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Stanley Plumly: The Lyric and The Neo-Romantic Tradition






Stanley Plumly died on April 11, 2019. I came late to Plumly’s writing, only after reading his New York Times obituary. There have been, since his death, a number of testimonials and obits about the man, the teacher, the poet. The Times obit writer, Richard Sandomir lionizes Plumly as a “lyrical poet influenced by Keats,” whose “poignant narratives were inspired by the beauty and transcendence of John Keats’ lyrical verse.” Some have called Plumly the most English of American poets. And in the Harvard Review Chris Cunningham noted of Plumly’s 2013 poetry collection Orphan Hours that:


. . . it is the synthesis of art and memory, the past made present again through poetry, that brings Plumly as close as he will come to redemption: the collection is shot through with Wordsworthian ‘spots of time,’ vividly recalled and recorded moments in which people and things—family members, lovers, friends, strangers on the street—come back to life.”

Peter Davison in The Atlantic Monthly observes:


Plumly’s rich, dense poems give off a special fragrance, the incense of the English Romantic movement mingling with forest odors from the Old Northwest Territory between the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Great Lakes.


Plumly’s love for the British Romantic poets is well-known and through his fictional books, The Immortal Evening and Posthumous Keats, as well as his lectures on Keats and his wonderful collection of essays and reflections on poetry, Argument & Song: Sources & Silences in Poetry, Plumly has certainly earned this comparison.

But he was also an American poet of great originality and protean achievement, and his success at reinventing, extending, and revivifying the modern lyric poem cannot be denied. I would like to take a moment to investigate this achievement closer and point out as well how he advanced the Romantic Movement into the 21st Century.

More than mere literary proxy for Keats—a stately craftsman of beautiful melodic lines steeped in “Wordsworthian ‘spots of time’ vividly recalled,” is a poet of rigor, expansiveness, and immediacy. To my mind, Plumly evidences not only an unusual lyrical refinement and commitment to craft, but employed language that was always fresh and inventive as it was sturdy, harboring the cadences of everyday American vernacular so prized by William Carlos Williams. Plumly excelled at the postconfessional personal lyric and the elegiac memory poem. And he also remained committed to Romanticism’s various themes during the late 18th and early 19th centuries which included: interest in the common man, strong emotions and feelings, awe of nature, celebration of the individual, and importance of imagination.

Plumly was steeped early on in European literature, especially the British literary cannon. He was a product of a formal patriarchal academic system, which subscribed to a thorough education in the classics, with an emphasis on exacting scholarship, erudition, and a thorough knowledge of the Western Tradition

But beyond his roots in European Romanticism, he is quintessentially American and transitions Romanticism into the American ethos. He employs iconic images which are evocative of the American past, but he does not ignore the ever-shifting present.

His poetry reflects the changing “landscape” of the Midwestern flatlands, the rural and urban Eastern Coast, and the lyric experience and struggle of Americans. He is committed, above all, however to the emotional journey of the individual and rejects the concept of the personal as being the political.

In essence, Plumly not only extended the personal lyric grafting it to the confessional mode and the Romantic, but as Joseph Conte in his “Introduction” to the 1998 Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Poets Since World War II (Sixth Series) comments about many later twentieth-century postwar American poets:


These poets extend the confessional mode of Lowell, Plath, W. D. Snodgrass, John Berryman, and Sexton, though they are less strident in their attack on decorum and perhaps no longer able to shock through autobiographical revelation in the era of tabloid journalism. Despite the moderation in tone, these poets continue to explore the psyche and emotions in poems that test the propositions of the self against the experience of the world.


Conte further states:


Poets such as Louise Glück (b. 1943), Robert Hass (b. 1941), Jonathan Holden (b. 1941), Sharon Olds (b. 1942), James Tate (b. 1943), and James Wright (1927-1980) have pursued the family drama and childhood's traumatic incidents, psychic distress and substance abuse, sexual adventuring and marital strife as their common subjects. Beyond the immediate relation to confessionalism, these poets share an exploration of subjectivity that is the legacy of the romantic lyric. Like the odes of William Wordsworth or John Keats—in a language only slightly heightened from the American vernacular and soothing to the contemporary ear—these poems call upon remembrance within a dramatic setting and often reveal the poet's sensibility and identity. Despite Olson's mid-century warning against "the lyrical interference of the individual as ego" in "Projective Verse," the self in the postconfessional lyric once again assumes the role of arbiter of meaningful experience.


