EP&M Online Review

Adam Kirsch. The Thousand Wells.
Ivan R. Dee, $18.95 hardcover.

Winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.

Review by Robert Darling

I have been reading Adam Kirsch's reviews for several years now, enough to regard him as one of our major critics of poetry.  He is able to engage with the work of most any poet he reviews on the poetry's own terms; when he does find fault with the work under review, his reservations are thereby far more damning than the general condemnations of William Logan.  He is one of our most thoughtful critics.  (I knew he was young, but--egad!--26!  What has become of my life?)

It was therefore with high expectations that I picked up his first collection of verse, The Thousand Wells, the winner of 2001 New Criterion Poetry Prize.  And I wasn't disappointed.  The Thousand Wells is a very accomplished book without the excess baggage that so often weighs down first collections.  Kirsch is fascinated by transience, but unlike most contemporary verse, his poems shouldn't suffer the fate of their subject matter.

Kirsch works in a variety of forms: ottava rima, triplets, couplets, quatrains and a variety of more complicated stanzaic patterns.  His voice is generally casual and older than his years.  There is a refreshing bit of distance in even the most personal of his work here, and he is not afraid to tackle big subjects without using fashionable and protective irony. 

The book is divided into four sections and, unlike many contemporary collections, the divisions don't seem arbitrary.  The first section is comprised mainly of nature poems, but they are nature poems with a difference--they take place in cities, mainly in city parks.  Kirsch is overwhelmingly an urban poet.  The book begins with two companion pieces "Arcadia (Spring)" and "Arcadia (Autumn)," both of which center on Central Park and, typically, occur at major transitions on the calendar.  The first poem acknowledges: "How can the day end otherwise / Than every previous paradise?" and then answers "Love from its own perfection dies, // As spring against the stronger / Predatory summer / Fights briefly and goes under."  The second poem also states "That everything human and celestial / Moves only in a limited reprieve / From the common sentence," that the "pageantry of nature and of love / Lives in its dying."  But then he adds, "May its death be slow."

For Kirsch is an affirmative poet; like Wilbur, he sees the darkness but does not generally give in to it.  In "Welcome" he wants to at least glimpse secrets that science has not explained away ("As salmon, in the stagnant pool unseen, / Glitter and glide in the gull's patient vision") and he sides with "The Patient Lookers" in the poem of the same name: "They are rewarded here below" while others "Sure that behind a gorgeous screen / The substance of things unseen / Are trying to tell us what they mean" and urge the "tearing of the veil," are to be pitied. 

"Pollution" is a surprising poem on many fronts.  First, the poem is about light pollution and, secondly, it affirms the human perspective light pollution enforces.  The city's light hides what would "put our towers to shame. . .a distant script."  Yet this is good:
    Such clean and unaccommodating skies
    Are gone, but not lamented. We would rather
    Cover ourselves with human things, that rise
    So far and no farther.
At the same time, the poet is not satisfied with scientific explanations that reduce the individual to a mechanism where "higher visions are withdrawn" and "earth, forgetting they have gone, / Is lost among the grosser presences":
    When science is called to ascertain
    The true, and all the rest is story,
    And the bodies of the dead remain
    But not their brave defiant glory;

    Now come! After wandering here so long,
    I ignore every evidence, and pray:
    From this place where the heart does not belong,
    Come, spirit me silently away.
Although time takes all in the rotation of the seasons, still the beginning of the season can be greeted: "With a new season, let new work begin, / And in place of the mind's impossibilities / Let stand the unending fullness of what is."  Further, in "Balsam" the poet offers an invocation to bring about an affirmation of life: "Lift up his downcast eyes; O, Father, let / Your thirsty one know the redeeming taste / Of the thousand wells that stand around him in the waste."

The second section of the book deals more with history. "The Dawn" is a fast tour of western civilization seeking consolation for the passing of time through the metaphor of dawn following dusk but also calls it "a lie / We tell ourselves in order to endure."  "Three Odes After Horace" further consider time and the vanity of human endeavor, and "Heroes Have the Whole Earth for Their Tomb" juxtaposes the classical view of bravery in war as a kind of immortality with the modern anonymous destruction of war: "If trophies were to be built for all, / The urns would leave no room for men, / The names would require an endless wall."  The poem ends with a telling comparison:
    History that the Greeks released,
    Unconscious of evil, from the lamp,
    Now finds its scale so far increased
    That atom-bomb and murder-camp

