EP&M Online Review
Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 58pp. $22.
Review by Robert Darling
In his essay "Strictures" (from Strong Words, Bloodaxe, Eds. Herbert and
Hollins), Glyn Maxwell wrote that "Poetry is decoration of the breath with
stirrings of the mind." This commitment to the spoken voice has been
apparent in Maxwell's work from the beginning. But with maturity (the
poet turned 40 in 2002) and family, his work has shown greater attention
to the "stirrings of the mind" than before. The result is that a good
body of poetry has become even better in its richness and depth. The poet's
ample talents are on ready display in his latest collection, The Nerve.
Maxwell is increasingly concerned with perception, how the self views and
re-views the world, how language helps or hinders one's dealing with reality.
Of course, Jorie Graham, among contemporaries, has explored similar turf,
but Maxwell remains intelligible. And his ear improves all the time.
The first poem in the book begins "The sea comes in like nothing but the
sea, / but still a mind, knowing how seldom words // augment, reorders them
before the breaker / and plays them as it comes." The ending phrase
of this quote shows how Maxwell mixes various speech idioms and tones to
striking effect. The poet knows "All that should sound // is water
reaching into the rough space / the mind has cleared." He acknowledges
that this is a one-way relationship: "The clearing of that mind //
is nothing to the sea" just as "The means whereby / the goats were chosen
nothing to the god." This introduces an other out there beyond the
indifference of the sea and, in a reversal of the usual course of agnosticism,
it is the god "who asked only a breathing life of us, / to prove we were
still there when it was doubted." This poem not only exhibits some
of Maxwell's range but also his speed--the entire poem consists of ten lines
of iambic pentameter.
Another poem concerned with the approach of language to the natural world
is "One of the Splendours." The poet, having taken up residence in
America, finds the plant and wildlife new, is moved when confronted by "one
of the splendours made to make us think / it's time to learn some names."
He quickly adds "We won't, though. I know us. We like to see // stuff strain
at us from nothing." In "The Leonids" he notes how naming seems to
claim something for us, to put it under our control, which was actually a
widespread primitive belief: "Leonids. A word, / as if they had some source
or destiny" or "As if this date / were something that they keep, / appointment
reached / neither too soon or late." The self claims power: "Leonids.
Our word, our speed, our date, / bawls the affronted mind."
Maxwell writes of the girl called "Genie" in "Stopit and Nomore," the two
"words" that constituted the entire vocabulary of a thirteen-year-old child
who had been kept a prisoner by her father, "Her Cerberus / of a parent."
Rescued and "Given everything, she thrived," but she "was told the names
for this and that, it seems / too late for them to hold." And the poem
I found her
cited in a book I read, Genome,
proving what she proves, or at least supports,
though some say it's too muddied by the life
to pass for science. I say words arrive
for love, or love is gone too soon for words.
"The Strictures of What Was" is a difficult poem, but one in which Maxwell's
speed is especially in evidence; he also plays with the ambiguous use of
pronouns such as one finds in Ashbery, but Maxwell is always meaning something.
He comments on the mind creating its own reality: "What happens / has been
expected and improved in dreams, / it makes its home in seconds; // Plot
is what's recalled, though there was none." A review does not do justice
to this complex a poem that covers a great range in a short space.
Witness the closing:
Nothing's to come
in that place--the word heaven
we used for something else, but the word gone
has what it meant in spades: an open space
the many made in us and only one
from there could ever close.
In "The Surnames" the speaker juxtaposes the England of his youth with Amherst
where he then lived at the poem's telling; he walked to school: "The streets
were lanes again, the houses cottages, / my life so far a daydream of a life
ahead, / my life ahead at home in what had gone before, / my hands in pockets
for a mile of afternoon." And memory recalls the past through names:
Not many contemporary poets can handle the hexameter line with such apparent
Each cottage brought a face and a recalled
that made it catch my eye, hang like a coat of arms
a moment. At the pace I walked, the pace at which
they slip the mind, the surnames might instead have been
white crosses in a formal line, where proper nouns
and silence meet and all that comes of it are flowers.
