Thursday, September 16, 2004

NEW! Review of James Harms

Freeways and Aqueducts by James Harms. Carnegie Mellon University Press, $13.95.

Reviewed by Amy Schroeder

Warning: If nostalgia bores you, don’t read this book. Packed with throaty reminiscences of times gone by, James Harms’s new collection is deeply backward looking, suggesting that we aren’t so much connected to the past as we are trapped in it. “The evenings are a second chance to clear / away the strange regret,” he writes, “or worse, the fear / that all the day has left us with is hope.” Atmospheric and often lovely, the poems describe a place where the light is always honeyed and the leaves are always just about to fall off the tree; they are spoken by the kind of mournful guy who misses you even before you’re gone.

Harms likes to work in themes; his previous collection, Quarters, used the idea of the quarter as an organizing principle. The new collection employs the idea of place in much the same way. The first two-thirds of the book are concerned chiefly with the poet’s childhood in California, and the final third locates the traces of that youth in a new landscape, West Virginia. Driven by longing and loss, Harms makes clear that you can never really escape where you come from; the past persists like a song you can’t get out of your head. One poem, which describes the meeting of old friends at a burger joint in Pasadena, ends thus: “Ronny’s … pulling an extra shadow. / Come to think of it, we all are.” That extra shadow is the long dark shade of the past, the permanent effect of everything that has ever happened.

It’s a truism that nothing stays the same in Los Angeles, that the old is torn down daily for the new mini-mall, or condominium complex, or worst of all, the new superstore. But there is a parallel truth about the City of Angels, a deep melancholy fostered by the innumerable unfulfilled dreams of its resident seekers and hopers. Randall Jarrell’s long poem about his childhood in Southern California, “The Lost World,” contains something of this mood, and Harms has caught the quality as well in his slow-moving, evocative verse:

And as the sky darkened
from a dusty blue to gray--
no promise of stars
in the light-soaked sky--

a long thin line of pink
stained the edge of the world,
the afterglow of ozone,
the color of a teenager’s first
bikini or a flower power sticker
peeling form a bumper,
a slender neon warning
in the bruised Los Angeles sky.

Poetry of place has a long and venerable tradition; one thinks perhaps most immediately of Whitman and Crane, although neither has much to do with the kind of poetry that Harms writes. Unlike poets who attempt to speak to the throbbing heartbeat of a place, Harms’s poems are rooted in the individual experience--his California, his West Virginia. Although the tone is lyrical, the poems tend toward the narratively specific, the dangerous border between the autobiographical and the personal. Harms is inclined to avoid generalities--usually a good thing, but there is something about these poems that seems almost too specific, too much like an inside joke. “She liked my circus poem best,” he writes. “She leaned back / in her chair and said ‘Harmsy this is good.’” Such moments are off-puttingly cute, creating an effect that is surely contrary to what the poet intended.

These poems dwell unapologetically in the quotidian, attempting to transform the banal into the sublime. When this succeeds, it does so beautifully: “Walt slept once in a pram by Carrie’s pool / in March and woke covered in blossoms … his hair aged by flowers.” Too often, however, Harms’s efforts at metaphorical transformation are hindered by a banal that simply will not rise to the occasion. For example, the slowly receding creep of a friend’s hairline is described thus:

we’d been there all along
so the slow thinning never registered--
one minute the sugar maple’s laughing
in the breeze, shaking its hands
like a little girl in a bus station bathroom,
towels all gone and the blower busted,
the next we’re cold, listening
to bones click near the eaves.

By the time one reaches the end of this figurative farrago it’s hard to remember that it started out as a metaphor for male pattern baldness. What Harms is really risking here is sentimentality--a danger to any work that is so focused on mining the personal, and a particular danger for poems as plainspoken and determinedly accessible as these:

On the clean streets of Pasadena
a boy too young to care can’t bear
to let the sticky lollipop lie on the sidewalk,
picks it up, begins to lick.

Some of this work is just too sweet (pun intended). Overall, however, the collection is worth a good read--both for its images of quiet loveliness )“you cupped my face like a handful of water”) and for its masterfully sustained mood, the pleasant ache of chronic homesickness. At the conclusion of the final poem, Harms writes, “I am almost to the gate, / almost ready to depart … I am very nearly on my way.” Readers will sense that the truest words in those lines are “almost” and “very nearly,” spoken by someone who is never going to be able to let go.

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