David Rigsbee reviews Middle Distance by Stanley Plumly

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David Rigsbee

Middle Distance
by Stanley Plumly

Norton, 96 pages

Death is our most faithful mirror. The image it gives back to us is what the late Stanley Plumly calls “the dream of the end of day.” It puts readers (certainly this reader) in mind of the classic trope that secures final truth for the words of the moribund, who no longer have a horse to play in the game of the world. Rorty called it our “final vocabulary,” by which he meant that the expressive buck stops: there are no more words to spin out the words we say then. No more spin, which also means no more irony, as Kafka, no less, reminded us. The very idea is itself ironic, of course, since the poet’s truths are lost on the poet at the end (being the end) and another, petite irony peeps around the corner in the form of the reader, who continues to spin for the deceased. The poem of the the dead poet thus manages an ambivalence unavailable to those on this side of the soil. It exists, as Plumly came to see, in the “middle distance” between being and not being, between the past that gets more than a comb-over here, and the future with its dread question mark. He takes the term from Constable, and I note that among his services to the Romantic era is a volume (Elegy Landscapes) on the dreamy Constable and the dynamic, essence-dissolving Turner, the twin towers of English landscape painting.

The opening poem, “White Rhino,” proposes the poet as a relic, the last of a breed. It is not, as you might suspect, a sly means of self-aggrandizement. Rather, he finds himself heavy with rumination:

            I hardly recognize myself except in
            memory, except when the mind overwhelms the lonely
            body. So I lumber on, part of me empty, part of me
            filled with longing…

            (p. 19, ll. 13-15)

As the collection makes plain, the poet is facing his terminus, thanks to the multiple myeloma he observes is “still multiplying,” but his instinct is less to revert to magical thinking, than to sort himself out as a poet whose matter involves the particulars of his life, from scenes of his rural Ohio beginnings and onward to the products of his imagination, where time is malleable and anachronisms timely. He becomes, in the title poem, one of Constable’s clouds:

            Constable is aging, failing.
            He thinks I am a cloud, a long white body
            lying in the air over Hampstead, he thinks
            clouds of storm shapes are bodies, like great elms.
            I’m his anomaly, still thinning out.
            Another day he sees me lying down
            undulant in the middle distance, the
            cloud come at last to earth as if the earth is
            part of the corn, the good ground under corn,
            the painting piecemeal, the way he paints, so
            that you have to stand at a real middle
            distance just to see me.

            (p. 20, ll. 1-12)

The metamorphoses in the poem depict the poet becoming his subject’s images, cloud, water, and sky. In his previous works, Posthumous Keats and Immortal Evening, you sensed the poet’s desire to join the visionary company, and The Middle Distance, you find the same fantasy at work. But when Blake wrote “they became what they beheld,” the description was not meant as a compliment. Rather, it was a caution that our minds not be taken hostage by our very projections. In “The Middle Distance” it is Constable who projects Stanley Plumly. For him, a poet is citizen or every world, including the world in which he didn’t exist.

            And I am the water.
            And he light on the water. And if it
            is possible, having also been of
            the plowed and planted and replanted earth,
            I am the sky domed over the boat boy’s
            possible future, when he then arrives
            and put to work all that really matters.

            (p. 20. ll. 21-27)

Just as equally, the poet’s own life traces an elasticity from which meaning is applied to past events. In “Sycamore,” for instance, he recalls being asked to describe the meaning of a leaf to his second grade class. He chooses a sycamore, the tree of choice for poets who thrill at the lovesick pun, but finds himself wordless, an occasion that concludes in much-delayed eloquence:

            As I remember,
            these thousand years ago, I held it from my body
            as if while I was talking it had died and my story
            was an elegy of time, the season passing, winter
            coming on. Of course, this is a lie: I was silent
            and stood there in my cylinder of silence like
            the tree the leaf had fallen from, until the teacher,
            in her mercy, told me to sit down, the way
            I am sitting now, typing.

            (p. 24, ll. 17-25)

Much of Middle Distance touches on friends and family who have gone before, including a former wife, the poet Deborah Digges, who appears in three poems. Many of these remembrances occur in prose sections that muse in greater depth on the perplexities of loss and the inescapable wish to call the dead forth:

            Deborah jumped, for instance, she
            must have thought what was under
            her was water willing to love her
            the way she was loved by so many.
            Suicide is about the imagination.
            It’s a decision based on evidence.

            (“Travel and Leisure,” p. 27, ll. 19-25)

Death lays down the challenge, without which there are no miracles, and indeed no imagination. Thus, in “Jesus Wept,” he makes a startling assertion:

            I believe in death, I believe in the last tree I will
            ever see, perhaps with wind in it just as it’s turning color.
            I believe in my friends’ weeping and in the terrible sorrow
            of my wife, but why, on this side of things with death still
            only a small secret moving inside me, am I so hurt with pity
            for myself, as if, one by one, anything I touch will disappear,
            whatever I see deeply will suddenly become invisible to me?