Indeed Plumly goes far toward extending Conte’s concept of the postconfessional personal lyric and to champion its continued evolution through the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Born May 23, 1939, in Barnesville, Ohio, he grew up in Winchester, Va., and Piqua, Ohio. His father, Herman, was a lumberjack, machinist and farmer. His mother, Esther (Welbaum) Plumly, was a homemaker.

Tending to be more conservative and conformist by virtue of his upbringing and being raised as a Quaker, Plumly nonetheless bent to the huge social and cultural changes advancing on the horizon. His early verse bridged the rural era of midcentury-American life; the sweeping buy-in to American idealism, individualism, and exceptionalism; the rise of consumerist culture, urbanization; the Cold War “Age of Anxiety;” through the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War debacle, and the Global Warming threat. The pastoral voice of America’s past; the profound fortitude, tenacity and conviction of the Greatest Generation; the protest, discontent and reactionary forces of Late Century capitalist America; and the revisionist relativity of an ever-more diverse and technological society; all found voice and power in Plumly’s verse.

If Plumly is elegiac, his themes singularly focused on the long-lost past, mortality and immortality, and the power of sentiment and memory to heal and educate, I contend it is America he so vitally wishes to mourn yet preserve, repair, and encompass. His love of nature, his specificity at naming birds, plants, trees, native to North America; his gift of detail in painting the American domestic scene; at capturing its diverse collision of cultures; its immigrant way of life; and, also its fundamental qualities and values; all succeed in capturing the American Experience. Plumly is sensitive, aware, and contemporary. He understands the swift disjunctions, the technological quickening, the powerful immediacy of information, and the virtual assault on fixed reality.

His nuanced style is aesthetically invested in poetic traditionalism, nonetheless, he achieves the impossible, by sticking with the lyric form, and yet moving it into the post-post- modern era. Plumly reconstitutes and preserves the possibility for a more continuous American voice, a heritage, and the threads of a tradition—one of quiet aesthetic valuation and above all, honesty and vulnerability. Out of speaking his personal truth, his intimacy with a changing America, his questioning yet compassionate contemplation, comes a worthwhile body of work. There is richness enough in Plumly’s poetry to soothe and persuade even the most disenfranchised, wounded, and angry among us; and there is virtuosity of craft, realism, and critical observation that few can match.


***

The breadth of Plumly’s literary life is impressive. If we start with Plumly’s first book from Louisiana University Press in 1970 In The Outer Dark, we find a poet who has already mastered the musicality and descriptive power and imagery of the lyric and grafted it to the America of a James Wright and the contemplative syntactical mindfulness of Wallace Stevens. A poem such as “Remembering Kansas” (p. 9) is a strong example:



Was there once

in the lean, late fall,

in a pig’s eye:

I remember,

salt dry, the shorn

miles of wasted wheat

winnowing back

and forth across

one taut space to another,

the cornstalk acres between

bristling to a shine:

then listening years,

seasons later in Ohio,

each night lying awake,

my mind as dark

as Kansas,

the same slowing wind

shuttling between silences,

myself a silence

within that wind,

moving within,

without, Kansas.



Consider the last two stanzas of Stevens’ “The Snowman”:


Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place


For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that

is.


Plumly is learning by emulating Stevens, but he is already mastering Stevens’ complex inversions of logic, his rhetorical chiasmus, and fresh repetitions, and thus drawing attention to the vast silence and darkness of the flatlands of Kansas, much as Stevens emphasizes the barren emptiness of the snowy land and the emptiness of the snowman’s “mind.”

Likewise, in his poem “Porches” (p. 18) Plumly effortlessly echoes Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Plumly’s poem in its entirety reads:


In southeastern Ohio there are porches,

one to a hill, that lean into the calm

like the decks of ships too long, too far out.

The coal is gone and the children have nothing to say.

And in the leftover towns the men fall asleep in their

hands.

