Slightly Lovely Stuff

As Reviewed By: William Gibson

Last Poems by James Schuyler. Slow Dancer Poetry, 1999. £7.99

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 Poemsfor 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”:

A girl
an ironweed tree
stands there
so young, so sinewy and slim
as though soft-water rinses were
all it ever wanted.

[/private]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
stuck randomly
with flowers,
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
of conglomerate

(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.[/private]

About WGibson

William Gibson was an editor of the Pacific Review for several years, and is currently on scholarship at Leeds University where he is doing research on Tobias Smollett.
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