On any one street near downtown Durham, you can glimpse many different kinds of thresholds: porches clustered with sagging furniture, neatly swept steps with red-painted doors at their summits, screen doors that flap in storms. Each one is a preview of the house inside--yet not exactly part of the house. Entrances stand on their own, testaments to both privacy and allowance, greeters of weather and guests.
Flipping to the first page of three new volumes of poetry, I encountered a similar assortment. Despite criticism about the homogeneity of contemporary poetry these days, the thresholds to Betty Adcock's Intervale: New and Selected Poems, R.T. Smith's Messenger and George Elliot Clarke's Gold Indigoes promised very different interiors. Intervale and Messenger are publications of Louisiana State University Press, which is to Southern poetry what the Cat's Cradle is to the local music scene--both the arbiter of new trends and the preserver of tradition. On the less institutional end of the publishing spectrum, Durham's own Carolina Wren Press has launched an adventurous chapbook series with Gold Indigoes.
Collecting 22 poems by an award-winning African-Canadian poet, Gold Indigoes brings a striking new voice to local readers. With his first poem, "Secret History," George Elliot Clarke doesn't just invite a reader in, he throws open the door with language both intense and conspiratorial:
books at the clock, let bared, shed clothes
collapse, pile like starved
bones in heaps, while moanings amaze
our kiss-startled mouths.
Launched by such bedroom abandon, the 23-stanza poem courses through subjects ranging from Chet Baker to Baudelaire, but its central themes of love and identity are precursors for the work in the rest of the volume.
Addressed to a recurring "you," a woman whose flesh is "luculent gold silk,/a kind of eloquent copper," "Secret History" is a love poem of sorts. Even so, it constantly questions itself, constantly revises its opinion of the beloved. Catalogs of physical description alternate between English and French, and finally fade altogether into considerations of music and poetry. By the last lines--"I give you all, all I have--this epic/lyric"--the poem does not appear to be about beauty at all, but about the eye of its beholder.
This theme gets picked up in "C.," the third section of the chapbook, when the poet overtly sets out to address a former lover and often turns inward instead. In "April 19--: A Sonnet," the speaker wanders by a spring-swollen canal and thinks of C., even though he is now married to someone else:
April-fierce water charging, ferries this
Moaned news: I'll love her even down to death.
I home to the dusk'd cafe, where she'll be--
Snow and crocus now mingling with the rain.
Snow and crocus clearly symbolize the old love coming to smother the new, but what makes this image shine is the rain, the element of indecision between these two extremes.
With well-executed metaphors like this one, and language propelled by dynamic verbs and quick-footed changes of perspective, Clarke creates a singular universe, even in this small book. Occasionally, his lines sag under purple writing ("I home to the dusk'd cafe"), but this introduction to the former Duke professor's works ought to send its readers looking for more. The author of three books of poetry, two verse-plays, an opera libretto and a screenplay, Clarke has plenty to share.
Because Betty Adcock's Intervale is a collection rather than an individual volume, her entrance poem, "Penumbra," does more than introduce several new works. It also prepares you for the verse of a younger poet, who contemplates the violence of Vietnam, her daughter at age 8, the new South. A writer-in-residence at Meredith College, Adcock has published four previous books with LSU Press, and Intervale assembles selections from these.
Constructed in three-line stanzas, "Penumbra" considers the photograph of a girl who waits in exile outside her house while callers come to pay their respects to her recently widowed father.
"The child in the cracked photograph sits still," writes Adcock, her first line emphasizing the word "still" by placing it at the break. In this context, "still" could mean "motionless," but it could also mean that the girl in the picture continues to exist now the way she was then. With a muted rhyme scheme, the poem goes on to describe the rope swing she holds, the rooster beside her and the colors of the scene. The lines go hard and sharp in the final stanza:
I am six years old, buried
in the colorless album.
My mother is dead.
I forgive no one.