And the women stand on the porches in the evening

inside the deep eye of the sun,

listening for some kind of wind,

fixed utterly in any direction.



Wright’s poem:


In the Shreve High football stadium,

I think of Polacks nursing long beers in

Tiltonsville,

And gray faces of Negroes in the blast

furnace at Benwood,

And the ruptured night watchman of

Wheeling Steel,

Dreaming of heroes.


All the proud fathers are ashamed to go

home,

Their women cluck like starved pullets,

Dying for love.



Therefore,

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful

At the beginning of October,

And gallop terribly against each other’s

bodies.



We notice how Plumly captures the cadences of Wright’s Ohio narrative and how he, too, seeks to convey the psychological subtext of place and time, social interactions and physical landscape, all with great economy. Plumly in his line: “The coal is gone and the children have nothing to say” presents an odd juxtaposition of two simple statements; statements which seem linked metaphorically and symbolically as both convey the vacancy, the emptiness of purpose and drive, that has resulted from the shut-down of the coal industry in Ohio with the loss of employment and work prospects. This has brought as well a seeming indifference and stymied aspiration to the town’s children. Children who now are unable to express themselves, to engage and interact in their despondency.

James Wright, likewise, gives us: “All the proud fathers are ashamed to go/home, /Their women cluck like starved pullets, /Dying for love.” Wright’s two symbolic statements about the actions, or non-actions, of the “proud fathers,” and the women as “starved pullets” hungry for love, suggest the dearth of affection caused by the impotency felt by the men, who cannot accept and suffer from their loss of status as breadwinners and hardworking coal miners.

Plumly draws in these early poems from his Quaker heritage and to find in the frugality, plain honesty, visual and aural acuity, and simplicity, of the Quaker life, reflection. “From Athens County, Ohio” reveals this affinity and influence. In the poem, Plumly describes his Great-Aunt Ora who is dying of cancer. The lines are short and succinct, but the imagery, as we see in so much of Plumly’s middle work, has already reached a tremendous level of mastery. The diction and rhetoric of the poem all embody the Quaker character. In Ora we see the steadfast inner conviction of the Quaker faith. The poem reads:



Three counties over

Great-aunt Ora

is being eaten inside

out by cancer.

Most days she half lies,

her own luggage,

propped against

the bed’s repeated railings,

while the worm of it

corrupts her liver

on its way to her lungs.

Belmont County is pure

with pedigreed Quakers

addressing the inner-light—

the soulself candle-flame

of God’s clean fire,

within a ribcage,

behind a breastbone.

Ora is transient Quaker.

She breathes intentionally.

And her breath reeks of shadows wound

and winding within her body’s baggage.



Plumly employs a simple, austere vocabulary, with short line-lengths and plain economy of language, that is direct, practical, and physically palpable in manner. The poem conveys not only the simplicity of his great-aunt’s life and surroundings, but also the simple fundamentals of the Quaker religion. According to a BBC report paper Quakers believe that: “the light of God is in every single person” and that “a person who lets their life be guided by that light will achieve a full relationship with God. . . ,” and that “there is good and evil in all human beings, and all human beings can chose between them.”

John R. Yungblut in his article “Quakerism and Jungian Psychology” under a section further titled “The Question of the Shadow” writes:


Jungian psychology is reminding Quakers that in addition to there being that of God in everyone, there is also that of the Devil (speaking metaphorically) in everyone. Sweetness and light must not conceal the presence of meanness and darkness in each of us. Friends are learning that the historic aspiration to perfection must be replaced by the Jungian aspiration to wholeness. The Biblical directive, “Be ye therefore perfect” becomes “Be ye therefore whole.”


The idea of the shadow looms large in Jungian psychology. Many Quakers who are concerned to “follow the light” are perplexed by the persistence of a tug in the opposite direction. They are aware experientially on occasion of a built-in perversity that decrees that the higher the aspiration the greater the potential fall therefrom. They may be comforted by Paul’s confession: “The good that I would I do not, and the evil I would not, that I do.”2 But Jungian psychology is likely to comfort them even more by offering them an understanding of the psyche which takes this phenomenon into account, even if it does not ultimately solve the problem of evil.