    Draw less profusion from the heart
    Than a few soldiers killed at sea
    When Pericles, in the crowded mart,
    Read out his invented eulogy.
Kirsch's poem "Washington" is especially timely and should be required reading for the Bush Administration.  The poem takes place on the 4th of July in the nation's capital.  The sound of the fireworks causes the speaker to imagine a war going on, but he quickly reminds himself "No bomb for two centuries has fallen here."  Despite all the flaws of the republic, the state seems permanent:
    This city, anxious showcase capital,
    Vaunting in marble its imperial
    Ambitions in the midst of poverty,
    Injustice, slum, crime, vice and bigotry,
    Still remains standing, troubled but secure,
    And seems eternal.
But he reminds himself, "Greater powers were wrecked" and runs through some former empires--"All, all are fallen."  His mind then moves from the celebrating Mall to across the Potomac where the "Pentagon too is bathed in festive light, / But takes no notice of the holiday," is concerned with "the hidden places, ours and theirs, [which] still bristle / With upreared columns of the wary missile, / Hair-triggered, indifferent, waiting for the call."  The ending of the poem is memorable:
    When the show is done, and once again the moon
    Travels alone through the untroubled sky,
    Thousands will scatter peacefully away
    To home and bed, and the untroubled rest
    Reserved for the not egregiously unjust--
    To work and live in the mild benevolence
    Of the transitory cloaked in permanence.
The section concludes with the poem "The Chosen People."  The poem's relation with its title is surprising in the vein of "Pollution."  The first four of the six quatrains that make up the poem are about the moon's relation to earth, the moon being "devious" and leading "midnight conspiracies / To influence the push and pull / Of wholesome, unsuspecting seas." The moon is both jealous and "beguiled." The poem concludes:
    Yet why should she complain? The fate
    Of each was fixed so long ago,
    And without malice; some dust-clouds
    Settled above, and some below--

    And these, being more numerous,
    Became a planet; those, the few,
    Congealed into a wandering tribe.
    Now what can anybody do?

    Arrangements of such magnitude
    Are given, not made. We who find
    That all our shame and longing won't
    Make us like the rest of humankind
    Should not feel slighted: after all,
    Each tribe has something to resent,
    And we at least are like the moon,
    Lonely and strange and eloquent.
The third section of The Thousand Wells is the most personal of the book, though it stops short of being confessional; it is, to me, the weakest part of the book, though there are still some real strengths apparent.  "One Weekend" is the account of a man spending the weekend with his former lover.  While it is well handled, the poem at four pages fails to carry the intellectual force of most of Kirsch's work.  "A Love Letter" is a breezy five page poem in ottava rima that never quite gets around to being a letter; it does ponder how vows can withstand change and also examines the lexical implications of the seemingly simple (though it never is) statement "I love you."  The strongest poem of the section is "Epithalamium," which can be seen both as a wedding-song haunted by death and as affirming love in the face of death.  The couple is married in a church whose "walls commemorate / The hundreds of less fortunate / Young men who did not hear / A marriage-service there."  Most of them fell in "Italy or France, where soon / Our friends will take their honeymoon."  Yet these names on the wall surrounding the couple are more apt than ironic:
    This summer afternoon, it is
    Proper that they be witnesses
       To this public sacrament;
       Silent, they represent

    The older virtues, and approve
    The form that marriage gives to love,
       Composing present pleasure
       To a statelier, stronger measure.
This leads into a consideration of contemporary marriage:
    Marriage, perhaps, is weaker now
    That law and technology allow
       Urges we once denied
       To be instantly satisfied;

    Indifference makes us tolerant
    Of frailties that have always meant
       Sons's ruin, daughters' shame
       And novels' favorite theme.

    Yet only the modern couple, freed
    From sexual and financial need
       That anciently condemned
       To bondage without end,

    Without embarrassment can choose
    To give themselves, so serious,
       Serene and dignified,
       Like this groom and bride.
The fourth and final section has a less apparent unity than the previous three; perhaps this was inevitable as most poets don't choose the subject matter of individual poems with a book in mind.  "Indecision" is a gentle piece concerned with the different impulses the individual feels.  On a free summer afternoon, the poet sits on his balcony with Mozart on his stereo, a pleasant view before him, a notebook in his lap and an attractive female neighbor sunbathing nearby. Ah, what to do?: "The Body turns to her, the Soul's at rest / In sexless nature, / Ambition writes, but Conscience knows the best / Is done, and culture."  And he concludes the poem in Wilburesque fashion, posing a question, positing an answer:
    And so the day goes by. Is life
       Thus to be wasted,
    Force spent in an internal strife
       And nothing tasted?

    Our fate is not to be the sum
       Of all these joys,
    But to offer them a medium
       And counterpoise.
"Zoloft" laments the quick pharmaceutical fix of anti-depressants that, while offering relief, reduce the individual to a mere physical being: "We are body, to the end. Now misery / Will take its place with polio and plague."  Well, prozac helped Geoffrey Hill and has been reflected with an outpouring of his verse which certainly adds substantial bulk to what was a small corpus--quality may be another matter.  Still, a lot of art deals with "madness and possession, shame and sin" and these may only "Survive, like the humors and astrology, / To make us smile at errors that have been, / Or figures to adorn our poetry."

There are several other fine poems.  "Don Giovanni" takes in enormous scope for a Shakespearean sonnet and "Going to Bed" is a simple but wonderful evocation of deciding that all has been done with a day that one can do, that the masterwork will have to wait for another day.  The Thousand Wells is an exceptional collection.  I do find some of Kirsch's pentameters a bit too frequently interrupted by anapests, but one has to be pleased that here is a young poet who is not afraid of the big subject or of showing his intelligence in clear statement.  We can add the name of one of our important critics to that of our important poets.  The Thousand Wells is a brilliant debut.
                                                                    Robert Darling   
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