Difficult Simplicity: On James Longenbach’s The Iron Key

Jeremy Bass

W.W. Norton: New York, NY, 2010. 89 pages. $24.95

One might not expect poems of great abundance to speak quietly, but in James Longenbach’s The Iron Key, that is exactly what they do. A certain soft-spoken musicality characterizes much of Longenbach’s previous work, but his ability in this book to blend narrative fragment with lyric utterance enlivens these qualities in new ways. The result is a sort of pleasant paradox: a book that complicates through its simplicity, poems that reach furthest when they try to remain still.

Certain passages in this book may strike readers as prosaic, flat to the point of discomfort—that’s because they are. In “The Lives of the Artists,” the poem’s first section becomes a kind of list, documenting various historical and artistic details in the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice:

Construction of the nave was overseen by Cosimo, son of Giovanni.

Clement VII, grandson of Cosimo, commissioned the library

As well as the counter-facade of the church with

Its balcony for the exposition of relics. Unfinished at his death

The bronze reliefs of Donatello were designed

To be seen in sequence, at eye level.

So much for abstract language and metaphor. Even when the poem veers into the territory of personal and intimate relationships, the cataloguing tone remains unchanged:

The surface of the bronze is animated

Only if you bring a flashlight

As my teacher did in 1981. For a year

I lived in her large apartment in Trastevere.

In exchange for the room I walked her dog.

His name was Remo. Her husband had died.

All conveyed with the flatness of an historical document. But the concluding lines of this section reinvigorate our perception of the preceding details:

She said two important things.

First, you need to carry a flashlight.

Second, isn’t this beautiful.

To truly feel this sense of wonder as an internalized and visceral force, one that is not simply deserved but absolutely necessary, we must first “feel an equally convincing lack of wonder” (Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry). Longenbach’s gift is that he calls our attention to the seemingly mundane in such a way that returns our attention to the space in which we actually live our lives, a space suddenly infused with transcendence.

A sense of resolution might easily accompany such moments, but Longenbach resists this temptation. Rather than creating “explanations of experience that . . . threaten to dispel its wonder” he wants his poems to “reawaken us” to what he calls “our pleasure in the unintelligibility of the world,” the imminent sense of something always just about to happen (The Resistance To Poetry).

“Mercer Street,” which overlays the stories of residents living at different periods in time on the same street, is a web of unresolved storylines: “Elizabeth, called Betty,” and her “five daughters: Gale, Mary, Jean, Roberta, and Fran”; a certain “Albert” who “published the General Theory of Relativity in 1916”; Betty’s dog “Fuzzy” who “follow[s] Albert home”; and the speaker, who hears “these stories, all of which are true” from a neighbor “when [he] moved to 1685.” At the end of the poem, where we would most expect closure, Longenbach eschews it, avoiding conclusions that could be translated into articulable experiences. “Barberry, a locust chewing on a leaf. / Fran still drives downtown but once she gets / There can’t remember why,” the poem concludes, and we are equally uncertain as to the nature of our journey and its meaning.

It is as if each poem in The Iron Key draws a map of a single subject by charting routes that lead, not directly to their source, but around it, as if to outline its shape in the center. Take “Ficus Carica,” which links ancient and modern civilization through the recurring image of a fig tree. From “Life in the forest” to “Diospolis, city of God,” where “Figs grew plentifully at the roadsides,” we arrive in the modern American city: “Nights aren’t colder where we live, / They’re longer; spring comes late.” The passages connecting these stations in the poem are straightforward and unadorned; they perform the suggestive work of implication almost unobtrusively. On either side of instructions for wintering a fig tree—“before the night of the first frost, / We sever the roots on one side . . . Then dig a trench on the other”—lies the supposition that if “tombs are eternal homes, / Then our homes are merely roadhouses” and its reply: “[Snow] covers our houses, night covers the snow.” We receive sense and deep feeling from “Ficus Carica,” but not the kind we can easily define.

At the core of The Iron Key is the city of Venice, which the poet uses as a backdrop for events in his own life (“I remember // Missing the night train to Rome, / Sleeping in the Campo Santa Margherita”) and for the historical legends of the city (“The oldest door: door-knocker / Shaped like a dolphin”). Venice ultimately serves as a kind of imaginative middle-ground connecting characters in the poet’s life who have no mobility outside the provincial locales of their own lives in Pennsylvania (“Northhampton, where my parents grew up, was a cement town”) or Rochester (“Honoré Sharrer worked in a farmhouse near Rochester, New York”) with those parts of the poet’s imagination that have almost unlimited free reign: Ampelos and Dionysus; Theseus and Ariadne; the plot of canals and streets unfolding like a map in sleep (“Often at night I fall asleep imagining this walk. / Hills, valleys, rivers, woods, fields—”). Venice also serves as a focusing point for the poet’s own sense of vocation and artistic purpose. In our first glimpse of the city, the speaker tells us how, at a young age, “Floating across the Grand Canal / I stepped into my mind” (“The Iron Key”), while later he confides, “Because I wanted to be seen // I made sentences, / I arranged them in lines” (“Seven Venices”).

However, instead of lingering in a single place, The Iron Key uses Venice and its retinue of historical and personal images as an anchor, ranging across a diverse collection of stories. The poems in this volume inhabit locales as disparate as Lake Ontario and Australia, New York City and the Greek isles of antiquity. Invocations to the Greek gods (“Hephaestus, carve me a hollow cup!”) and stories of the poet’s childhood (“The basement where I learned how to paint, / How to hammer a nail”) appear side-by-side with characters from the poet’s adult life (“The last time my father and I went to MoMA / We lingered in the sculpture garden”) and emblems from shared cultural history (“Westmoreland. McNamara. Outside the war was on.”). Factual reports of the poet’s age, dates of events, the names and addresses of previous owners of used books, and even the record label numbers of albums exist alongside quotations from Larkin, Pound, Lowell and Yeats. Descriptions of artwork by Donatello and Carl André share equal space with details about dog-walking, Easter-egg painting, and instructions on how to climb stairs or eat food with a fork and knife. Technically, however, the book is governed by a pervasive temperament that unifies this diversity with clarity and restraint. The poems themselves, in their visual perspicuity on the page, are an embodiment of this elegance and simplicity, a world in which we quickly become immersed for both the straightforwardness of its presentation and the surprising depths to which it leads.

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Click here to read Longenbach’s poem “Ficus Carica,” published in the Fall 2010 issue of The Kenyon Review.

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