy brio of the Augustan poets, bewigged and satin-breeched and artificial though they were. Et cetera, et cetera – I was in for the whole plunge. And twentieth century? Evidently I considered that the easy part—wasn’t I from then myself? Didn’t I already speak the language?
My idea of the modern poets was – let’s say, highly limited. I gathered that they were strenuous, and arid, and hard to understand. Wastelandy, bewildering apparently by design, suicidal perhaps. Angry perhaps. Ashworth. Plath. That sort of thing.
A laughably incomplete account! Yet it set me up for this moment with Kinnell and his book of great, heart-breaching love for his young son Fergus. The love of a father for a woman and a child. It was revolutionary to me. Nothing aloof, intellectual, tortured: anchored in familial love, unafraid of beauty or – that masculine fear – of sentiment. And above all ensorcelled by the lad they had brought into their world.
So now when I read the tender poems about sons from Annie Lighthart (one of them titled “The Sixth Night of Nightmares”!) – or similarly attentive, wide-eyed poems about daughters from my next poet Derek Sheffield – I receive them in a kind of residual Kinnell glow. The challenge he implicitly put to me that night: be smart and be literary but do it in your actual human skin. Only there. With all its entrammeling loves and demands.
I’m working on that still. And Derek Sheffield’s new book offers many a page of discovery on that path.
* * *
Derek Sheffield, Not for Luck (Wheelbarrow Press/Michigan State Univ., 2021, 90 pages).
Not for Luck, the author’s second book, was selected for the Red Wheelbarrow series published by Michigan State University’s Center for Poetry, awarded each year to one emerging poet and one established poet. The book reminds me right away that poetry is an art of transformation: the ordinary seen in extraordinary light; our strange English made to speak what is beyond words; the invisible feel and pulse of existence somehow brought out of the dark of private experience into shared space, the little public square of a poem. Transformation.
A poem called “Bye-Bye” from Sheffield’s first book Through the Second Skin begins with this arresting language:
The animal of winter is dying,
its white body everywhere
in collapse and stabbed at
by straws of light, a leaving
to believe in as the air
slowly fills with darkness.
In this poem the poet has his little daughter in the bath. It’s an utterly ordinary moment, wholly anchored in time and space. He sees the bathwater swirling in the drain, “a living drill.” His little girl says “about the only thing / she can.” As he, the poet, also ruefully says “about the only thing he can.” (Presumably: a poem.)
Simplicity itself. But suddenly it feels as if the moments of life were not only evanescent vanishings – here they seem (also) to be hewn from some enduring granite. Realness. Now. Here. (What else is there, actually?) In this language, Sheffield’s transient moment becomes a transforming lens. Through it we see . . . everything. The quirky pathos of existing – if that’s not too ponderous for splashy bathtime! The passing moment, and all it implies, brings, and takes away.
The little poem ends in nature, as it began, in the melting-snow days of early spring:
I will count more dark shapes
tumbling from the sky, birds
returning to scarcity, offering
in their see-sawing songs
a kind of liquidity.
Well. I’m a sucker for ending a poem with a good pun. Liquidity: everything solid flows away eventually. Mountains become plains. Seas become deserts. Youth becomes age. Perhaps the most traditional of poetic insights.
Or else, liquidity: everything natural becomes monetized eventually. Bought and sold and cheapened and thrown away. How much of our world will we try to turn into money, before the worship of money just kills us? (Ask Texans about their recent winter.)
* * *
The “scarcity” Sheffield’s northward migrating birds return to is, of course, the normal difficulty of not-yet-springtime. But when he says the “animal of winter is dying,” I wonder at larger implications – I can’t help it (can you?) because of course winter, in general, is dying. Heating up. Becoming not-quite-winter. Here where I live in the Pacific Northwest, we just had a week of August in April. And then another week of it in May. Delightful! Except when one thinks of why, exactly, this might be happening. In thirty years I’ve never seen the like. Normal weather fluctuation? Or long-term climate change, which gets harder and harder to ignore. Try as we might.
Here is the dark challenge of nature writing today. Poets have relied for a long time on their birdies and flowers and Sumer is a-comin in! Roll your eyes if you wish. But something is happening to “nature.” And the nature poets have to deal with it, or die of triviality. This is the gristle we are choking on now, here, everywhere.
