Reviewed by Kevin Cantwell
“My mind’s not right,” Coleridge says through Lowell and says again here through David Baker, in whose meditative pastorals and epistolary natural histories we hear not so much the uneasiness of living in the poem but a sense of the poem as timbre for the uneasiness of the poet’s mind. Baker’s poems trust that ordinary language can still leverage the liminal moment through a kinetic syntax and conversational force that easily carries his sometimes cumbersome conceits. If the language is ordinary, it is heightened by an exactness of diction charged when the meter balances itself on the blank-verse edge of free verse. When his meter is more intricate, we are never distracted by rhyme’s more constructed assumptions. This is an American, perhaps middle-American, poetry, rural in a painterly way but drawn by a complex personality, one that overhears a line of satire always faintly evident in the pastoral.
This connection to Europe renews and adds gravitas to Baker’s vision (the oldest subversion of and sometimes solution to American thought). Although his poems generally keep their distance from the more fruitless rehearsals of poetic eurocentrism, even his initial poem has trouble resisting a trope of poetic royalty. “Monarchs Landing and Falling” observes a young couple distracted by their affection for each other, and who cannot quite be aware of the monarch butterflies “balanced on bridges of plume grass stalks/ and bottlebrush, wings fanning, closing, calmed . . . ”; neither is the couple aware of how they too have been positioned in the poet’s blank verse. We are not so much surprised by the poem’s conclusion--“by the time we look again they’ve flown”--as we are pleased by a release of syntax that propels this line. Here, the conversational drama of the iambic can be made even more tensile. Shorter sentences, sometimes two to a line, heighten caesura into a measure of tempo that checks and then compels the motion of run-over lines:
Then a stillness descended the blue hills.
I say stillness. They were three deer, four.
They crept down the old bean field, these four deer,
for fifteen minutes--more--as we watched them
in the field, in the soughing snow . . .
In this poem about his daughter, her quiet look at deer belies her twitchy, frantic inattentiveness--before he and (the poet Ann Towsend) his wife “learned what was wrong.” The father frets for the child and tries to control his temper in the face of this frustration, yet the lyric bracket of the meter lets the mind take a breath.
Unlike the young Coleridge who marveled at the peacefulness of his sleeping infant, Baker consoles his anxiety by watching his daughter “hunkered over her drawing pad, / humming, for an hour.” Art can console, as Derek Walcott has said about the classics, “but not enough”; for the speaker, the ominous “hour” of the line above portends the parents’ knowledge that respite, even in art, is not for long.
With his daughter’s personality on his mind, he turns to a familiar habit of American poems, a kind of high-end bio-poem (see biopic). In Baker’s “Bedlam,” fashioned from sources about the rural genius John Clare, the never-cured innocent of nineteenth-century English verse, is here recovered through poetic new historicism. Baker’s affiliation with rural descriptions of the American Midwest makes his the perfect ocular prism by which to weaves lines of Clare into a more personal discourse on his grip on his own mind:
More and more I recognize the torment
in another’s mind better than my own.
I’ve got a mean streak a mile wide. But why?
. . .
But it’s nothing a little balm won’t soothe,
nothing another pill won’t ease.
Burton’s melancholy is now Baker’s pharmacology of “Adderal, Prozac, Paxil / Dezyrel, Wellbutrin . . .” One of these meds could have changed Clare: “[I]t kills me to think what a decent pill / might have meant to the man.” One of those pills might make his daughter’s life more bearable, both to her and the poet himself. Baker complains about his life by complaining about someone else’s life, especially as a drain on his own creativity, yet acknowledges the sustaining nature of complaint. The elegy itself comes back to us in another way when reading Baker--satiric in its take on how the folly of the body, displaced by the foibles of dementia, wrings the heart also. First, though, it tries his patience. In Baker, it is the tug of satire that keeps the full grip of mourning from closing down the mind.
If the tone and manner of apprehending the present is a method (to make either a more scholarly Brief Lives or a more poetic one it’s hard to tell), this dramatic ploy does not mask its perceptions in the way that Browning, Merrill, and Howard ghost through their projected voices. There is more the editorial omniscient here and more the discursiveness of colloquy--an apt field guide to another poet’s mental illness in the nineteenth century. Some aspects of this genre are more quirky.
Birders wander the thickets of English and American poetry; they also vex the landscape with their peculiar and slightly neurotic ornithology. Although a comforting eccentricity guides us through this strange life-listing (Waggoner, Plumly, or Bottoms), Baker is less certain when he takes this approach to Whitman, whom he places “in Canada, / 1880, tracing the flights of birds” and “up to his knees in mud, / bugs.” Although the poem eventually widens its scope to regard the late career of the Poet when “he is simply Walt,” the sense of Whitman’s politics later in the poem feels wearisome with its direct quotes and its cross-outs, indicating Whitman’s notebooks as sources; but Baker’s skill and his affinity for Whitman overcome how this textual fussiness slows down the poem. Yet in shorter lyrics like “Winged,” we read lines that could hardly be written more beautifully:
If this were the sea and not snow, morning-
cold, Ohio, the slick black trees standing
for themselves along our ice creek, then
these birds might seem ready for flight.
The mid-length lyric, on the short side of that range, is still Baker’s trump. When he ventures into some longer poems, the prosody seems heavier. In a poem like “Cardiognosis,” the sense of what a poem can accomplish is enviable, but the form of this elaborate anatomy of the heart, parts from early medical literature, is at times more disheartening as an exercise than it is a dramatization of prosody’s dexterity. Most poems, however, are exquisite, among them “Spring of Ephemerals,” “Melancholy Man,” “The Waves,” “Hedonism,” “The Blue,” “Silo Oaks,” and the title poem. Baker has mastered the metrical resources of one line of American poetry, which places him among its most eloquent and accomplished writers, with each new book “becoming / the next thing.” There is always the sense that the David Baker poem is going to tighten yet another turn, meter upon thought, thought upon theme, in elegant and powerful devices of perception.