That old head-scratcher Emerson famously (as Harold Bloom and Richard Rorty have not failed to remind us) said that we either belong to the Party of Memory or the Party of Hope. Peter Makuck, whose Long Lens: New and Selected Poems has been one of the happy arrivals in my mailbox this year, belongs to the former. Yet this new book will also show a man on a three-decade's-long mission to argue that as far as these parties are concerned, it's a distinction without a difference. For without memory the very idea of hope is fatally impoverished.
What the Sage of Concord had in mind was that too much obeisance to the past amounted to a kind of cultural necrophilia. In our (post-)modern day, it no longer takes a sage to see that excessive respect for the past calcifies, enabling a rigid conservatism. We witness evidence of this fact daily in political arenas, and yet my undergraduate political science course, combined with my life's reading of Whitman, reminded me that others, who also have a legitimate claim on a portion of America's soul, have evermore trained a moist eye on the future. Now, let it be said straight up that Makuck's poetry is not political. More specifically, his is not a poetry that takes historical reverberations as its subject (although it does take them in its stride). And yet, it is impossible not to feel that his work it is a continuous and conscious registry of the times in which the poems were composed.
That it is a poetry of "feels" as much as insights and epiphanies is only to say that Makuck takes subjectivity seriously to a degree that pays homage to his predecessors (Wright, et al.), leaving the niggling problematics of subjectivity, with its various cans of worms, to the hungry generations of workshop poets doped on the steroids of theory. Makuck's allegiance to an older, nearly superannuated aesthetic is no more a problem for him than it was for the Yeats of The Last Romantics, who took pride that his poetry was a beauty-bearing form. The past, in this view, comes to the aid of the present. In both cases, it comes to the aid of a poet embarking on senior years, for whom the past is a senior right, and because it is significant, it gives hope a more distinct outline. Blake, who argued for distinct outlines, understood that hope first appears, then takes shape based upon shadows cast. The resolving power of Makuck's poems seems to have just this dynamic in mind.
Makuck's connection to the picturesque South where he took up residence is not that of a sentimentalist. At the same time, he knows that pathos drives the icon. It's the medievalist's knowledge, and it makes me wonder if it isn't perhaps time to unearth and dust off the troubadours' interest in pity, a concept our age has summarily dismissed but which, after all, is sponsored by aesthetics. Although his wit is at the ready, it is not Makuck's tendency to reach for the ironic toolbox. Educated before the School of Irony raised its plastic towers, Makuck knows that the problem with irony is not that it disses the subject and prefers being in-the-know to being in love. The problem is that irony is always, as it were, in second place: it's reactive (and reactionary?). Poetry for him is a believer's art, but from that readers would not be entitled to conclude that he is a naïf, although naiveté can be as much a capacity as a fault. To say the least, it makes wonder possible, and wonder is expansive (irony is reductive). Makuck, in other words, is of that school for which poems provide a larger figuration to memory and experience, and the dignity of the journey–nowhere found in ironic encounters, except in pinched, parodic versionsaccrues in that very space. It is in such a sense, one would suppose, that poetry becomes therapeuticit is the therapy of enlargement, of freeing Ariel from being wedged in the claustrophobia of matter.
The "long lens" of the title poem is not simply the objectivity of the long viewappropriate for a New and Selected (and yet it is that too) but the reach of emotional attentiveness. The alliance of emotion and objectivity is a tenuous one, and Makuck's poems explore this tension as a dance of contraries. "Long Lens" is itself sectioned into three, telescoping like an old spyglass, each section a focal length corresponding to a scene appropriate to art:
. . . she gave me her camera
for my weekly trek through three counties
and asked for photos of anything
she might improve into a painting
If you think that Makuck's book arrives shod in Hush Puppies, you would do well to chalk the impression up to protective coloration. The poet's downward mobility into gentle academic and benign editor conceals the fact that nostalgias of such an order are meant to be reenactments of wonderment, retrospective scenes that seem to have escaped time, yet unfold in the double cadences of the poem and of the existential poet, doing time in the prison of his days (as Auden has it). No wonder the title poem extends its tube, as though the real 20/20 is piercingly telescopic, reaching out to what, minus the poem's optic, fades down a lane bordered by the cryptic on one side and the anonymous on the other. As Dickey reminded us, the poet is the enemy, not of forgetfulness, but of insignificance. Makuck's way is to approach, so to speak, each poem with Dickey's distinction in mind.
