Songs for Life: Daniel Mark Epstein’s Dawn to Twilight: New and Selected Poems

Ethel Rackin

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State UP, 2015. 157 pages.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In his notes to Dawn to Twilight: New and Selected Poems, Daniel Mark Epstein invites us to read his latest collection as a kind of lyrical autobiography. He begins by commenting on the collection’s absence of “the longer narrative and dramatic poems that contribute to each volume’s composition and color,” and remarks that he “thought that it might be an intriguing exercise to choose lyric poems from [individual books] in roughly chronological order, and see if those poems would tell a story of their own,” concluding that these “shorter poems, irregularly autobiographical, now emerge as a unified autobiography” (155). Epstein’s editorial decision invites us to reconsider the lyrical dimension of his work, a dimension that may have been overshadowed, given the attention the longer, narrative and dramatic poems he mentions received, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. And while the autobiographical chronology the poet foregrounds is clearly significant, it is the lyric intensity across shorter poems that not only brings his work back to us refreshed, but ushers in the new work as well.

Epstein groups poems chronologically, from “Early Poems and Vignettes, 1967-1980”; “Fin de Siècle, 1981-2000”; and “The Third Millenium, 2000-2008”; to “New Poems, 2009-2014,” allowing the reader to experience one of his major themes: the passing of time. However, the collection, like any good Selected, can also be read peripatetically, to highlight new associations across the writer’s oeuvre. For instance, when we read a poem such as “The Secret” from the book’s first grouping, next to a new poem such as the book’s last, “The Late Sleeper,” the complexity of Epstein’s short lyrics is revealed:

The Secret

She would not pick up stones
even the most beautiful ones
or keep them, let alone
keep them, they never look
the same on the windowsill, or in
a bowl as in the brook;
she would not
pick flowers either
and they grow
so much faster than stones. (12)

That this poem takes place in the span of one sentence would seem to suggest a kind of breathlessness. However, in a series of carefully crafted musical steps, the poem proceeds slowly, meditatively, as the scene unravels line-by-line, doubling back in slant and true rhyme (“stones,” “most,” “alone”) and in repetition (“she would not . . . she would not,” “keep them . . . / keep them”). So there is a kind of contrapuntal movement, marked by short, stacked, enjambed lines, on the one hand, and recursion, on the other. That the poem is entitled “The Secret” is telling, for Epstein has given us here a portrait of a lovely soul, willfully insistent on preserving the secret of beauty in its natural state. At the same time, however, the poem’s subject risks missing the speaker’s secret on nature’s law, at play in the poem’s final comparison between the rate of growth in flowers and stone. Just as the poem itself both rolls on in enjambment and is slowed or stilled though repetition, its story reveals a paradoxical desire to preserve or set in stone what’s moving, living, and changing.

Recalling the extended metaphors in Frost’s short lyrics, such as “Design,” and “The Silken Tent,” poems such as Epstein’s “The Secret” grow more complex the more we read them. For a casual reader, much may be lost. In such carefully wrought short lyrics we are not left with the neat juxtapositions the form may at first seem to imply, but rather with a question that opens onto other larger metaphysical questions.

These complex dynamics are extended in Epstein’s magisterial new poems. Take, for instance, “The Late Sleeper”:

Under a blanket the color of blood
His dreams are gathering, unread. In a room
Vaulted like a gatehouse, the narrow bed
Launches the late sleeper to his doom
At the speed of light, through star meadows,
Like a glorious comet the restless children
Watch wide-eyed from the dormer windows. (153)

As in “The Secret,” Epstein employs the form of the short lyric in “The Late Sleeper” to create an arresting portrait. In this case, the poem’s subject is first described as enshrouded by “a blanket the color of blood” “in a room / Vaulted like a gatehouse.” However, following the short space and duration of just three lines, the “late sleeper” is “launch[ed]” “at the speed of light” “like a glorious comet,” only to be watched by “restless children,” still under cover of “dormer windows.”

Whereas the unexpected reversal in “The Secret” hinges on the paradoxical nature of desire, in “The Late Sleeper,” the poem’s point of rupture and change involves a more concretely physicalized ejection from the suffocatingly safe enclosure of the domicile as body (or “blood”) to the “doom[ed]” dissolution of that body into the external world. And though the poem as a whole suggests the missed opportunities of “dreams gathering . . . unread,” and the rapidity of death in late life, it also invokes the mysteries of what comes next in the “glorious” image of “star meadows.” Like the “restless children” with which Epstein ends the poem, we are left in a state of wonderment.

In fact, it is the sense of wonderment at life, precisely as it passes, of life’s ephemerality, that animates, and at times haunts, many of the finest poems across the Selected. For instance, in “Hope,” from the “Third Millennium : 2000-2008” section, Epstein begins, “In winter the crescent moon vanishes / So quickly in the blue, down the horizon, / Between the starry darkness and morning” (108). The poem continues in gestures of vanishing, fading, or echoing, at times across enjambed stanza breaks, and right up until its end: “I looked up, and the reckless moon had gone.”

Or consider “Autumn Song,” at the beginning of “New Poems: 2009-2014,” which begins with apostrophe, recalling H.D.’s early modernist Sea Lyrics: “Little flower, you live in constant danger: / Likely to be crushed under foot or torn by wind, / Sun-scorched or gobbled by a goat” (139). The speaker then goes on to compare “October days streaked with regrets and tears” to the flower, and his own “delicate, fleeting and vain” days to ships at sea. And, finally, the poem ends in motions of “leaving behind,” “quickly . . . vanish[ing],” and “passing.” It is Epstein’s keen ear and eye that renders this eternal human theme palpable to us once more, inviting us to listen and look more carefully at this beautiful and fleeting world.

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