Reviewed by Matthew Smith
It's the kind of uncertainty that would drive Einstein to distraction. The first poem in James Doyle's Einstein Considers a Sand Dune takes the perspective of an American boy growing up on a farm during World War II. The family living down the road from the POW camp takes a small-picture approach to the war, and, granted, Doyle pitches in an escaped prisoner who more or less embodies Schrodinger's cat. But there's a consistent topic, a voice, a sense of movement and meaning. “When the German Prisoners Passed” even closes poignantly: “The war ended in time so I wasn't drafted. / My parents said they guessed we should be glad // grandpa's was the only death in the family / in the war years. Now they were free to get old.”
Here's the hitch. Poem two, “Babe Ruth Considers a Sand Dune,” picks up the motif of baseball from the first poem and, by way of playful imagery, cleverness, and humor, becomes perhaps the best of all possible outcomes ... if you asked a roomful of poets to write a poem about an athlete in the desert. Doyle does a crackerjack impersonation of the Babe: “'I never liked salt // or egg in my beer,' he snorts, popping another can.” It's just that something seems a little off when this poem carries the title's formula, and all it amounts to is a pretty good bar joke. And so on.
The collection, which won last year's Steel Toe Books Poetry Prize, contains some stunning, beautiful poems (“The People Who Have Vanished,” “Corset,” “Christina of Denmark,” “Tipi,” “The Diver,” and “Perhaps There's a Headstone” for starters). “No Other Elegy,” a meditation on a favorite swimming hole gone sour, reminds one of Larkin with his knack for marrying the profound to the profane. (“Nice debris, I think. The rest / of the life-sized doll is probably // staring up at me from the bottom.”) The end of this poem brings up a concern that gathers mass and energy as the book goes on: that of a dangerously inert past, and future. Doyle reminds himself and us that, difficult as it might be, he's going to have to stand up if he wants to move around:
I dove in just now
to make memory three-dimensional.
But total memory has no fluidity.
You are encased in it and preserved whole
like a peat bog corpse. I drag myself
out of the water while I still can.
A peculiar component of Einstein is the handful or so of ekphrastic poems. The best of these is “Christina's World,” named for the famous painting by Andrew Wyeth of a blind girl reclining on a hill. By slyly projecting his own mythology onto the familiar scene, Doyle peels back our expectations and reveals something far more shocking and familiar: “Suddenly we know what she is looking / at. The field between her and the house / has filled up with the rest of her life ... It has / become so crowded now neither Christina / nor we can ever again move on.”
So many of the poems, however, smack of novelty; too often Doyle seems to be pacing off his creative range. “Louis XVI” is slathered with opulent descriptions and nudge-nudge observations, and a potentially interesting piece about the worship of the transient is ultimately spoiled by linguistic display. An indulgence in post-imperialist finger wagging certainly doesn't help: “He powdered / his cheeks nine times a day / in the one mirror he knew / was shatter-proof--the vagrant eyes / over the countryside and cities / of France.” Aside from being a little awkward, this snipe is banal. (Noting that Louis XVI was inconsiderate of his subjects is a little like pointing out that Gandhi was a nice guy.) Even so, some of Doyle's flights of fancy do soar. The unlikely “Diapers” follows the hilarious nosedive-into-madness of a conservation-minded mother who makes the choice to use cloth diapers. Tailing the development of new life and new waste, the poem brings the reader again into the struggle against stasis, against the filling-up of the world--this time with “millions of small white symmetrical squares.”
When Doyle is not digging into this recurring concern, however, his poems can baffle, with tropes and images that seem to have no more continuity than a pack of chain-smoked cigarettes. In “I Think I Met the One Last Night,” he makes the following transition: “She lined them up / behind the Zamboni // and we skated / on smooth ice like a real family. / When the curtain // dropped, we realized / we could still be friends.” “Discards,” an otherwise intriguing piece about shedding dead skin, stumbles over its own sagacity: “Anonymity is the one drug // whose only withdrawal symptom is time.” The ambitious double portrait “Salome”--depicting the young dancer visiting John the Baptist in prison--touches on both figures' inner monologues but leaves us with a disappointingly shallow conclusion. We are led into the darkness of the saint's cell with a richly attired beauty as our guide, and somehow all we leave with is a tolerance for differing perspectives. Even the title poem, toying with the proximity of brilliance to silliness (“his mustache like Groucho Marx.”), concludes its game at a noncommittal distance, with “things that could be old / spaghetti or new worlds / trickling down his chin.”
So why the schizophrenia? Two poems from late in the book may provide the answer. The first, “John the Baptist in the Desert” (combining earlier devices), concludes:
He no longer needs to give shape to the words
his cousin will wish upon the world.
His hands have the strength his voice had.
He clenches and unclenches them. Now that he knows
he will live, John no longer cares if he dies.
He is ready to leave the desert.
Maybe this has been Doyle's plan all along--neither to cooperate nor to impede, but to step aside and let truth go about its own business. In “In the Bronx,” the genius reappears as hyperbole: “they rehashed his moves / in that day's Yankees game from more angles / than Einstein ever figured on his blackboard.” Is it that simple? Is the angle-tally this book's central concern? The poem's last lines elaborate: “like turning / your back on yourself for a while, / so you wouldn't feel used up by yourself.” Clunky as the phrasing is, it aptly describes all the moments in Einstein Considers a Sand Dune when Doyle opts to wink at the reader, at the poem, and at himself as poet.
We know the winking is a conscious choice, however, because, halfway through Einstein, Doyle faces the abyss hinted at in so many other poems. “The Cancerous Cell” is a robust treatment of disease as an allegorical figure: “It can't put the book down. It reads / faster and faster. It will read / through the night until the story / is finished.” Doyle's vigorous imagination stretches to full effect, fingering dozens of images which he sets in place with a precision and care magnified by urgency. Here he brings us to the intersection of mortality and eternity:
We can invent the intimacy of a biopsy
and pinpoint the precise moment
when the microscopic world of cells
opened like a gorge and we swayed
on its edge, growing dizzy, staring down
and down. In this case, 2:16 P.M.,
Tuesday, February 23rd, 1999.