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James Schuyler, the
Chicago born winner of the 1981 Pulitzer prize, is dead--and has been since 1991.
Nonetheless, Slow Dancer Poetry has finally brought out his aptly named Last Poems
for the first time in the UK. Schuyler, friend of Ashbery and O'Hara, is an astute
observer and his poems are laced with a casual romanticism that relies heavily on
metaphors between nature and suburbia. "Rain":
an ironweed tree
so young, so sinewy and slim
as though soft-water rinses were
all it ever wanted.
Lovely stuff, especially if one has a
penchant for slender young girls, like the kind-next-door variety. The image is arresting,
the metaphor fresh, and the location--a rain soaked pond--an appropriate setting for the
sort of pastels Schuyler likes to paint with. Lovely, until the closing lines bring to
mind the mundane world of television commercials:
The rough-cut grass
accepts the world's shampoo.
So where's the dandruff and what snappy shower-fresh gel cleanses
it? Despite such limitations, Schuyler does offer what can best be described as suburban
medallions--again, lovely stuff, if one has a penchant for such things. Made to order:
"Three Gardens", a triptych of meditations on three gardens, one located at
"4404 Stanford", another in Florence, and the last in "Chelsea"--New
York, not England.
The first describes a "rock garden" and Schuyler, with his
hobby-horse of amateur nature studies, injects the poem with recognizable types of rock:
different, from schist
to granite to
you name it, a sort of giant hunk
(Reminds me of a joke from my geology days in Death Valley, circa
1993: "Don't take it for granite, it might be gneiss, but it's only a piece of
schist.) These grumblings of subduction are fine but form no mountains in the end:
"it was a rock garden, / a garden of rocks, but not / Kyoto style." And? AND?
Anyway, the poem is only a meditation on a patch of Americana along the lines of red
wheelbarrows, rain water, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The last garden poem in the triptych, "Chelsea", brings
the Williamsesque quality of Schuyler's work to the fore, with its petunias, window boxes,
and "1880's iron balustrade" all ending with an overgrowth of morning glories.
Perhaps we should stop to notice the flowers, perhaps these do remind us of the beauty in
the penumbra of the domestic landscape; don't take it for granite...
To be fair, Schuyler lacks Ashbery's polish and O'Hara's bluster
but stands head'n'shoulders over both in simplicity. He's a sort of bastard child of the
nature yearning of Wordsworth and the morose suburbia of Dickinson-- the appeal of this
kind of thing is large, and far be it for me to correct the marketplace. Why Slow Dancer
wanted to bring out a UK edition of Schuyler's last poems eight years after his death
might best be explained by the closing lines of "Advent": "The
day / looks
warmer than it is." More fun to think of morning glories in NYC than "goe'in
'rond tuh shops fur fegs" in mid-winter Manchester.