We are told nonetheless in the poem that Ora’s breath despite her inner-light of God with all His goodness and sweetness: “. . . reeks of shadows wound/ and winding within her body’s baggage.” The “shadows” of “meanness,” “evil,” and “perversity,” coexist coiled inside her body—a corruptive spiraling suggestive of Biblical iconography, that of the Serpent that winds around Eden’s Tree of Knowledge— the Devil himself in serpent form, compelling Eve to tempt Adam to eat the apple. Further, this image of coiling within the body, alludes strongly with the term “mortal coil” as in Shakespeare. This term has been explained by literary scholars as follows: “Mortal coil is a poetic term for the troubles of daily life and the strife and suffering of the world. It is used in the sense of a burden to be carried or abandoned. To "shuffle off this mortal coil" is to die, exemplified in the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in Shakespeare's Hamlet.”

Quakerism believes for the most part in the present rather than an ultimate heavenly afterlife. The “inner-light,” “the soulself candle-flame/ of God’s clean fire” resides daily in the “transient” body. The Quaker communes and speaks daily with his or her God by quiet introspection and dialogue, and by their actions can chose to exemplify God’s compassion and goodliness, or the Devil’s perversity. The metaphor of “baggage” for Great-aunt Ora’s body is a simple but ancient metaphor for the disposable nature of the body. In many faiths the body is seen as mere mortal vessel. And, as “baggage” suggests a journey, the human being carries throughout his life’s journey this vehicle for the soul and God’s spirit.

The binary of “light” and “shadow,” of course, takes on greater resonance in the Quaker as Yungblut describes above. “Light” is an ancient symbol of spiritual purity, goodness, and the soul’s immaterial essence and matches accordingly Biblical images such as the “burning bush” or “flame of light” that constituted God in the Old Testament. Likewise, “the shadow” or “shades” of hellish corruption, mortal impurity, and carnal putrefaction were also common tropes. This poetic skill to make manifest Quakerism through a careful use of imagery and diction, rhetoric and form, is quite sophisticated and advanced, and shows the growing abilities of Plumly for complex yet succinct symbolic thinking and artistry.

In Plumly’s third book Out-of-the-Body Travel from 1977, there is continued growth and skill. While much of the collection continues Plumly’s lyrical contemplation of his family history, his Midwestern roots, and the harsh, rustic, realities of regional life, he shows greater command and confidence. If In the Outer Dark was somewhat a prequel and apprenticeship, Out-of-the-Body Travel evidences a confident ear, greater rhythmic and syntactic complexity, and overall poems that are lengthier and more thematically threshed out.

In Plumly’s interview in the Kenyon Review with editor David Baker, he says of his first two books, 1970’s In the Outer Dark and 1973’s Giraffe:


My first two books were apprentice books, tryings-out. I never had a teacher, as such, for poetry-writing. I taught myself by studying whom I considered to be the masters, especially the Romantics and Moderns, and especially English models. Thus I have never quite got over the feeling that I sound, constantly, old-fashioned as a lyric poet––indeed, fearful that being a “lyric” poet somehow is a way of being excused. Out-of-the-Body Travel is when I found my voice and a sense of direction; found a way of admitting the silences and the spaces in-between things in my poems. The way my poems have “grown” in size and consciousness is exactly how I, as a person, have grown. The next poems, after Old Heart, will be that much more accepting, and, I hope, large-hearted. There is no substitute for honesty––it changes everything and frees you of the hold of “dark matter.”

The interview with Baker further reveals insight into Plumly’s poetry praxis:


To me, the heartbeat in my poems is syllabic but with an accent that I hope is natural and inherent within the language of the line and the sentence. You have to hear the language, word by word; otherwise, the writing degenerates into the noise of only-narrative, like a book-report of autobiography. The seeing in a poem is in the hearing. The hearing is all the page has: everything else flows from that. If you get the hearing right, then you have a chance to say something of value that will be heard. The hearing has visual qualities too—the right rhythm enlarges the space and helps find the form.



Case in point is his poem “Rainbow” from Out-of-the-Body Travel. Plumly’s dictum that “The seeing in a poem is in the hearing” and “The hearing has visual qualities too . . .” is perfectly illustrated:


Taking its time

through each of the seven vertebrae of light

the sun comes down. It is nineteen forty-nine.

