The Moon and Other Failures by F. D. Reeve. Michigan State University Press, 1999. $17.95 (paper). 65 pages.
The Urban Stampede and Other Poems by F. D. Reeve. Michigan State University Press, 2001. $18.95 (paper). 80 pages.
Lately I have been thinking about what constitutes, or might constitute, popular poetry. While working on an encyclopedia of nineteenth-century British writers, it struck me with some force that what we, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, mean bypopular is, in most respects, quite different from what the Victorians meant. Our terms of reference have changed since the days of the Victorians, and what we consider to be of importance most has changed. Despite the public clamor that greeted each new installment of a Dickens novel, he was not so much the Victorians’ J. K. Rowling (to name, almost at random, a popular writer whose latest work is greeted today with a similar clamor, at least in the media and among a loyal readership base) as their Steven Spielberg; Tennyson, not so much their Seamus Heaney or their Billy Collins as their…well, I was about to say George & Ira Gershwin in one, or Rodgers and Hart, but that would raise other (unrelated) issues concerning what I think (and what I know and don’t know) about contemporary pop music; name your favorite contemporary singer-songwriter, someone you consider an icon of our age. In any case, the conclusion one can draw is not that the meaning of popular has changed, so much as that the art forms and genres that are most popular–I mean universally popular–have altered, along with our priorities and perceptions, so that many today might argue (and many do) that television, film, and the compact disc have supplanted the book as the prime media of mass culture, and that poetry is at best a marginal art, the domain of earnest academics on the one hand and of impromptu slammers on the other.
[private]I touch on this subject because it also occurs to me that, in another time–say, the time of Tennyson–F. D. Reeve might well have been a truly popular poet, one whose star, under the right conditions, might have shone as brightly as Tennyson’s. Ask the “average” poetry reader who he or she likes best, and if the answer isn’t the aforementioned Heaney or Collins, odds are it might be one of any number of poets who work in a minor confessional vein, whose verse becomes a kind of psychotherapy intended to assuage or exploit familial anger and calm or exploit domestic angst, whose highest ambition is to explain the poem’s I. There are, of course, different routes to this destination: Some poets are seduced by the fascination of what’s difficult, coding their private meanings in poems that essentially serve as cryptograms. Others–self-unacknowledged members of what in crime and mystery fiction is called “the hum-drum school” (an appellation that works just as well for poetry)–take the most direct route to “accessibility” by holding steadfastly to plain speaking, making a poetry that can seem more routine than any piece of journalistic prose. Reeve attempts to steer a course between these two approaches as an advocate and practitioner of “Adequate Poetry,” which, if one can go by the publisher’s publicity sheet, purports to engage “not personal malaise but life’s difficulties and challenges.” Frankly, this definition itself strikes me as inadequate; but it’s something to begin with.
To put it another way, Reeve attempts to lead us back–and possibly forward–to a poetry that appeals to a common heritage and to common concerns beyond the poem’s I and the poet’s personal preoccupations. His poems have a curious timelessness; they seem to exist both in and outside of historical time. They are awash in myth, in just the way that, say, Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is awash in classical myth, naturally and unselfconsciously. Reading the poems in the two books under consideration here, I had the sense that I had read them before–not because they are derivative, but precisely because they tap into a common mythic heritage. Orpheus and Euridice, Ajax and Achilles, Dido and Aeneas, Paolo and Francesca, the heroes and heroines of Shakespeare’s magical romances, become proxies for us and our loves: They glide through these books almost silently but not without notice, guided by the poet’s light, imaginative touch rather than the scholar’s dry precision.
Still perhaps best known as a scholar and translator of Russian literature, Reeve gained early notice when he accompanied the elderly Robert Frost to Russia in 1962, serving as the great American poet’s personal interpreter. The result of that startling and improbable journey was, on Reeve’s part, a minor classic, Robert Frost in Russia, an account of that unusual episode in Frost’s life and a glimpse into the intersection of art and politics during the cold war. (The book was reissued, with a new introduction, by Zephyr in 2001.) Reeve is also the author of several novels and three previous books of poems, including The Blue Cat (FSG, 1972). Now, with his two most recent collections, Reeve in his seventies stakes his claim not as a popular poet for our age, perhaps, but as one who should command our attention.
Published in quick succession, The Moon and Other Failures and The Urban Stampede and Other Poems can be read as twin halves of a continuous whole. Each book contains two dozen or so lyric poems which, though classically concise in their form and expression, nonetheless are expansive in their imaginative sweep and moral implications. The remainder of each book (more than half of The Urban Stampede, just under half of The Moon and Other Failures) is occupied by a longish narrative poem, about which I shall say more in due course.
