Much ear-rich poetry is made of surface sizzle, clatter so bright it bursts from the bobbin, bunches the weft, and weaves tapestries of Mickey Mouse hues, gaudy candy scenes, but there are also poets whose good ears don’t pop but ride on underwires of listening, their rhythms revealing rich psychological and sensual symmetries. Andrew Grace has that kind of ear. His first book, 2002’s A Belonging Field, demonstrates a virtuosity of propulsion and melody that makes the most apt comparisons sound overblown: Hopkins, Herbert, Melville, the gorgeous early James Wright. But that’s not to say Grace is one of those plop plop plop five chicken nuggets to a box formalists who wears his dinner jacket with the label showing; there are also shivers of, say, Michael Palmer and Dan Beachy-Quick in his work, providing an attentive humility that keeps his suit indistinguishable from the body moving in it, a layering effect that makes words like “soul” sensible.
“Hide your form, be orderly within,” Grace writes in “Of Shade and Body Interwound,” a poem from his second collection, Shadeland. As Grace deepens the themes from his first book, such concealment doesn’t show off his cleverness; rather, it is necessary, because poetry is a tool for necessary labor, for work that matters more than showroom features. This attitude fits the agricultural machinery and farmland in many of the poems, in which nature is humanized but, simultaneously, what it means to be human is stoically faced: “Back acreage scrap-cankered: tire, pipe-splinter, one luminous dishwasher” (“X”); “We wouldn’t know a white gown / from a sheet of field mice // caught in a galvanized bath” (“Them Men”); “Penance does exist. It is out past / the leaves cast lunar in fade, out past the buckshot-peppered silo / and all divided idylls” (“Confession”); “The constellations read like an operator’s manual to our reluctant bones: / rise, turn, counterturn, drift, grainout” (“Invitation”).
Midway through “Achilles in the Heartland,” Grace’s musings on fear and ruin take in the necessity of using a tragedy-marked truck; the humanly pragmatic, thus, is part of the intangible and becomes, in Stevens’ sense, abstract:
18, once waited behind our tin shed for all to be dark
and stole the farm truck. It had holes in the floor that would
scroll the hot static of asphalt or packed dirt underfoot.
He made it to Rockford. In his jail cell, before
they even asked us if we wanted to press charges,
he hung himself. The truck was returned and we use it.
Because of this stance toward tragedy, the order Shadeland forges accommodates chaos carefully, rather than tidying it from the scene. This accommodation often reflects Grace’s ambivalence about family and rural life: “A twice-removed heir // to hail-stripped crop and soy blight, I trace the field’s edge back” (“Descent”); “what to say to this family whose three fields we will soon try to buy // at the lowest negotiable price, so that it won’t be our furniture / someday sticking out the back of a flatbed” (“For Tityrus”); “I would be too smart to be a farmer” (“At the Shade House”). Using characteristically elongated syntax, “Curse” conveys how this ambivalence twists and seeps into one’s life:
Nitrogen, silk rot,
for the dry burn, is the field’s drama.
To stop this slow warp of nostalgia
bending damage and balm into an unbroken circle is mine. Pitiable
Such breathless syntax shows Grace’s ingestion of the physical world becoming, through language, a type of metaphysic (“candle flames like commas / prolong the dark,” Grace writes in one of several overt references to the shamanistic links between word and world). Frequently, language’s rollicking sensations reach their peaks at the ends of poems, leaving impressions that are far from dully rounded-off rhetoric: “I measure the sun slice’s / slide of annuled yellows down the star-drilled start of sky, / last work of a year aching to rename itself, word one” (“The 28th Year”); “To have coiled my voice your mouth: yes, your mouth / like a storm, like Hell’s, no, a smaller saffron whirlpool of rue” (“The Imperfect Knowledge of Paolo”); “memory is the moth turning our anthology / of dead ends to dust above the world of our bodies, / whose skins, in the hoarlight, are frail clay” (“Shadeland”).
There’s romanticism here, but it’s tempered by both the toughness of Grace’s compassion and the Hopkins-esque drumming of his frequent compound adjectives and nouns (a barn is described, dazzlingly, as “pigeon-zenithed”). But it’s the grief over the death of Grace’s father, in this book like the sound of a distant mower, that keeps the poems from merely being well-made bits of language. This grief is why the poet looks at fields and sky, almost as one pursued (“The weight nonetheless. The meadow, the same” (“Without You, the Meadow”)). Grace’s self-critical, self-effacing treatment of a topic that, it seems, he’d rather stay silent about puts his tools through their hardest use; especially in the poems “X,” “Y,” and “Z,” we see Grace steadying his plow through a stone-heavy field:
Say my father and my grandfather died on the same day.
Holy X of the Perpetual Proof, show me an unbroken circle.
Moonlit alluvium mimics talc, but press your face to it: it is black.
in the farmhouse’s hush
heard the impact of cow
and train. I went with my father—
she was all
and wilderness. She wailed.
In the dark tent of our
attention, we lanterned
He was beneath a Chevy Suburban when the jack slipped and its weight was revealed to him.
The wind from Illinois is the duration of loss.
The wind from Illinois is a plastic curtain to collapse behind.
The wind from Illinois is morphine.
Grace looks at the world with nothing like nonchalance, twining language and perception to catch the severity of our time on earth. “Clouds like an old tattoo dragging in rain over the West, / you can almost see how the body moves after life, // fish-tailing across the water hemp, suddenly keen, gunning for any heaven,” Grace writes in “Shadeland.” His book is an example of what Wright called “the poetry of a grown man.” It shows that the eternal can be contemporary without bowing to the past, that the stiffness of much formally-inspired verse, and of so much poetry focused on nature and loss, comes from poets, not from the techniques or themes themselves—a matter of sensibility, not of form.
It’s thrilling to see Grace uncover, through varied formal modes, the order that he is living within: he hits hard targets with the strength and precision of an axe-thrower. It’s pure pleasure to witness such splintering.
ZACH SAVICH‘s first book, Full Catastrophe Living, won the 2008 Iowa Poetry Prize. He has recently reviewed books for Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Pleiades, Cutbank, and Kenyon Review Online. His review of Kary Wayson’s American Husband appears in the Spring-Summer 2010 (v5.n1) edition of Poetry Northwest.