You stand in the doorway drying your hands.

It is still summer, still raining.

The evening is everywhere gold: windows, grass,

the sun side of the trees. As if to speak

to someone you look back into the dark

of the house, call my name, go in. I know

I am dreaming again. Still, it is raining

and the sun shining . . .You come back out

into the doorway, shading your eyes. It looks

as if the whole sky is going down on one wing.

By now I have my hands above my eyes, listening.



Here, the poem’s dreamy imagery is mythic and archetypical in feel. The “you” being addressed could be Plumly’s mother or father, though I am inclined to accept it as his mother. We know it was 1949 and Plumly would have been ten years old. There is an expansive quality to the scene. The prismatic arch of the rainbow with its spectrum of seven colors of sunlight spreading through a summer sun-shower makes vivid the brightness of the evening scene which “is everywhere gold.” This golden hue, of course further imbues the setting with a more precious luster, as in “Golden Age,” or “Golden Fleece,” a time of great value and significance. But the visual also becomes aural. The parent looks back into the dark house “As if to speak/to someone . . .” then calls the poet’s name.

There is a wonderful use of assonance found in the linking of words such as: “taking,” “vertebrae,” “name,” “raining,” and “shading.” The “ing” sound-ending of the various participles “raining,” “dreaming,” “shining,” “shading,” “listening,” and even the noun “evening,” all coalesce in creating a sense of suspension and eternality, which only augments the dreamy and timeless atmosphere of the poem. It wonderfully calls attention to the mythic state of the adolescent mind that has no real consciousness of death or mortality or sense of temporality.

The summer is “still” occurring as it is “still” raining outside. The very insistency of the repeated adverb “still,” suggests both the suspension of time found in dreams, and, again, in adolescence, where time is subject to very different parameters for the psyche. The ratio of “past,” “present,” and “future,” is quite out of balance.

Also, the very opening of the poem lays emphasis on the liminal, subjective quality of human experience as opposed to the objectivity awarded to chronological time. The poem begins with the “sun” “taking its time” to slowly come down to earth through the veil of the rainbow. The third line abruptly declares the factual year of the event as 1949. But this detail has little relevance to the rhythmic and experiential qualities of the poem. Here the rhythmic contours and convolutions of narrative are interrupted; made impressionistic, episodic and antilinear, helped along by the repetition of contradictory temporal qualifiers such as “still,” “again,” and “back,” as well as the many directional qualifiers, prepositions, such as: “down,” “look back,” “into the dark,” “go in,” “come back out,” “going down,” and “above my eyes.” These fits and starts of qualifiers, as Plumly states above in the Baker interview, “enlarges the space and helps find the form” of the poem overall.

In Plumly’s 2003 Argument & Song: Sources & Silences in Poetry he makes several statements about the craft of poetry which seem to have bearing. In the chapter “Words on Birdsong” he writes:


The imagination, an event into futurity, depends on its empiricism, on its evidentiary gravity, on events of personal history, not in order to play with the toys of personal knowledge but in order to release our powerful and catalytic experiences into archetypes.


And in “Lyric Yoga” he reports:


What I took away from Quaker collective meditation was the good sense of stillness—not so much its length in time as its presence within the space of things, which translated as the need for reflection, a sense of order and mindfulness, and a way to reach the insights of contemplation, the deep interior moment.


Indeed, “the deep interior moment” is found as the mother looks back literally into the dark interior of the farmhouse. She appears to be speaking with someone concealed inside—perhaps with Plumly. This mysterious moment is left unexplained as though Plumly is both inside the dream and outside the dream at the same time. And in this moment of outer-body displacement, we see Plumly enticing the reader to wonder who is inside the house and what message is being conveyed. Indeed, a suggestion of importance is relegated to this action as it is found in such a placid environment where silence seems to unusually reign and the visual overpowers. The single-gesture motif of pioneer domesticity with the mother or father drying their hands in a doorway is pure Americana, symbolic of hard manual work, getting the hands dirty, followed by the ritual of washing and drying them clean with simple honest decency and rectitude.