And plenty of poems in this collection address it. This is a serious book, on serious ground.
“What Will Keep Us” shows off Sheffield’s precise language, ties one achingly beautiful moment in the woods to questions of fighting for what’s worth keeping, locates his daughter Kelsea (now grown a bit older) in the midst of it, and in the end flips the whole thing, transforms it.
The setting is a northwest coastal forest, where the poet accompanies his daughter and a forest preservation activist called Katie.
Every pack-heavied step over sand hoppers
and weed-slicked rocks, through driftwood scatters
and the chill of tidewaters, over wooded headlands. . .
. . . we hike for what will keep us
if we keep it. On a bare stretch of sand ahead, a boulder
splits into two bear cubs whose dark heads swivel our way
before they turn as one toward the woods and lope
out of sight, to go on into the multitudinous dream we need
to be beyond our reach.
In arriving at that paradox – who’s keeping whom? – the poem flips perspectives on us. Asks that we reconsider. We fancy ourselves forest-keepers, stewards. Here are three liberal ecological do-gooders (or two and a half). But the life of the forest ecosystem is part of the breathing and eating, dying and resurrecting system that is in simple fact the entire living world. What keeps us alive, that is.
The hikers encounter some five-hundred year-old carvings on a rock face. The present falls away, caves in to the larger meanings of time, the solemn rhythms of life and death, survival and extinction. And the poem ends in beauty and in mystery, our destiny undecided.
Kelsea kneels over some new swirl
of shell and exclaims. Katie says not a word, drawing
with her stick something in the sand we can’t yet see.
Like Jesus writing in the sand – for how many millennia now have believers been wondering what, exactly, was he wrote that day? Fates written in sand and then erased.
Not for Luck is full of moments like this, highly precise presentness and seeing and feeling, lensed into greater and greater resonances. Savoring these poems is tutoring in how to care about aliveness. How to take it in upon the tongue and palm and eye. And how to act accordingly: with love and intentionality toward the living world.
* * *
Joe Wilkins, When We Were Birds (Univ. of Arkansas Press, 2016, 116 pages).
Wilkins’ third poetry collection is published under the Miller Williams Poetry Series, selected and edited by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Here (as in Sheffield’s Not for Luck) we see the role played in the small press world by the university presses. They typically have more resources than the little start-ups and shoe-string publishers, and more longevity as well. But what places them solidly with the small presses is that for them, also, the “first loyalty is to talent” (to quote my previous essay). Not celebrity, not blockbusting profits. Talent.
As this remarkable volume demonstrates. Its fanciful title refers to the first poem: “My Son Asks for the Story about When We Were Birds.” It’s charming, wistful. But also with a thread of darkness (what good fairy tale is without it?). “It’s true” he says – “we flew. . .” But of course flying has ended.
“we told ourselves that this falling –
we would remember. We thought
we would always be birds. We didn’t know.”
A recurring motif in this book is the intermittent titles on the pattern of “Note to My Unborn Son concerning the Fundamental Project of Democracy.” These “Notes” are of course funny at some level – Wilkins as an overserious worrier, jotting away to prepare for the unprecedented change coming to his family.
But the “Notes to my unborn son” poems are quietly moving too, and surprising. In this one, the title’s laboriously explainy earnestness is never seen again. Instead, the poem launches directly into a portrait of a deadbeat guy accosting the author and insisting (boozily) on telling his story of woe. And the poem never leaves this story. No commentary, no moral: just an encounter with a guy and his “corn kernel teeth and olfaction of rotting fruit.” The connection to the title’s highfalutin “project of democracy” is left for the reader to make.
And there are plenty of other poems whose titles work the same way. See if this title doesn’t make you want to read further: “The Day We Finish Painting the Bedroom, My Wife’s Father E-mails Us His Suicide Note.” But the poem itself speaks only about paint colors, their absurdly florid commercial names, the comically bourgie young couple with their paint brushes. All the rest is left unsaid – how the dreadful note landed in their busy day. How it felt. What it meant.
The titles resonate over their plainspoken poems like great tolling bells. The reader making the connection. The writer silently pointing – as if to say, See, here is the world. Make of it what you can.