The Nerve is Maxwell's most American book, and he has filled it with
native characters. There is "The Man Who Held His Funeral": "All his
pals had been invited, / had come from far and wide and there he lay, //
face-up in a hired coffin, taking breaks / for Pepsi while he listened to
their speeches." There is the tragedy of "A Hunting Man" who "set out
from his own truck and his sleeping son, // who followed him, found no one,
and was found / five days later frozen to the ground." The man's sister
remarked, with almost-Larkian understatement, "'Not the best...the thing
he did.'" The poem's ending is particularly strong:
A judge considered thirty days in jail
appropriate for manslaughter. The man
dissented, and some yards from where his son
was found he shot himself. Nothing but snow
about, nothing but trees, nowhere to go.
Peace is as poor a word for what he has
as silence is for what it signifies.
Justice softens to sweet nothings here.
Love holds its own, admit it, as before.
Unfortunately, the abysmal performance of local TV newscasts certainly makes
an impression on a foreigner. In "The Weather Guy," the meteorologist,
Tom, is hoping for bigger disasters to report: "Hurricane This is burning
out / off Providence; Hurricane That / is disappointing Tom, who'd dreamt
/ of half Virginia pounded flat." So, as "Canada pats Tom's shoulder...he
hands us back to Jenni-Ann, // who asks about his weekend plans." (Oh, the
lovely unrehearsed banter between our nightly friends on TV!) It turns
out that Tom's plans "are much the same as ours, / so maybe we'll see him
nosing out / of a local brawl of cars." Thinking maybe Tom might wave
to him, the speaker decides probably not: "Most likely he'll just speed away.
/ And I'd be shy of the love / of those who have to live by what / I have
to warn them of."
Then there are the poor in "The Flood-Towns," people who did not flee the
rising water because they "knew / none in heaven or earth with any stake
/ in stopping it." There are a couple poems dealing with capital punishment,
that atrocity unique to America in the western world; the class of 1950 revisiting
their alma mater in "The Alumni"; and in "The Game Alone" the poet attends
an American college football game and is mystified by the whole experience.
And now a confession: the liner notes speak of school shootings being covered
in this collection. Well, liner notes are often written by people who
haven't read the book. But then in an interview Maxwell mentions the
Columbine shootings prompting one of the poems. For the life of me,
I can't find it, and I've read the book at least five times. Perhaps
this website will run a contest to name that poem and remove me from my perplexity.
Back on course. There are also poems with unnamed sources of danger, a sudden
fear, such as "Haunted Hayride" and "The Stop at Amherst": "I'd be there
/ if everything were changed / and I mean everything, / so, if you see me
there, / absorbed, I would suggest you get out quickly." There also
remains the meaningful whimsy Maxwell has exhibited from the first; in "Playground
Song" the speaker notes, "When over the playground once they came / to tag
me It, then dance away, / I danced away and to my shame / they're waiting
for me to his day." He goes on to remark "When I was called to answer
why / I wasn't there, I wasn't there. / All afternoon you hear them cry /
explain this at an empty chair." And the poem opens up in a way Maxwell
And tiny things too late to do
have gone so far they can't
except at dusk by me and you,
and though I hide till Halloween
you never come, not even now
each hand has reached the other
not even now the light is low
and green as you would not believe.
And this is just a sample. Maxwell makes use of various stanzaic patterns
and rhyme schemes, as was typical of his work from the beginning. There
is no poem longer than four pages in the collection, but after the exertions
of Time's Fool, a 400 page poem in terza rima (reviewed with Maxwell's
other collections in the archives on this site), a lyric breather must have
seemed in order.
Other poems which have particular merit are the title poem, an elegy for
Aga Shahid Ali, a sonnet spoken by the sonnet about the poet, and several
poems where his young daughter plays a role. And there are many others--there
are no throw-away poems in this book. That Maxwell is also a lushly romantic
poet when he wants to be is displayed in "A Child's Love Song," written for
Thumb and finger make a ring
to see the future through.
I can see the world through it,
only the world and you,
only the world and you alone.
If I should break this ring,
where will I find you in the world
though I find everything?
Gee, where's the irony? The nerve! The Nerve is perhaps
the best collection yet by an exceptional poet. Maxwell is still young
and he has been enormously prolific thus far. His presence makes predictions
of the demise of poetry seem a bit premature.
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