Though he hears his name called by her, the mother “goes in,” disappears, out of time, place, and vision. But she returns and shades her eyes while standing in the doorway, an iconic gesture so familiar to the pictorial history of America from the broad murals, illustrations, and paintings of Thomas Hart-Benton, Norman Rockwell, and Andrew Wyeth, to the cinematic imagery of classic films such as “The Wizard of Oz,” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Plumly’s cultural imagination is vast and ambitious, and much like Whitman, Frost. Lowell and Bishop, attempts to depict what is unique to the American Experience and the American habitat, its soil, its nature, its vast frontier spaces and even vaster possibility for freedom. Much like other American writers from Steinbeck, Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Dreiser, to Tennessee Williams and William Inge, they situate their experience in the heartland, the prairies, the rolling plains where many White Europeans immigrated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And as with our early New England writers, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Cooper, there is an acknowledgement of the native wilderness, the unspoiled forests, dark and pristine, and the extraordinary plenty and beauty of the New World.

But, perhaps the most striking and surprising move by Plumly occurs at the end of the poem. The expectation built by the speaker for the reader is one of active seeing and visualization as manifested in the many visual details revealed throughout, but the poem ends with the word “listening,” and not with “watching” or “observing.” Though not a true example of poetic synesthesia as it lacks the use of pure simile, Plumly does, however I feel, call attention to the suspended qualities and irrational sensory meldings that are implicit in dreaming. Our physical actions in the dream state often do not lead to normal conclusions or logical sequencing of events. And all of this, Plumly achieves in the brevity of a 14-line non-rhyming sonnet.

The level of sophistication in Out-of-the-Body Travel is evident. Plumly has found his stride in merging the American experience with the formal lyric style of Keats, who had an amazing gift at the sensory figuration of nature and experience through language.

The mythic stature of his father and mother as figurative symbols of both strength, love, determination and yet frailty and failure, become important subjects for Plumly’s early collections. And indeed, it has been said, according to William M. Meredith in the New York Times Book Review that Plumly’s poems attempt "to understand and share the long, inarticulate suffering of his parents' lives, and the hereditary implication of that suffering." His father died at age fifty-six of alcoholism, and his mother was a silent witness to that slow death.

In Plumly’s following book of 1983 Summer Celestial we find in “Maples” (p23) a poem of great compassion toward his parents, specifically his mother:


In a wheat field, at evening, the wheat

still green, and torn, a blown red maple

eighty, ninety feet to the crown . . .


The wind, you said, seemed to have crossed

all of Canada to get here, had hit the tree hard.

Leaves, limbs, almost a whole half gone.


I was in your arms, asleep. We had stopped,

as we had stopped before between small Ontario towns.

You would quarrel about distances,


the setting of the sun. Brampton, Port Elgin.

You were in love, big sky, a few big stars.

And always, in cold country, the dark coming on.


You told me we were lost a week,

my father so tanked up he dreamed at the wheel.

Some nights we spent the night in the car.


The moon you called your honeymoon,

something pure but piecemeal, as that night it sat

webbed in the high netting of half a tree.


What the wind, you said, had put there.


Summer Celestial has many fine moments of memory and recollection. Most concern Plumly’s mother and father, and involve painful associations and the desire to forgive. A section of “Virginia Beach” reads:


. . .Mornings I can imagine the men

still go out along the Blue Ridge

to handcut trees—summer and winter,


hickory and oak, sycamore and maple.

Nineteen forty-something-or-other.

I still see my father

sawing on my sister with a whip.

Virginia green. Sometimes when you love someone


you think of pain—how to forgive

what is almost past memory.

All you can remember is the name,

some place you have in mind

where all the blue smoke, all the ghost water collects, . . .


This constant revisiting of the past in his early verse, reaches its peak and turning point with the poem “American Ash.” Even the title is evocative of the towering vigor and sturdiness of Plumly’s father and mother as mythic figures, as indeed it suggests symbolically the strongly engrained American character and basic American principles of our forbearers. The tree image links with family tree and the strong, upright nation that grew and changed over the generations to become a world superpower.

