New York, NY: Penguin, 2017. 112 pages. $18.00.
Style is what you have to accept, or not. If, for example, you demand a poet’s total self-revelation, that you be brought into communion with a fully manifest personality, William Logan will never be your poet. Logan operates in precise exhibition and calculated withholding, all the while giving the impression that the reader is not the only audience, nor, occasionally, even the primary one. In other words, there seems to be something going on in the poems that the reader is only incidentally privy to. This quality is undoubtedly related to his notoriously prickly critical writing, which has made him the critic perhaps most—what? feared? admired? derided? pick one, or several—in American letters today, and the center of a number of controversies. The latest of these, in case you have just returned from a distant land or simply have had more important things on your mind, is the minor storm resulting from his accusation of plagiarism against poet, memoirist, and editor Jill Bialosky. But let’s not.
Logan’s eleventh collection of poetry, Rift of Light, bears the mark of a profound maturity, of a poet in full command of his powers. This is, of course, within the confines of his sensibilities, which in their turn have upsides and downsides, as well as successes and failures, but the cash value of the poet’s surely hard-won control is his ability to soften the hardest edges his failures. That is to say that when his poems don’t work, they don’t inspire derision or contempt, but rather a kind of puzzlement, since the very same function is often successful elsewhere. Take this bit of “On the Late Latin Light,” the third poem in the book, a short, symbol-laden portrait of a certain Jerome (Saint, presumably) in his study: “The semiprecious sunset, windswept, vain, / took the cold buttery light and made it work.”
So far, so good. “Semiprecious,” a big word in both length and significance, does plenty for setting the tone, but is kept in its place by the weight of judgment borne by “vain” and, to an extent, “windswept.” “[C]old buttery light” is, to my mind, not quite in sync with what has gone before it, but is evocative enough (if ambiguously so) to merit inclusion. “Made it work” is a skillfully chosen cap to a pair of lines that might otherwise have overflowed. But here something begins to break down, and I began to wonder, in reading it, whether I gave “cold buttery light” a bit too much slack: “Myopia blurred the rain, laying the dust / It was elegiac lite, in other words.”
The momentum having already been brought to a slower pace, if not a kind of halt, by the commonsensical intrusion of “made it work,” the newly uncomplicated descriptors dull rather than sharpen the impression. The real issue, however, is the second line’s total removal from the scene being set, a detachment that is arrived at neither instinctively nor surprisingly.
To be sure, the poem seems to hover over precisely this kind of break: the allusion to the famously erudite and prolific St. Jerome, the “odd man out, or in, perhaps” who writes in Greek rather than the popular Latin, suggests the poet’s calling to speak to and of the world beyond the immediate linguistic equipment one finds among others, while the world’s openness to such an effort is determined without reference to ability or desire. Well-trodden territory, but the approach here might have opened it anew to exploration had it not remained a mere idea. In short, the “in other words,” an annotation that so encapsulates the orientation of the poet to his subject matter, feels at most like a gesture in the direction of what the poem wishes to accomplish, and one that does not suffice. It seems like that poem could have been written, had the poet given over more (of himself, perhaps) to it.
If, as Logan writes later in the same poem, “There was an hour when style was not the cause,” what I have been describing did not occur at such an hour: if this is a failure, it is wholly the result of style. And this does, perhaps surprisingly, mitigate the consequences, since Logan’s style remains a deeply poetic one, so what doesn’t work in the previous poem may be the key to the next poem’s success. In “The Kiss,” a recollection of adolescence by turns touching, wise, and mischievously funny, Logan seems at once to call attention to his own predilections and apply them to brilliant effect:
I lay on the cooling sand,
my old life a conjunction—and
or or, perhaps, or yet. Or but.
I touched my mouth, bleeding for an invisible cut.
And that was all. One kiss by the glaring bay—
sometimes love happens that way.
A few nights later, this local goddess turned
and said carelessly, in a way that burned,
“I’ve never thought of you that way, I guess.”
She touched me then with the ghost of a caress.
Now, when we happen to meet,
a wall of glass rises on the street
or in the bar where we’ve gone for a drink,
she grabbing in her purse, the night again like ink.
The poem is so good, does a deceptively simple thing so gracefully well, I’m tempted to quote it here in its entirety. While holding up not only the kiss itself but also its varied emotional terrain as objects of contemplation both wistful and rueful, the poem then takes both as somehow active in itself, the kiss replaying again and again (the repetition highlighted explicitly later: “Perhaps there’s a world where we kept kissing”) while the call and response mood of the couplets works so as to set up a field of insight, then question it, then repeat the process within a somehow equivalent yet wholly separate nexus of impressions. I think of standing between two mirrors and suddenly noticing that though each iteration is its own reproduction, you think of the one you’re facing as the first, perhaps even the real image, and not only that but distinct in character from both all the others and the object (i.e., you) it is reflecting. Add this kind of play to Logan’s heartbreakingly strong lyric ability (“Now, when we happen to meet / a wall of glass rises on the street”) and the poem is damn near beyond reproach, given your acceptance (even if provisional) of the poet’s basic stylistic orientation.
This is the general run of things in Rift of Light. Logan seems to see the poet’s task as somewhere between comment, critique, and exhibition, and in many cases this is performed admirably. But his uniqueness is in his emphasis on the first two, the latter relying on his prodigious gift, which, in the worst moments, feels like an afterthought, as in “The Harbor”:
The tiresome creak of the harbor—
fishing sloops at anchor, trying their lines,
and the crestfallen wharf building, clapboards
scoured of their last drip of paint.
This is truly beautiful stuff, but why the italicized “creak”? This feels like the critic’s intuition, not the poet’s; if it were not italicized, I probably would have done it myself in this review, and expressed admiration for the poet who knew better than to do so himself. Meanwhile, that same analytical intelligence applied elsewhere makes for delicate, complex play between convention and innovation, sentiment and judgment, like the opening lines of “The Needle”: “Oh, the usual derangement of yew trees / rising over the garden wall like Japanese mountains.”
It’s a deal you make with any poet, and a big part of what determines whether you’ll make it is your own set of predilections. Logan, however, is a poet of such quality that even if you end up deciding it’s a deal not worth making, you will have gained something worth having.