New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. 112 pages. $24.65.
There are certain moments in his life to which, like hummingbirds returning year after year to the same location, Stanley Plumly has come back time and again in his remarkable career as a poet. A man “sitting on the edge of the bed with my mother’s arms around him, / the one clarifying image,” Plumly writes, “of my father near the end.” A “second plane,” he writes, “and the sequence of death that followed,” September 11th as seen on a “small screen in the coffee bar, four thousand miles away.” The moment, “a story in your head,” of his own birth:
wrapped around your neck, rotting at the navel,
your face already blue, the rest of you
in blood and needing blood, the needle
in your nothing arm to save you,
the memory now a scar of your mortality,
like the fact of being born,
all of it made real by separation.
It’s as if, in returning to these moments, Plumly resolves to—and does—fashion them each time anew, to turn them over in imagination until they yield up their mystery, to see them from “the spiritual or the long perspective.”
Marked, like some Greek hero, by the scar of mortality, Plumly returns in this collection to a past in which he hopes to recover those “forms of Hope”—Dickinson, quoted by Plumly—that seem imperiled as his own mortality takes on greater immediacy. At the same time, it is this immediacy—of death, of forgetting, and of being forgotten—that provides for Plumly the requisite distance from which to appraise the past in the first place; “it can take a long time in a lifetime,” he writes, “to hear, to see a thing.” Plumly’s turn to the past is one of salvage and salvation. In the poem “Brownfields” this existential salvage takes the form of an excursion to an English field, the speaker “picking among the scatter // of what has been a landfill / for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century / cracked or flawed Wedgwood,” rooting among “lavish urn-like shapes [ . . . ] like the piece I have in hand.” In the many pasts in this collection—his own, his parents’, the past of the Romantic poets—Plumly seeks a wholeness, an order he can find most enduringly in memory and, he suggests, in its kissing cousin—imagination.
Against Sunset is Plumly’s eleventh full-length poetry collection, follow-up to Orphan Hours (2012) and Old Heart (2007), the latter a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Plumly reminds us once again why he is the master of elegy. In poem after poem—on Jack Gilbert and Galway Kinnell, on Keats and Coleridge—Plumly shows not only that all life tends toward death, but that all writing tends toward the elegiac. The collection seems constantly pulled toward dying, images in which death seems to step out from the inside of life itself, a kind of latency coming at last to fruition. “You understand that when your own time comes,” he writes, “all this time your father’s lived inside you / with his heart.” Or, in the facing poem, a photo that “like all pictures, will, sooner or later, be an image / of the dead.” Or later—“a book that finally is an elegy.” Even in life we are in death, the old saw goes, but what’s impressive about Plumly’s work is how consistently it manages—despite its turning and returning to death—to avoid platitudes like this one, how, for instance, the collection cultivates a complexly melancholic tone while steering clear of the maudlin or overwrought. These poems are frank, understated meditations that eschew false epiphany and easy resolution; they are the work—lyrical, emotionally resonant—of a craftsman long practiced in the art’s oldest, most enduring questions.
When Plumly turns back to his own childhood, then, he finds there not—or not only—forms of hope, but forms of mortality looming up even at the moment of birth. But death, Plumly reminds us, is also the guarantor—the mother, Stevens says—of beauty, and if this collection is an elegiac one it is also, it must be said, a fierce attempt to salvage beauty before—and as—it vanishes. “I remember, most of all, the trees,” Plumly writes in “With Deborah in Amherst,” “their classic stature, their first-growth size, and how, / in late September, they seemed to die with color.” This is a collection written, we should remember, “against sunset,” and while death is everywhere here, so too is life, so too the defiant affirmation of the imagination and its ability to think—to “travel,” Plumly says—beyond death; another way to put this—even in death we are in life. Plumly develops this fundamentally religious affirmation in the poem “Terminal Insomnia,” where he writes that “night will pass right through you, / so that in the morning Pharaoh’s daughter / will discover you and wake you.” And indeed it is always dawn in this book, it is always that waking, always the self shot through with sunlight.
At the root of Plumly’s thinking about the imagination is the Keatsian idea of the “annulling self,” not a self given over to death, but one able to step outside its physical constraints and access forms of hope unattainable within more ego-centric modes of consciousness. Keats has long been a lodestar in Plumly’s writing, and Against Sunset is in this regard no different; Plumly centers especially here on Keats’s statement that “I have been at different times so happy as to not know what the weather was,” a moment of self-forgetting, of ekstasis, in which the material world falls away beneath the power of thought and feeling. As Plumly frames this act of self-forgetting, “be still for as long as you can stand it, stand still / as if outside yourself, in the second, then the third person.”
Against Sunset is the latest monumental installment in a career that has witnessed the flourishing of our finest elegist. Its melancholy tempered by joy, its death bounded at both ends by life, the collection stands squarely in a Romantic tradition of meditating on the self and its capacity to think on—and think beyond—its own mortality. In the book’s final, title poem Plumly watches the sun sink below the horizon off California. Night, we know, is coming:
And if night is the long straight path of the full moon pouring down
on the face of the deep, what makes us wish we could walk there,
like a flat skipped stone? I’ve seen the sun-path poured at dawn
on the flat other side of the country, but it was different, the yellow
morning red with fire, the new day’s burning hours oh so slowly climbing.
While the sun rises into fiery glory, its “climbing” is also, of course, its descent; its birth, each day, is the beginning of its dying. Here, then, is a mind, like Keats’s, comfortable in contradiction, at home in mystery and doubt. And here is a mind aimed like Keats’s—honed, trajecting—at that beauty beyond both life and death, that beauty, as Keats put it, that “overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” Against Sunset is such an obliteration.