            (p. 79, ll. 13-19)

The white rhino, who in his other life is a cloud, feels with singular pathos the challenge of each demise. The question comes down to this; what to do, now that I am myself dying, in order to call forth that other who will die again with my passing? It is a terrible question, not made the more acceptable by the answer: this book. And yet…, as Randall Jarrell would point out, and yet with its own roomy appeal, its arm straightened against necessity. It comes down to a question of fitness, even worthiness, somehow: the burden of the soon-to-be dead is to set down in figures, to intone in song, the commemorative weight of the long-ago. Of what worth are these recollections, and by what agency does the poet amass them? Surely there comes into play the singularity of the poet, forced but free, to be the lone author of his subjects:

            and what is this loneliness we long for in that someone
            no one else can be, who lives or dies, depending,
            but who was there, whatever the moment was?

            (“Planet,” p. 23, ll.12-14)

Plumly’s vulnerability is appealing. because it rises to the altitude of worth on the strength of its own lyric ambivalence and puzzlement. Such paradoxes are ever present in Middle Distance, as the poet faces the wall of his life. A poetry situated on paradox becomes itself a kind of recognition of the narrowing in-betweenness in which living, thinking, and feeling are conducted, figured by the slipping in and out of consciousness, as well as shifting depictions of those moments he finds that he carries to the end:

            You get lost in
            consciousness when day turns to night and back again and you
            see into different eyes and the solution you’re floating in lets you
            ride in deeper, higher silence. You could fall into the heart of
            your grave and not know it, which I believe I did when those lung
            doctors thought the heard me break a last breath.

            (“Night Pastorals,” p. 75, ll. 21-26)

In the prose and poetry section, innocuous entitled “Travel & Leisure,” he notes that “No one died, nor was ever going to die.” (p. 29, l. 3). He frames the challenge of writing a “successful” poem by invoking the journeys of other poets, especially Keats, whose movements he actually traces in the manner of Richard Holmes, putting his feet into the footprints of the beloved predecessor. He was, as he says, “on my way to the Keats house”:

            He’s coached up to the Hampstead from
            London proper, on some of the same route as my morning trips,
            Pond Street, with its icy wind, deep dive, and small reservoir
            at the bottom, proves to be the fateful walk leading of his first
            hemorrhage, his “death warrant.”

            (p. 30 ll. 14-18)

            …Keats meets Coleridge for the one
            and only time, on an April Sunday: “There
            is death in that hand,” Coleridge
            would write…

            (p. 29, ll.26-28, p. 30, l. 1)

With so much death on the loose and the looping, inescapable thinking about death, you would be forgiven for expecting the result to be a downer. It is not. It is shot through with Plumly’s tenderness toward his memories and toward the self as the container of those memories, and of the poems that take figure from them. It is terrifying to think that tenderness is so often associated with sentimentality, but if anything, it’s a quality that becomes a value. The value, in its turn, offers expression to the inchoate, especially as the poet’s consciousness goes drifting in his hospital surroundings, where the cheerful awfulness of professionals and the blandly reductive but scary surroundings become inimical to imagination’s usual environment:

            You enter, in our
            mind, in the white darkness of a hospital, half here, half there, all
            kinds of corridors of time.

            (“Night Pastorals,” p. 75, ll. 7-9)

It is a vulnerability, but with that comes encased in veteran toughness, of insistence that the dreamlike quality of old age is itself a summation of the self’s lumbering pilgrimage. The point is not only that death awaits, that the poet is set to become, in Seferis’ term, a “void,” (he asks of Turner, “is void nothing?”) but that the work, often meandering between times and places, testifies to the harmony within disharmony of contingent moments. Is it only we who worry death like a straw in a beetle hole? The rest of living beings are satisfied with the present tense, itself a zone we often pay lip-service to, but rarely one in which we live. And yet that sense that the possession of mind, whether focused or drifting, equals tragedy is also ennobling. Astute readers may pick up on this mic-dropping moment when the poet admits self-pity and tie it to Elizabeth Bishop’s character Crusoe in “Crusoe in England,” who asks, “What’s wrong with self-pity, anyway?” We should all be so pitiful.

Not unlike his Ohio predecessor James Wright, Plumly came to imagine a country of the mind, in his case the Britain of Keats and Coleridge. Unlike Wright, who chose Italy, Plumly’s country of the mind is not a synonym for utopia, but culturally it’s not far from it, and the corrective knowledge available to the future doesn’t diminish its glories, either. If anything, they gain by way of contrast, just as his own journey from a farm in Ohio to the imaginative land of the great Romantic poets and painters marks each end of the spectrum, geographically and historically, as pertinent to the poet he became. In the sway and quiver of his winter dreaming he moves from humble origins (Ohio farm, father’s strong hands and drinking, mother’s “peasant” feet and manual work) to an adopted country where the romantic hero’s steps insinuate an enhanced landscape whose borders are as metaphysical as they are political or geographic. It is helpful to be reminded that Keats himself died in Italy, a land of apotheosis, and so in his roundabout way, Plumly’s final lines join up not only with Keats, but with Wright.