What is the relation of the spoken to the unspoken? A poem is the gesture that points to the unspeakable and the unsayable. The things we dare not say. And the things we cannot say. Poetry is about those things for which words fail us. That is what the all the tactics and angles, the evasions and coynesses and difficulties of poetry are all about. Not difficulty for its own sake (as I had perhaps concluded as a young ignoramus) . . . but because life itself cannot be readily and easily grasped. Its most important parts are as invisible as wind. And as fleeting.
So poetry is always seeking ways to approach the unsaid. And the good poets know they must leave it unsaid, approaching only indirectly with a gesture, an image, a story. “Tell all the truth / but tell it slant” in the famous quip by Emily Dickinson. And Wilkins is a master of the unsaid as slant.
* * *
Perhaps the strongest other feeling in Wilkins’ poetry is how very serious he is about suffering. In poem after poem, the great undernote of pain and loss and grief are sounded. . . though he is no solemn writer, never pious or overearnest (as the jokey seriousness we’ve already seen attests.) He’s just so very real about the pains we all endure, and try to forget, and carry with us.
I’d call Wilkins a nature poet, as well as a parenthood poet. But if so, nature is often death. And so is god. A pained outcry results. So to conclude this brief look, I’ll offer “Caddo River Elegy,” with its explanatory news-story epigram At least 16 people, including some children, were killed Friday after flash floods swept through their remote Arkansas campsite.
The poem’s point of view is that of the drowned children. It stays with them all the way, beginning “In the hot dark we lay like fishes. . .”
. . . As we dreamed
of the good day past, the water came
& took us & we were killed.
You might think there would be a buoying,
there was no buoying. Like the bad hand of God,
water slammed us down, pinned us
to the earth & snapped our every rib. Oh,
how does God or anyone bear day
& night? I tell you if this world
is a good father’s sloping shoulder,
the stink of river & ripe blackberries. If this world
is a wall of killing water,
a man reaching into the floodtrees
for the small & tangled bodies –
then goddamn it, then you best grieve & eat it.
Climate change denialists are often also Christian fundamentalists. Their argument is that a good God wouldn’t be so mean to us – the global us – and that Noah’s rainbow is proof and promise that nothing so bad can possibly be happening. (This assurance has been made by a sitting US Senator – it’s not some outlier.) And here is Wilkins’ answer: that the god who presides over nature can only be both good father and nightmarishly evil father. On this planet terrible things happen all the time. Personally. Globally.
Yet it is Wilkins’ gift, present on every single page, to come to such grim conclusions not as polemic, but in the simple skin and bone and heart of human experience. The loving or tragic experience of a father, a husband, a suitor, a confused teen, a child.
* * *
Sometimes it seems to me that all poetry is elegy. If death is the mother of beauty, as Wallace Stevens taught us, then even a love poem has mortality as its barely-hidden backdrop. The end that sharpens every moment and makes every love a desperate gamble, sure to lose eventually.
And in that sense, even the gigantic looming sorrow of global warming is just a version of the basic poetic fixation: the reality that love is always conducted among the ruins. If death is the mother of beauty, then love is the father of fear.
And so perhaps poetry is also theodicy, justifying this awful life; insisting, in the meticulous mosaic gemwork of words, that even ugliness shall be made behovely and shall bind us together, when metered out in the strangely comforting divinity of words. To turn even grief and brutality and pain into verse – what could this be but an act of love and faith, a song lifted up in the name of whatsoever is not yet defiled.
Wordsworth famously defined poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility. (And for him it was always nature – especially the woods and heights of the Lakes District – that offered the originating experience.) But it may be that submerged dread is the new emotion to be recollected after a ramble in the woods or a walk along the seashore or a too-fair day in spring. It probably won’t be recollected in tranquility. Nature has changed – is changing fast – and our poetry must also change.
But childhood is still tender, and parenthood still heartbreaking and heart-making. Perhaps combining the two, as these books do – nature demanding fierceness in the face of loss, parenting generating hope – offers a kind of balance. Wised up. Tougher in its tenderness.
The small presses are bringing us poetry that might help us face whatever our terrible future is about to unfold.