What first strikes the reader is the constancy and consistency of the world Reeve evokes in–and invokes through–his poems. His primary images are taken from astronomy and seafaring. Reeve’s astronomy may be derived from the modern astrophysics that has revealed the existence of Magellanic clouds and black holes–both directly referred to in The Moon and Other Failures–or from the classical, mythic concept of the heavens that conceives the Moon as involved in human fate and encompasses the Pleiades as the seven Muses. So too the pervasive sense of time and its passage is measured both by the movements of the stars and planets and by the rhythms of the sea and the passage of wind-driven ships across oceans. “Today as clouds gather and a northeaster breaks, / the eye of time seems suddenly at hand,” he writes in “Vermont Sonnets.” And in “Coasting” he asserts that “the light that speeds around in empty space / extracts the future from the past.”
This latter poem, incidentally, not only pays homage to Tennyson but also, in the third stanza, echoes the Yeats of “Byzantium” and “Sailing to Byzantium”: “If soul is form and gives a body life, / reality is a gathering of ghosts,” Reeve writes, and then, “We circle the stars to find our secret play, / and the dying mackerel believe the gong / off Permaquid tolls for them / on the cold gray-green sea.” In this poem and in others, Reeve explores what Yeats called “the artifice of eternity.”
With the geography of Reeve’s poems so populous with stars, lakes, rivers, seas, it is hardly surprising that, at its heart, his work is a meditation on the nature of time itself. These poems don’t chronicle the passage of time as much as they return again and again to the very notion of time, an awareness of what is and how it contrasts with what was, the paradoxical immediacy of memory contrasted with the strangeness of the present; the sense that the past is more real than the present. In “Catching Up,” he declares that “at the end of the past, time now notwithstanding, / the future threatens”; on the next page, in “The Village Graveyard,” contemplating a row of tombstones, he notes that “Time like a kindly god / reserves some open spaces in each row / for the living dead.” Without ascribing any theological similarities to the two poets, it does not take much of a leap to see an affinity with the Eliot of “Burnt Norton,” for whom “Time present and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.”
Their strong, repeated images, and their awareness of time passing give Reeve’s verse its quietly haunting quality. Equally notable, however, is these poems’ formal structure, the pattern of regular stanzas within each poem, whether constructed of three, four, five, or six lines. He works within these forms with a sense of ease, never seeming hemmed-in by the stanza form he has chosen or that has chosen him. (This is quite evident, for instance, in the “The Moon and Other Failures” and in “The Old World.”) In those poems in which he rhymes, his rhymes almost always are simple; he eschews the verbal pyrotechnics that preoccupy many younger and more aggressive poets. Likewise, his poems’ titles often are deceptively flat and unassertive, almost conventional and generic: “Voices,” “Twilight,” and “Vermont Sonnets” (in The Moon and Other Failures), “Still Life,” “April” (in The Urban Stampede)–titles that give little indication of the substance and force of poems they shyly announce. (To what extent this might be a conscious, artful decision is a subject for consideration elsewhere. Should a poem’s title be as direct and literal as possible or, rather, through being fanciful, in the way of an Ashbery title, say, seemingly have little to do with the poem’s apparent subject but lead us only through indirection?)
In The Urban Stampede, the poem “The Old World,” which begins, “When I was young the earth was a hard blue globe / with multi-colored countries and British pinks,” brings to mind Bishop’s question “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?” in “The Map.” But although Reeve’s poem might be read as a counterpart to Bishop’s, the cartography he studies is that of time rather than of place, as is evident the final stanza:
Now my long-lived hours recombine the past.
All time is fiction: in the seas men drown.
How can I prove my grandfather existed,
or there’s a library where this world will last?
This poem functions too as a twin to the title poem of The Moon and Other Failures, which begins
The stones of Paris smell of books
from bibles lighting up the Middle Ages
to romantic tales of unrequited love.
Every Sunday my grandfather winds his clocks
and checks the past for any uncut pages.
But I must emphasize that these are not generic “grandfather” poems. Rather, they are, again, meditations on the nature of memory. Although memory is not quite sufficient, and not reliable, it is the necessary element that makes us human–enabling us, almost, to make sense of what happens in our lives. Much is lost in time, Reeve says again and again; but without memory, we ourselves are lost.
