Reviewed by Robert W. Greene
Although patently autobiographical, All One Breath tells far more than the story of an individual. This splendid new collection of poems by Harry C. Staley (whose accomplished, affecting earlier collection, The Lives of a Shell-Shocked Chaplain [SUNY-St Andrews College Press] appeared in 1995) replays and redreams an era that belongs to several generations of Americans, those who remember life on these shores from the Depression and World War II onward. The poems gathered here, among their other achievements, bear witness to an age by now almost gone. Yet elegy is not the dominant mode in this work. Rather, something closer to paean prevails, thanks in no small measure to Staley's utter mastery of his art. A kind of jaunty stoicism, not lamentation, characterizes his poetry.
With their ever-shifting themes and tones, the poems in All One Breath reflect the entire range of Staley's life experiences, inner and outer. On the other hand, a single voice, always identifiable, by turns brave, compassionate, comic, fending off (or not) Joycean puns, gently and not so gently mocking, unifies the collection. And that voice, wedded to the work's lightly worn erudition, its author's unmistakable, unflaunted awareness of the tradition in which he is working anglophone poetry of the last one hundred years gives the work its power.
If I could, at this point I would quote, and each time in full, a baker's dozen of the superb poems that make up All One Breath. I would do so in order to show how the poet has found his voice within his own life and times, and where one might situate his work along the broad arc of anglophone poetry written over the last century. Since I may not include an anthology in a review, however, I shall comment on only a few of Staley's texts, but in the hope that readers might then wish to explore his whole collection for themselves. Let's enter the work by considering its second poem, "Early Mission":
I fly the Gotha past my bed,
soar above the reading lamp, and swoop
down toward the rocking-chair.
Looked upon from flight,
the shaggy rug tilts left, tilts right.
The surface of the floor lies flat
but violence seethes beneath
in the parlor just below.
The family's fighting there,
Central Powers, Entente Cordiale,
fighting in the kitchen, in the parlor,
Passchendaele, Armentières, everywhere.
I dive down toward the table,
moderate reddish, well-scratched brown mahogany,
a target worth at least one bomb.
Down below the fighting rages on.
In the heat of battle someone shouts my name;
I drop the plane.
We are in two places at once in this poem, the (unreal) imagination and the (all-too-real) household of a child in 1930s America. Not surprisingly, the air battles that took place over France and Belgium during World War I still rage in the war games of at least one prepubescent male in Depression North America. Gradually, then suddenly, despite the boy's daring maneuvers, the din of the actual war raging below his bedroom, the noise of his parents fighting, intrudes, destroys his make-believe war, downs his Gotha. His fantasy can hold off the real only until "[i]n the heat of battle someone shouts [his] name."
In free verse with an iambic tetrameter base and sporadic rhyme (end and internal; rich, near and assonance), the poem moves briskly toward its abrupt close. Monosyllables dominate. The ignored, denied or repressed breaks through, surges up. Upper can no longer control lower. Much is in the images, the concrete detail ("the shaggy rug tilts left, tilts right") and the unstoppable onrush of loss ("I drop the plane"). But even more is in the poem's radiance, in what it leaves unsaid, what hovers in its aura. We never cease trying to parse our family romance or, alternately, trying to break free of its grip. With "Early Mission," Staley offers his own spare account of this primal drama, which puts him in excellent company, somewhere between Robert Lowell's bittersweet Life Studies and the Philip Larkin of "This Be the Verse," with its harsh, categorical first line: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad."
One poem in All One Breath, "The Rat," appears to reprise Richard Eberhart's "The Groundhog" (much as Lowell's "Waking Early Sunday Morning" reprises Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning"), reminding us again that Staley is aware of the tradition from which he springs, that a direct link or at least a close affinity ties his practice to that of a predecessor. In this case, it is as if the later poem picks up where the earlier poem left off, as if a meditation on the futility of all human impulse and endeavor, the thrust of "The Groundhog," has resumed in "The Rat." Here is Staley's poem:
Walking down the cemetery road
I came upon the body of a rat
spared by scavengers, apparently intact
in open air beside the buried dead.
a silent bulge against the tarmac black,
its blacker tail
tapered toward the roadside trench,
I hate rats. Shrewd, they scrounge through filth
and prosper, giggling, squealing, nibbling,
in ghetto walls, or barns, or scuttling
through fetid fields of death.
