Defining the Lyrical

Treatise on Touch, David Baker
[156pp, £9.99, Arc ]

‘This collection is lyric poetry at its best’. I always understood ‘lyric’ meant poetry that was lyrical; poetry that sang on the page; poetry with a strong metrical rhythm. Well, this volume never employs rhyme, nor any of the traditionally-recognized verse forms; though maybe approaching some at times. What it does have in many of the poems is a lyrical energy - so I suppose that that is what the blurb means to convey. And at the heart of this lyrical energy is a singular love. It seems, at times, almost as if the poet is writing a single love poem to one woman: an extended poem sprinkled and dispersed throughout most of the other poems. While the other feature that stands out, and often relates to this on-going love poem, is that the poet circumvents the primary ‘I’ of the lyric by slipping into various voices - something of Coleridge’s ‘ventriloquising for the truth’.

David Baker is a poet whom Marilyn Hacker (her name seemingly misspelled on the cover) describes as ‘the most expansive and moving poet to come out of the American Midwest since James Wright’. And certainly those who know Wright’s work won’t quarrel with that. Wright, too, was a lyric
- if not always lyrical - poet who wrote of that gasoline-flavored but essentially pastoral world of which Baker also writes. But, also, Hacker’s word ‘expansive’ suggests an even greater influence on Baker among earlier American poets, namely, Walt Whitman. Whitman brought a unique sense of democratic openness to American poetry that fitted perfectly with a frontier, pastoral, plainsman’s landscape that, yet, spilled over into the great burgeoning cities of the USA. There is that feel too to the work of David Baker. And although there are no big city, urban poems here, ‘The Truth about Small Towns’ hints at a poet who would be quite at ease with the Whitman (of whom he writes) ‘stopping.../to stroll the Bowery running with dock boys/ and street whores...’; and a poet who brings the same Whitmanesque clear-eyed observation of people and place:

     It never stops raining. The water tower’s tarnished
     as cutlery left damp in the widower’s hutch.

     If you walk slow (but don’t stop), you’re not from nearby.
     All you can eat for a buck at the diner is

     cream gravy on sourdough, blood sausage, and coffee.
     Never lie. The preacher before this one dropped bombs

     in the war and walked with a limp at parade time.
     Until it burned, the old depot was a disco.

     A cafe. A card shoppe. A parts place for combines.
     Randy + Rhoda shows up each spring on the bridge.

     If you walk too fast you did it. Nothing’s more lonesome
     than money. (Who says shoppe?) It never rains.

Or this from a poem entitled simply ‘Patriotics’:

     Yesterday a little girl got slapped to death by her daddy,
          out of work, alcoholic, and estranged two towns downriver.
     America, it’s hard to get your attention politely.
          America, the beautiful night is about to blow up

     and the cop who brought the man down with a single shot in the chops
          is shaking hands, dribbling chaw across his sweaty shirt,
     and pointing cars across the courthouse grass to park....

But back to the question of the lyric-al
. Baker may be a poet both out of and completely within the tradition of free verse, but the sweet (a favourite word of his), tender power of his writing - its feelingfulness - brings that free verse musically alive:

     Now, while your head lolls in my lap, lightly,
     and your shoulders soften with the talcum of sleep,
     not a breath stirs the fern at the window, not a breeze,
     only the muted, underwater blue of the TV
     trying to sell back my soul, all self-love and loathing.
     But sometimes, when I hold still enough, you reach
     from the regions of sleepers and whisper a moment
     the nonsense I love, soft twitters
     like sparrows sipping, or a sigh,

     or whole landscapes of jabber in phrases so clear
     I think you are singing. I want to go where
     you’ve gone to lie so purely at peace.

That was from the somewhat saccharine-titled ‘Our August Moon’; but note the gentle alliteration of that first line. Of even more exquisite beauty is this passage from ‘Cardinals In Spring’, a poem subtitled significantly ‘after Whitman’ (poet’s itallics):

     When we stand, as we must, when the silence
     and fragrant calm settle over us all, as surely they must,
     and the caps come off and our hands flutter up
     to our felt hearts, when we begin to sing
     in a voice so singular it redoubles, echoing off the sky,

     we stretch ourselves proud and pulsing, and the music,
     like an organic truth, throbs through our veins and temples,
over the land of the free, over the vendors and hawkers,
     over athletes and umps, the fireworks blossom
     into smoke-puffs and thunder like the storms of creation.

Though David Baker can be said to align himself with the Romantics
- there are poems here to Shelley and to Emerson, for instance - realistic matters get frequent treatment in his poems. This is a 14-liner called ‘Stroke’:

     In the lilac light, in the lengthening pulse of sorrow
     so profound it was nothing, a numbness, she settled
     one foot for the last time in the brickway dusts.
     This took no time at all. Shadow and substance
     vanished in the lightening moment so near to evening.
     There is a terror that starts low in the throat
     and chokes out even itself. It is clear or conclusive

     the way her other foot followed as if to confirm,
     like the heart’s two beats complete and imprinted.
     She will take this step every moment for the rest of my life.
     She will not walk from the porchlight and spring again.
     There is a long calm that settles every crisis.
     There is a bubble in the blood, tiny and clear,
     singing through the stream on its way to the brain.

Like Bernard O’Donoghue’s poem ‘The Weakness’, this brings out the essential drama of the dying moment. It also emphasises, in its way, the link between the lyric and the dramatic.

Of the more realistic poems in this volume, ‘Still-Hildreth Sanitorium, 1936’ seems to me the finest. Too long to quote in full, it begins:

     When she wasn’t on rounds, she was counting
     the silver and bedpans, the pills in white cups,
     heads in their beds, or she was scrubbing down

     walls streaked with faeces and food on a white-
     wash of hours past midnight and morning, down
     corridors quickened with shadows, with screaming,

     the laminate of cheap disinfectant....

     The first time I saw them strapped in those beds,
     caked with sores, some of them crying
     or coughing up coal, some held in place

     with cast-iron weights...

Perhaps in some ways one of the most surprising and
- dare I suggest it? - unusual things about this poet’s work, despite its several dialogues with literary figures of the past, is the total absence of any traces of academic obfuscation. This, despite the fact that he has considerable experience of working in academia. The only other living American poet with whom David Baker has affinity in both his agrarian background and his non-academicism is Wendell Berry. There may be others, of course? Ted Kooser may be another? But, certainly, there are not many poets who spend a deal of time working in academia who are as free from its influence as David Baker. His writing motivation, so to speak, is best expressed by Edward Hirsch who wrote, ‘These beautifully-shaped poems are fuelled by a deep human desire to rescue the transient moment and memorialize feeling...’; and though I am tempted to quibble a little with the phrase beautifully-shaped’, I whole heartedly endorse the rest. And commend the book as a whole.      

               © William Oxley 2007