The two long poems that are the centerpieces of The Moon and The Urban Stampede stand in contrast to the compact lyrics I have been discussing. They are conceived (and have been performed) as chamber oratorios. The subject of each is drawn from classical myth, with a Greek Chorus commenting on the action.
As it does elsewhere in The Moon and Other Failures, the sea figures prominently too–as presiding image, symbol, and character–in Alcyone, Reeve’s adaptation of the eleventh book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which takes up more than half of this book. He calls his version “a modern oratorio for songs, musicians and narrator.”
For many modern readers, the myth of Alcyone and Ceyx may be even more distant and unfamiliar than the legend of Lemminkäinen in Tuonela. In Reeve’s retelling, it is set aboard “a fishing vessel fraught with human passion.” Here, Hylas’s rape of Alcyone has more than a touch of lurid melodrama. As Hylas advances upon his sister in law, we find ourselves not in the world of Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn but in a bodice ripper’s purple-prosy pages. Hylas is the archetypical brute villain. He does not leer, but he literally “lours”: “His eyes attack in hungry anger, / his hands crawl crab-like through salt air, / while, like a shark’s, his body twists / and whips behind his barred white teeth.” And, “Gathering himself to mount, / he drives closer, harder, madder, seizes / her wrists with his rough, reddened hands…” Surely more than one writer of a Harlequin romance must have used the line “His manliness / towered in its triumph,” as Reeve does here.
Because of its more wistful tone, and because of the more evident universality of its subject–a reworking of the more familiar myth of Orpheus and Euridice–to my mind the “The Urban Stampede” is a less problematic, more consistently satisfying and compelling poem. In place of the classical Underworld, Reeve sets the myth in a London pub called the Urban Stampede. His Orpheus is Mack, “a handsome young man, a great singer and guitarist” who goes to the Urban Stampede to search for his wife, Mary May, who earlier had become “seriously deranged from illness” and had disappeared, turning up at the bar “Lost and lonely…unaware that the illness has made her deaf.”
Setting the scene, Reeve allows the Chorus to indulge in a bit of Muldoonery as it intones:
Here in the Urban Stampede
we’ve got everything you need
for a perfect evening out:
If you ain’t got much money
you can still treat your honey
to a glass of Lauderdale stout
or recite her some Hamlet
while we fry you an omelette
and figure the charges out.
Granted, the rhyme and meter and diction here are more James Simmons than Paul Muldoon, but they are appropriate to the atmosphere Reeve wants to create. And there is more to this poem than jokiness, more than the alcohol-fuelled chatter of late-night sessions at the pub, as when Mary May sings
The wind from the West blows warm
across meadowsweet, briar rose
and the osprey circling the cove
where white boats come and go.
Narration and commentary is provided by the Born Observer, who declares that “the music made / their story into living song,” and by the Chorus, which endorses this view, shouting, “Three cheers for music, the key to mysteries!”
As in the original myth, however, the lovers cannot be reunited: “In the confusion as the swinging doors swung wide / Mack lost her hand and quickly called her name.” But “She, not hearing, made no move but waited / where she was for his next step ahead; / and he, forgetting where she was and why, turned to check.” And that, of course, is the fatal moment. Mary May is swallowed up in the chaos of the Urban Stampede, and Mack can only mourn his irrevocable loss, finding consolation in the thought that “Surely she dreams of the sounds of music / as green leaves assert the life of a tree. Wherever she is she must be in heavenly light.”
I would be remiss if, in closing, I didn’t return to the shorter poems and single out “The Grand Illusion” (in The Urban Stampede), which in my personal mental anthology of painting poems is likely to rank alongside Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Derek Mahon’s “Courtyards in Delft.” The painting is Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus; the final of the six stanzas reads:
The bird is untouched; the broken bread is blessed
but uneaten. The waiter’s doubt throws the three together.
So masterful is the perspective that you can’t guess
what’s really there-a cloth-covered table, food,
and figures? or a holy traveller’s weather?
or, love found, long loss at last made good?
Here the visual becomes verbal and, in the process, spiritual.
In his late poetic flowering, Reeve has unearthed a gift that allows him to be bookish and literary, and unapologetically so–and yet write in a voice that manages to sound entirely uncontrived and unselfconscious. Like Yeats, he recognizes that poems are pure artifice but must not seem artificial. He writes a poetry that allows us to romanticize the moon and that yet just as surely acknowledges that stars die, and worlds–and we–die with them. At once timely and timeless, these are two books not to be judged by their unprepossessing covers.[/private]