Not this one, for a moment, not this one
still soft to sight. I saw its corpse
like someone slain you trip across,
enemy or friend, after battle's done,
field-rations clumped in the dead crop,
stiffening away like any mortal man,
like any guy, every lust, every hope,
every instinct, gone.
Perhaps the most striking feature of this poem is its dazzling deployment of near rhyme at the end of lines. Rhyme of any type of course succeeds only to the degree that it enriches a poem, reiterates what is expressed elsewhere in the poem by other means. The near rhyme in this instance, primarily consonance, serves to set off, hence to underscore, the notion of finality, which effectively repeats the poem's thematics. The sound does indeed seem an echo of the sense.
The theme of all is vanity, as old as the hills, traces back to Classical antiquity and the Bible. Yet Staley renews it, partly by his deft use of near rhyme, partly by setting the poem's speaker not in a field or a pasture but a cemetery, a place already designated for the finality of death. The references to horrors specific to our age: "ghetto walls," "field-rations clumped in the dead crop," and the parlance peculiar to our time: "like any guy," do the rest. In a comparison of the two poems, Eberhart's and Staley's, "The Groundhog" holds up, but "The Rat" updates the earlier text and may supersede it. In any event, terse avowal ("I hate rats") trumps declamation.
Staley delights in creating and exploiting patterns of sound, as "The Rat" shows. His propensity in this regard, however, is never indulged for its own sake, but rather is always subordinated to the poet's larger purposes, as witness "Obese as Buddha," which carries as its epigraph the following (Joycean, Beckettian) admonition by Kay Boyle: "Poets, remember your skeleton. In youth or dotage remain as light as ashes":
Obese as Buddha, I betray my bones,
slim and burdened under bulge and bulge of flesh,
a living, obscene burial.
Poet with tenure, I snorkel on sabbatical,
a plump and pompous blimp over swift
and slender fish; never far from shore and sandwiches.
A social square, a bloated sphere,
a pudding paradox, I would appear
narrow and rectangular.
Despite the glee of gluttony, I want to be
proud as Freud, zensitive as Kerouac
with the sleek libido of a shark.
Five quatrains in "The Rat," four tercets in "Obese as Buddha," thus again a certain respect for traditional forms (albeit not Dantean terza rima) declares itself. The end rhymes, however, when they occur, almost seem accidental. Alliteration and internal rhyme, on the other hand, pervade the text, almost to the point of performing a generative function within it. Yet we wonder if everything here in fact flows from the music of words calling out to one another, summoning one another into existence by their physicality, their frictional force.
Something else must be going on. In the guise of a bagatelle, a trifle of self-mockery, something grave surely is being reflected upon. Levitas is masking gravitas. (But can we use such Latin terms with a straight face? Stifling his own smile, Staley allows us to do just that.) From the epigraph, with its references to "skeleton" and "ashes," to the poem's last word, "shark," we are in a universe of lethal absolutes, inside the black borders that define human existence. And we are struggling to get out, if only for the span of a joke.
Westerners may aspire to the weightless condition of the East, but the consequences of such dreams can be pathetic, even tragic, and also silly. We may want to transcend our bulges, our material selves, to become as "zensitive as Kerouac," but we know we'll never make it. Anyway, do we really want out of our corporeal envelopes? Perhaps being a poet with tenure snorkeling on sabbatical is good enough for now.
Speaking of now, the second part of "Uncle Gus Kelly" bears the subtitle "Nuncs," and then the following epigraph: "Time is a succession of nuncs," with the playful attribution: "Aquinas, perhaps." Here is the poem:
I'm running out of nuncs. Running out.