Again, the tense is open, the forgiveness suspended forever. And what will the speaker not forgive? Her mother's death, or the fact that she was kept from it? Either and both--the dark ambiguity here reflects the title of the poem, a word that means the half-shadow between the full light and full darkness of a solar eclipse.
Crossing through "Penumbra," you enter a book that continually challenges the assumption that the past is something finished. For Adcock, in poems like the 10-page "Intervale"--where she interweaves a description of a congregation singing and reflections on her deceased mother by relatives and friends--the past is connected like a railroad car to the engine of the present. When one moves forward, the other follows right behind. As she writes in "Locomotion":
Perhaps a woman could leave this, grown
finally past her father's house.
Perhaps she could learn again.
But the door's black frame
leads into another, house
after house. Her life
is put together like a train.
Collecting a quarter-century of Adcock's wise and articulate verse under its roof, Intervale is a first-class volume of poetry, a house you will want to return to, full of the mystery and intricacies of long habitation.
If Adcock's "Penumbra" is a fusion of past and present, former North Carolinian R.T. Smith takes a crack at timelessness in "Sourwood," the opening to his 11th volume of poetry.
"When the keeper has died/whose hands have touched so much honey," he begins, "the village will convene to elect a successor ... " Together the gathered people remember the "sweetness" of the beekeeper's voice, "his dependable hymns," but Smith's quiet elegy soon unfolds into alarm. Someone reminds the crowd of an old belief--that bees will die in the coming winter if they are not told of their keeper's demise. Smith concludes the poem:
Then the question will rise
in a nervous murmur:
Who will tell the bees?
In its somewhat archaic diction--rather than townspeople, there are "villagers"; rather than aldermen, there are "elders"; and furthermore, everyone seems to be a churchgoer--"Sourwood" appears to be talking on a metaphoric plane. With the beekeeper's death, it examines a threat to the natural order and questions who will convey to nature that something is amiss. In Messenger's ensuing poems, it becomes clear that the poet himself--whose verses address wounded stags and Audubon's practice of killing his bird subjects, among other things--is the messenger, the one who will tell the bees.
"You must say your life to save it," counsels a mysterious stranger in Smith's title poem. The epigraph from I Corinthians, "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed," implies that this stranger is Jesus Christ, although he is never named. Appearing three times to Smith before he is 10 years old, "mute/ on fire, no dream," the stranger is both mysterious and alluring, and the boy walks downstairs and out of his house one night to follow him:
... my soles not troubled
by white grass crackling
all the way to the well shed,
the burning that must have
been coming from me.
Smith comes to this kind of revelation often in the book--he is both graced and guilted by the power of his own utterance, a sensibility that likely has roots in his Catholicism. Throughout Messenger, Smith's relationship to nature and poetry is almost mystical, like a priest's to the process of transubstantiation. In the Catholic service, bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. In Smith's poems, the living, witnessed bodies of deer, cardinals and raccoons become bread and wine for readers to consume, and therefore experience.
When Smith's verse is fresh and original, as in "North of Spruce Pine" and "Cardinal Direction," this is a truly satisfying feast. Other times, however, the sameness of his poetic constructions makes them taste faintly like those mass-produced plastic wafers so often given out at communion. A number of the poems start out with a locational phrase that leads directly into a personal revelation (line breaks removed here):
"Here in the grove of oaks and moonlit mask, I find ... " ("On House Mountain")
"Out for a dead-bolt, light bulbs and two-by-fours, I find ... " ("Hardware Sparrows")
"Trimming a redbud whose splendor was just right back in April, I gave ... " ("Raccoon in the Sun Garden")
"Driving Chewacla Road under a sky of tarnished silver, I took ... " ("The Back Road Home")
Aside from this weakness, Messenger is a carefully constructed volume that asks its readers to consider their own place in the world, to answer the ultimate question, "Who will tell the bees?" From first to last, the verse possesses, as Mary Oliver puts it, "a fine, quiet music"--the kind you would hear from a church on Sunday if you were lying on the hill outside it, your bare shins pressed to the grass.