            I think
            I fell deeply and drifted in the dream itself
            of lying there, like those childhood naps
            in which we see ourselves sleeping afraid
            someone will wake us. Someone always does.

            (“Travel & Leisure,” ll. 19-23)

In addition to Plumly’s memories of childhood on the farm, he writes a prose account of German prisoners (“Germans”) indentured to serve the U.S. war effort in World War II. These prisoners, taciturn but skilled and efficient, work for a tree-cutting operation under the command of the National Guard—and under the watchful eye of Plumly’s father. As ex-soldiers, they seem to understand they were drafted as fodder for the Reich and now labor their way toward an unknown future. The eight-year-old poet knows “They are after all Nazis, a self-proclaimed race apart.” At the same time, he begins to understand that “..in this moment, in the spring of 1944, at the mill or out in the woods, this sense of this enemy as the absolute enemy, this sense of the particular men fades…” (p. 51, ll 29-31)

For all his deliberations, Plumly doesn’t come across as someone who would succumb to gray profundity. That wouldn’t do. Rather, his poems impress as deeply felt, mercifully free of ginned-up rhetoric, willing to shelve verse and go with prose when the need arises. He doesn’t signal that the poem is meant to repose in its aesthetic certainty—he is much too ambivalent for that—but his vulnerability that it might not work out leavens his work and furthers its authenticity. For example, in “Deathbed,” he reflects,

            I think I’ll die in a chair. In the ward there’d be those
            so wrapped up and infused you’d think they already
            passed into some place in between, and perhaps,
            for the moment, they had—they’d come back smiling,
            the slow degrees of pain nearly gone from their faces.
            I was lucky, I was only alive, just starting on the journey.
            The ward chairs, with windows, were like lounge chairs.
            You could fall asleep and not know where you were.

            (p. 63, ll 1-8)

In the hospital ward, the days roll obdurately to the end, and time is upended. In one case, he believes he might have died, only to be revived by the doctors. He imagines himself joining the commonality of the mortal coil in quite a literal way:

            The ones with wigs enter the sterile space
            with their eyes cast down, the ones with
            kerchiefs focus on the air straight ahead
            of them—I still have my hair, though only in
            a sort of slow-growth way, like frost on a stone.

            (“The Ward,” p. 69, ll. 1-5)

In “Night Pastorals,” he joins the citizenship of the ward and speaks on behalf of its brief denizens, who also experience, even if they don’t make a point of revealing that they know, that the distinction between living and being dead is in fact indistinct. At this point he has become the chorus. It doesn’t take Auden to remind us that, in the next step, he will become “the words of a dead man.” Not only that, those words will be “modified in the guts of the living.” Plumly seems to have taken Auden’s diagram to heart. The result is a book impressive in range, full of surprises and confirmations, lyrical grace, and marks of expired heydays:

            close your eyes for too long and you can be gone. We thought the
            dream was a dream: we thought this later.

            (p. 77, ll. 3-4)

In “At Night,” a very fine elegy for his mother, whose habitual sitting and smoking in the dark becomes absence itself, he turns mid-poem into self-elegy:

            Where would she go, because I would go there.
            In the morning, nothing but a blanket, and all her
            absence and the feeling in the air of happiness.
            And so much loneliness, a kind of purity of being
            and emptiness, no one you are or ever could be,
            my mother like another me in another life, gone
            where I will go, night now likely dark enough
            I can be alone as I’ve never been alone before.

            (p. 80, ll. 8-14)

Being and emptiness serve each other well here, as do loneliness and happiness. They are abstractions, sure, but they don’t read that way. They convey an intimacy that is long-lived and intuitive, a mutual knowledge that the body carries as long as it can. When I finished the collection, I was reminded of lines from Troilus and Cressida. It’s Hector greeting the old advisor of his enemies, Nestor:  “Let me embrace thee, good old chronicle,/That hast so long walk’d hand in hand with time.” That’s the kind of feeling Middle Distance leaves you with. David Baker, Michael Collier, and Margaret Forian Plumly are to be commended for preparing, with notes, this valedictory collection of one of our most big-hearted and thoughtful poets.

David Rigsbee is the author of, most recently, This Much I Can Tell You (2017) and Not Alone in My Dancing:  Essays and Reviews (2015), both from Black Lawrence Press.  His translation of Dante’s  Paradiso is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry.  He is a contributing editor for The Cortland Review.