They were beautiful, a few of them;
Some guys had a basket-full, some a box,
some a little paper bag,
and one of them a handful in his pocket;
I forget his name.
Father Brood said he'd save them for his coffin
and for the after-life
where there's a lot of them,
a Jacob's pot of them.
What do they look like? Nuncs?
They're transparent. Brief. They're infinitesimal...
They leave on arrival.
First appearances to the contrary notwithstanding (Aquinas, Father Brood, Jacob), we're on Roman time. Together with the poet, we're meditating on time, on its fugitive nature especially, and we're doing so with the cool stalwartness of the Latin greats of antiquity. Is the poet being serious or funny? Doubtless both at once. Again the interplay of sound and sense seems generative. And again a sudden turn in the text halts the reflection: "They leave on arrival."
The last poem I shall quote and comment briefly on is "The Final Flight." Significantly, this poem concludes not only All One Breath but also Staley's earlier collection, The Lives of a Shell-Shocked Chaplain:
The final flight was quite uncertain.
I accounted for the shift of shadow
because the window curtain
that kept dusk solemn in the meadow
shivered from the sill;
I saw the meadow. It was still.
I had been certain that with human death
there is, invisibly, the final flight,
swift with the anguish of the latest breath
and birds shriek wildly in the night.
I was one to watch him die.
These legends lie.
The little flame above the candle glittered
evenly. I thought it best to leave.
There reached us muffled through the curtain
the common song a late bird uttered
wild with life and very brief.
The final flight is quite uncertain.
I shall limit myself to one or two remarks about this exquisite poem. We are struck first by its formality and adherence to tradition. The rhyme scheme is rigorous: ababcc, ababcc, abcabc, with the first two stanzas upholding the norm for sestets and the third stanza constituting a variation on the norm. The near perfect repetition of the first line in the last is a classic closural device for poetry. As for the theme, a mourner's meditation upon and immediately following the death of a friend, it too has a long history in world literature. (Interestingly, the 1995 version of the poem carries the words "a mourner" in parentheses right after the main title.)
The strength of this poem, however, derives not from its respect for tradition, but from its stance of contradiction and contestation. The final flight, we learn, is neither as grand or as dramatic as "these legends" would have us believe ("swift with the anguish of the latest breath / and birds shriek wildly in the night"). Rather, it is all too ordinary and only to be regretted for its brevity and terminal status: "the common song a late bird uttered / wild with life and very brief." Most of all, the final flight is unknowable, "quite uncertain." It is to be accepted, yes, but without a reverential bow. As we move from the poem's first line to its last, past tense, an event observed, becomes present tense, a truth absorbed.
A lyric poet through and through, Staley nonetheless does not hesitate to insert a narrative spine in his verse. In this, he is closer to Louis Simpson than to John Ashbery. For Staley has stories to tell, stories that come from the heart, that speak of the fleetingness of life and the preciousness of connection. (Just read his unemphatic, deeply moving "About His Grandson.") The epigraph to his new collection, taken from Ecclesiastes, reminds us that we have, all of us, animals and humans, but a single breath to expire. To live is to expire the lone breath allotted to us. With his one breath, Staley has celebrated his years, blown out all the candles on his birthday cake. Whether or not he wished for grateful readers, he has them.
Five poems by Harry Staley appeared in Offcourse Issue #9, April 2001.
Robert W. Greene, Professor Emeritus of French, University at Albany, State University of New York, is the author of The Poetic Theory of Pierre Reverdy (California, 1967), Six French Poets of Our Time (Princeton, 1979) and Just Words: Moralism and Metalanguage in Twentieth-Century French Fiction (Penn State, 1993). He edited Dalhousie French Studies, 21 (Fall-Winter 1991), devoted to "Art Criticism by French Poets Since World War II," and is currently writing a book on the art criticism of the French poet Yves Bonnefoy.
Please contact him in care of Offcourse
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