Three Decades of Mastery: The Poetry of R. S. Gwynn

No Word of Farewell: Selected Poems 1970-2000 by R. S. Gwynn. Story Line Press, $16.95. 167 pages.

As Reviewed By: Paul Lake

If even a rough correspondence between poetic accomplishment and public reputation existed in America today, R. S. Gwynn would be one of our most widely read and highly honored poets. The publication of his selected poems, No Word of Farewell, would be an occasion for readers to measure the arc of an impressive thirty-year career. Today, however, when a shallow and self-serving creative writing establishment doles out literary honors, a maverick like Gwynn remains largely neglected. 

Though widely published in journals and chapbooks, Gwynn has previously published only one full-length collection, The Drive-In (Missouri UP). Dana Gioia in his introduction to Gwynn’s new book ascribes the poet’s relative obscurity to this odd publication history but leaves unanswered the question why such a gifted poet has found it so difficult to publish in the first place. Now that Gwynn’s poetic output has been gathered into one attractive and easily attainable volume, perhaps this contemporary American master will at last find the audience he deserves.[private]

The first thing one notices about Gwynn’s poetry is that it exploits the full formal resources of English language verse. A master of traditional forms and meters, Gwynn revels in difficult patterns and cunning rhymes. This classical rigor combined with his mordant and irreverent wit has led some critics to classify him as a satirist. But though he’s written a number of delightfully wicked satires, Gwynn is a lyric poet of unusual depth and power, displaying a wide range of voices, subjects, and styles, in poems as remarkable for their deep feeling as for their formal restraint. Here, for instance, is the third sonnet from “Body Bags,” a sequence of elegies from the Vietnam era:

Jay Swinney did a great Roy Orbison
Impersonation once at Lyn-Rock Park,
Lip-synching to “It’s Over” in his dark
Glasses beside the jukebox. He was one
Who’d want no better for an epitaph
Than he was good with girls and charmed them by
Opening his billfold to a photograph:
Big Brother. The Marine. Who didn’t die.

He comes to mind, years from that summer night,
In class for no good reason while I talk
About Thoreau’s remark that one injustice
Makes prisoners of us all. The piece of chalk
Splinters and flakes in fragments as I write,
To settle in the tray, where all the dust is.

What has perhaps misled critics is that like all good satirists, Gwynn is a moralist. He skewers human pretensions and cruelty, yet treats suffering and weakness with tenderness and compassion. 

A connoisseur and critic of American pop culture, Gwynn casts a cold eye on our society’s crass consumerist ethic. Sometimes the poet has only to dramatize our corporate mall morality to pillory it, as in “Local Initiative,” a poem about a family’s effort to commemorate their son’s death in a traffic accident: 

For years his parents saw that wreaths were placed
Beside the crossroads where their youngest boy
Left lines of rubber from his shattered toy,
An epitaph new concrete has erased.

For years they mailed petitions for a light
Or four-way stop; the city deemed it best
To table them until the time was right.
It took The Mall to honor their request.

You can’t take parents’ sorrow to the bank
But you can always bank on corporate needs.
Now like a docile river traffic flows
By fraying ribbons lost among the weeds,
And slowing to the changing light we thank
Blockbuster, Target, Texaco, and Lowes.

In “The Classroom at the Mall,” Gwynn exposes the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of pandering academic bureaucrats. The poem also dramatizes the comic schism between true religious feeling and its cheap commercial counterfeit. Here are the opening three of the poem’s eleven stanzas: 

Our Dean of Something thought it would be good
For Learning (even better for P. R.)
To make the school “accessible to all”
And leased the bankrupt bookstore at the mall
A few steps from Poquito’s Mexican Food
And Chocolate Chips Aweigh. So here we are–

Four housewives, several solemn student nurses,
Ms. Light–serious, heavy, very dark–
Pete Fontenot, who teaches high school shop
And is besides a part-time private cop
Who leaves his holstered Glock among the purses,
And I, not quite as thin as Chaucer’s clerk–

Met for our final class while Season’s Greetings
Subliminally echo calls to buy
Whatever this year’s ads deem necessary
For Happiness and Joy. The Virgin Mary,
Set up outside to audit our last meetings,
Adores her infant with a glassy eye.

