*Check back on Wednesday May 7 and Wednesday May 14 to read selections from John Gery’s new collection, Have At You Now!*
In complex and wonderfully varied poems, John Gery troubles his readers with doubts, failings, and deeply grounded despair.
His new collection, Have At You Now!, is in turn whimsical, comic, erotic, and nostalgic—and yet for this particular reader, the most powerful poems seemed those about our own contemporary incapacity, our powerlessness, our slothful self-regard. Everyday, we hear about horrifying things, and yet we barely do anything even to protest; nor do we know what action we might have taken that could have possibly intervened. If we cannot respond to the terrors of our world, what good are we as human beings, or as poets? What can the poet do except raise a hand in surrender and admit, “I do nothing”?
“I do nothing” is the refrain of what feels like the central poem in the collection, “Appeasement.” The poem moves briskly over six full pages, and at first, it feels as though Gery is attempting to match the epic delivery and scope of “Song of Myself,” presenting in long lines the victims of violence that “impose themselves, like crows in my garden.” Yet, as the central refrain appears and repeats, it feels instead as though Gery is trying to undo Whitman, to reveal that Whitman’s approach has been found wanting. “Song of Myself” seemed like it offered the poet a solution to the problem of being part of mass society, of attempting to remain personal within the vastness of modern life—one can observe it, Whitman says: see it, value it, and name it.
In “Appeasement,” however, John Gery questions that stance, finding in it weakness and vanity, and the peace of mind that it brings only a deliberately cultivated ignorance. And because merely watching is no longer a valued option, but not watching remains impossible, the poet can do nothing but “stand, head hung, shoulders drooping, more from / exhaustion than from humiliation.” Reading, I found exposed my own nervous, anxious life of the intellect, knowing in myself that strange modern combination of connection and isolation, “shut not inside a house but inside a / state of indifference.”
In another great poem, “When Nadine Gordimer Speaks,” Gery suggests that while we are certainly aware of our world’s horrors, we take care not to notice them “so well that we recoil for good.” Here, he seems to be glad for that limit in the mind, and proposes, as a counterweight, our worthwhile delight in the sensual this-ness of the life we have lived—
the odd look a shaggy dog gave once
across a cornfield, that worn-down feeling
after you’ve spent a night caressing
someone ill who deserves your love,
or dressing up for a lingering meal
with no one especially important—
In this poem, the ethical demands of the wider world, and the vital needs of the human life seem balanced, posed as equal forces. But other poems choose a side, such as the very personal melancholy pleasure of “Reading Philip Larkin at 3 A.M.,” (“Only depression keeps me up this late / at fifty-one”) or the deliberately supra-personal scope of “In Our Time” (“In our time, / water and earth were plentiful / and cheap, almost as plentiful, in fact, / as our enemies.”)
Reading Gery’s collection, I found myself asking an odd but familiar question: where is poetry going? If the central focus of the contemporary poem, the human self asking and observing and feeling, is ultimately emptied out, in that same poem, of any significance and value—how long will it be before poets drop that focus altogether? How many poems can the human subject sustain in which its lack of centrality is the central thread?
In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye argued that what he called the ironic mode—this lowering down, this scratching and tearing at the worthiness of the human self as a suitable vessel for art—was evidence that we live in the last days of human-centred poetry. It was a sign, he proposed, that a new religious phase was upon us, as though our ironic art were an attempt to break through a trapdoor, so that the oldest subjects of poetry, the gods, would be able to return, to re-arise. And because Northrop Frye’s idea seems like it reveals interesting tensions in the deeply ironic and yet intensely personal character of much of the poetry that I see being written today, I enjoy looking for hints, in that poetry, of what this coming religious phase might look like.
I saw two such hints in Gery’s collection. The first is that poetry expands, breaking through and beyond the confines of the individual life, taking as its subject the “gods” of our period—the language of our systems and social processes—as seems to be happening in “In Our Time,” or “Flattery” or “English is Dying” (We cannot even conceive of the death / of this music that stirs us to rise”).
The second is harder to pin down, but seems in some way tied to the oracular voice, the human self remaining as the poem’s focus but somehow purified or distanced. At least for this reader, there seemed a palpable shift of voice in poems such as “Return to the Scene of” (“Where is the great fear? / Where is the next bright city?”) and “Seepage” and the deceptively simple “Grace.” That voice seemed like it came from a part of the poet only that poet knows.
Now, I really liked those last three poems, so my talk of Northrop Frye may simply be a framework to justify my own taste. And Gery’s collection is so multiple and wide-ranging—there are so many enjoyable poems I have not mentioned here—that its accounts of everyday desire and memory are marvelously satisfying in their own right. The human self, those poems suggest, is not over just yet. In those poems’ careful arrangement and delivery one finds a model of the sort of care and delight we should all ideally apply to our own scratched and torn human lives.