It is an unfortunate fact of writing that the really important often seems to border on the fatuous. Indeed, too much significance can, all by itself, put us in mind of airy nothings. That's why Makuck's poems carefully turn down the rhetorical engine on the excellent theory that understatement such as one finds in Socratic irony works best. The Socratic bottom-up orientation is as near to art as the top-down is to demagoguery. As a matter of fact, one feels that the method itself challenges the speaker to bring it on, with the result that the small volume feels large and stays in the ear and mind, growing that reader-configured abode Rilke spoke of. The majestically cranky Ivor Winters objected that conversation was an unfit model for poetry, that its vessel was too everyday to heft the Verities. Winters opposed the ambivalence of this kind of Wordsworthian poetry, a danger he thought especially powerful to American poets working with democratic armatures. But just such a reliance on meadering is all right with Makuck, whose recurring images include the fisherman setting out and the Tom Sawyer-style wanderer trying his luck, immigrant-American-style against the body and time of America itselfand where, as that body shrinks, time lengthens.
Likewise, in an earlier poem, "Into the Frame," the father-son dynamicconventionally a way of seeing generations as engaging in negotiations, not merely mutual invasions of personal space, the knowing boy, who is the poem's subject, "scoots" a shark look-alike over a shelf in the channel, defying caution but underscoring self-reliance and experiential knowlege. Rereading Hemingway is not required to remind us that the fisherman is a quester after knowledgeknowledge that rewards the thoughtful seeker and attenuates danger. Following this alarming moment, the poem concludes:
The scene becomes a painting again.
Go ahead. Step into the frame,
descend one step at a time
to all that white sand, jade and windy light,
the boy still in you, latent but not lost,
running to tell you his tale.
The tale that the boy tells is precisely this poem. Its clarityits willingness, we might sayfinally to tell becomes a gloss on autobiography. The negotiations between Keats' hungry generations are acted out in the self because those generations already exist in the self, all time folding into the present. The poet knows the dialectics of generations require no greater scope than selfhood. And yet in another sense, scoping is the master trope Makuck has bestowed over his oeuvre. It could have been the figure of this peregrine immigrants' son, going down a towpath, a towpath that he domesticates with his very footsteps. It could have been that of the angler, the poet who works by "angling," who holds temptation this way and that, until nature rises to his bait. But Makuck chooses an imagethe long lensthat empathizes perspective over these images of enactment. Or rather, he chooses an image that encloses our understanding of all enactments.
Perhaps the key poem in Makuck's earlier work is "Against Distance," a poem of rescue:
I reached the boy
with just enough breath to blurt,
"Stay with the tube,"
then over and over told him not to worry,
though I did
because the current was wicked and fast
and the pier hurried back and away.
"Wicked" here carries just the right amount of kid-tuned menace and resistant swagger, already bonding the boy to his accidental savior. As the riptide carries both toward danger in this nonce-camaraderie, the poet becomes aware of other currents:
E.T. was his favorite film,
baseball his favorite game.
His father lived in another town.
Mom's under the pier with her friend."
Plucked from the mundane to the marine ("Less than an hour ago/ I had stood on the porch of our rental"), the poet comes to the rescue of the kid, but even at the site of danger he finds that his heroism, like the unhappy moment of which it is a response, is subject to the vicissitudes of chance. Wishing to exercise some measure of control over the arbitrary sway, he imagines the face of an idol on the façade of an isolated house:
For a moment,
just a moment, I was ready to believe,
to sacrifice whatever it wanted . . .
And then with just as much fealty to the unforeseen the riptide is itself mastered and gradually brought under control:
At some point, unnoticed, the wind
turned about . . .
What follows is that moment of phantasmagoria, of dreamy, retrospective wonder, that one had experienced something of mortal consequence and survived:
I lay on the sofa,
trying to focus that other world
within this one
wavering its magic light on the ceiling,
of the buoyancy still in my limbs . . .
Makuck would know that there are many glosses to this event, for which "That when I woke, I cried to dream again" from The Tempest would not be inappropriate. Indeed, when the poet writes in the final lines that he was thinking of the boy, "who could have been my son/ and kept me from drowning," we understand, almost before those lines appear that it was not the sea only, wherein drowning posed a danger. It was not even the sea mostly, riptide or no. Nor was it a riptide that created the chance for a heroism poised just beyond ordinary decency.
The easy-going manner of many of these poems should not blinker us to the fact that they are also polished and load-bearing when they seem least to be. Long Lens, in fact, is as accomplished for what it doesn't do, as for what it does: it reaches for depths without succumbing to the usual sonorities of gravitas; it radiates feelingthe from-the-beyond feeling of absence (so closely tied to desire) and the (necessary) pity of closure, without becoming sentimental; it's formally adroit without being arty, and its manner invites the reader without manipulation. Makuck's poems have long been favorites of mine, and I hope his new and selected will bring him to the attention of a new audience who wouldn't mind being shown, now and then, how it's done.