Gwynn’s sharp wit, keen sense of absurdity, and acute moral judgment are most evident in “Among Philistines,” which retells the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. Thanks to their fabled exploits, both characters have become famous in our celebrity-worshipping culture. But while Delilah revels in her cheap notoriety, Samson, in true heroic fashion, is disgusted to find himself among tasteless philistines who plaster his image on “The glossy covers of their magazines” and “ads for razors” with captions proclaiming “Hebrew Hunk Says We Shave Best!” Juxtaposing the crass diction of commercial advertising with stately biblical prose, the drama reaches its climax as Samson is led “through Gaza Mall / Past shoeshop, past boutique, Hallmark and Sears” uttering a prayer in which both levels of language mingle to comic effect:

“Lord God of Hosts, whose name cannot be used
Promotion-wise, whose face shall not adorn
A cornflake box, whose trust I have abused:
Return that strength of which I have been shorn

That we might smite this tasteless shiksa land
With hemorrhoids and rats, with fire and sword. . . .”

In lines like these, Gwynn’s wit can easily steal our attention from his remarkable lyricism. But in “Two Portraits” and “Human Nature” his graceful treatment of human and natural subjects can put us in mind of Wilbur and Frost. Though he skewers charlatans and hypocrites with savage derision, Gwynn evokes only compassion and sympathy for the world’s has-beens and losers. He can mingle dream and realism in haunting lyrics like “The Drive-In,” and in a suite of poems at the center of the volume even write of his own first-person encounter with prostate cancer with dignity and grace. The poet’s brush with mortality produced both the brilliant monologue “Cleante to Elmire” and the sassy pastiche whose opening line startles with its echo of Jonson’s famous elegy: “Farewell, thou joy of my right hand, my toy.” Here is a brief selection from the cancer sequence:

At the Center

The pianist is playing Debussy
Beside the lobby cappuccino bar–
Soft smiles and pastels everywhere. You see,
The point’s not to remind you where you are
Or how you are; the point is not to dwell
On thoughts like these. Look at this normal crowd,
Such as you’d find in any good hotel.
But why does no one say its name out loud?

Later you pass through elevator doors;
Rising to higher levels, you recall
Rumors you’ve heard of rumors from these floors–
How some guests never leave, how they display
A preference for short hair, or none at all,
How no one asks how long you plan to stay.

This rich and remarkably varied volume evokes only one small cavil. Sometimes the lighter poems draw out their jokes too far; one Shakespearian sonnet garbled in translation by ViaVoice is quite enough, thanks. What one remembers about this remarkable collection, though, is the lyric grace of poems like “In Place of Elegy,” which incorporates even the trite language of a composition student killed in an auto accident into a poem of stunning beauty and pathos:

Facing a gray morning, I read “The Joys
Of Lasting Friends,” the last F essay written
By one K. R., who was, for a time, my student.
A flash of rimless glasses. Back row.
The radiator. Surely someone must know
The answer. Surely. Minds like bolts of satin
Unroll, course through my fingers, are forgotten,
Those who are neither beautiful nor wise.

“The Joys of Lasting Friends.” No irony.
The firing squad inside the radiator.
All victims gone by May. No matter.
And someone writes, “Much noise but little heat
And that is nothing, much.” Empty seats.
Faces of rimless glass. “The photo flatters
Her,” I offer. Wind rustling through blank paper.
Fingers touching wounds. Her childhood bleeds.

For lasting friends can see right thru you but
Still see you thru. And what to say this morning?
Transparent things. Ranks of shade now forming
Against the wall. Surely she knew. A shot
With no report. And here I singled out
A word as “clever.” No answers. The straining
Of fabric. None remember. From the burning 
Car there were screams, her own voice screaming.

With such a formidable record of accomplishment behind him, it’s time R. S. Gwynn received his due.[/private]

About Paul Lake

Paul Lake is a professor of English and creative writing at Arkansas Tech University. He graduated from Stanford University with an MA in Creative Writing and English. He has published two volumes of poetry, Another Kind of Travel (Chicago), and Walking Backward (Story Line), along with a novel, Among the Immortals (Story Line), a satirical thriller about poets and vampires. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, The New Republic, The American Scholar, Yale Review, Southern Review, Paris Review, Partisan Review, and Sewanee Review.
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