The second stanza in the poem paints a wonderful rustic photographic portrait again of his parents, describing them in small domestic moments and gestures, which seem psychologically resonant as well as iconic for Plumly. Plumly believes the year was nineteen-forty-five. He writes:

. . . Sepia will never get

quite right the year in color, my mother’s

dress, for instance, red and yellow daisies

on a regimental blue to end the war,

nor my father home from work to work his garden.

He has a lantern. It is almost May,

the streetlights coming on, one to a corner.

If it is true the soul is other people,

then the antique finish of the thing

is how we love the past, how the aging

of a photograph becomes, like leaves, deciduous.

At the head of the stairs my mother’s

mother’s bedroom and beside hers the mahogany

and cedar of her father’s . . . For a hundred years

the sun has set against the high side of the house. . .



Here we find again Plumly emphasizing several generations of family. He describes the wood, mahogany and cedar, that made up the furniture—a suggestion of long life and permanence—and the house that has had the sun set against its high side for a hundred years. This poem is filled with tropes, giving us the persistent longevity and legacy of an early American pioneering generation that suffered, worked hard, built and made the nation great through their toil and sacrifice.

In 1989 Plumly published Boy on the Step. Here is found again his wonderful ability to evoke the Midwest and its local color, while maintaining his poetic narrative and elevating it with lyric imagery. “Above Barnesville” is set in his hometown:


In the body of the night sky in ascension—

the starry campion, the mallow rose, the wild potato vine.

You could pick them, though they’d die in your hand.

It’s here, in the thirties, that the fathers panned for gold,

pick-and-shovel, five-to-a-dollar-a-day—you could survive

panning the glacial drift, the split rock, the old alluvial scar.

If you climb the brickpath back to the top of the hill,

for the long hard look, you can still see Quaker poverty,

the sheer tilt of the green-gray roll of the land,

the rock-soil thinning out, the coal breaking ground like ice.

Some of the farmers still use horses for fear of the height, the

weight against them,

as all the working day you can walk to the abrupt edge

of property and watch machines opening the earth. . . (p24)


The skill to weave together America’s natural habitat and history with the personal is strongly evident in Plumly’s six-part poem “Against Starlings.” It is organized into six discrete non-rhyming sonnet stanzas:


3


Not to be compared with the last native

wild pigeon, trap-shot high in Pike County,

Ohio, the fourth day of spring, nineteen

hundred—thirty years after the harvest

of millions filled the buffalo trains east.

They were, by report, “the most numerous

bird ever to exist on earth,” what the

Narragansett called Wuskowhan, the blue

dove, the wanderer, whose flight is silent.

Not to be compared with the smaller, wild

mourning dove, which haunted the afternoon,

which you heard all day till dark. They

were the sound in my sleep those long naps home,

the last train calling down the line in time— (p8)


. . .



5


Not to be compared with the fluted voice,

the five phrases in different pitches

of the thrush, the one Whitman heard, and Keats.

Sturnus vulgaris vulgaris—not to

be confused with the soft talk and music,

the voice that calls the spirit from the wood.

Those that stayed the winter sat the chimney

to keep warm, and cried down the snow to fly

against the cold. They were impossible.

They’d be dead before spring, or disappear

into the white air. —Not to be confused

with the black leaves whirling up the windward

side of the house, caught in the chimney smoke,

the higher the more visible— (p9)



In this poem, which is a meditation on the birds of Native America, Plumly differentiates and classifies the various native species’ characteristics in distinct contrast with those of the European starling. The European starling was a non-native species, a natural menace introduced to North America in 1860 by an eccentric gentleman named Eugene Schieffeln, who wished to populate America with every bird ever mentioned by William Shakespeare. This invasive species soon took over the heartland and wreaked ecological havoc. Plumly touches upon this disastrous issue and so presciently identifies a major crisis on the horizon, namely that of environmental conservation.

This poem is the start of a wider movement in Plumly’s work to introduce the theme of Nature and specifically the recurring subject of birds. Long in the poet’s provenance, birds are symbolic creatures not only alluding to the poet, the lyric as song, as well as the spirit of Nature and the Soul, but, calling attention, in Plumly’s case, to the unique habitat and beauty of Native America, and also its dangerous decline. We find this decline addressed in stanza 3 of Plumly’s poem, where he speaks of “the last native/ wild pigeon, trap-shot” in 1900 in Ohio. He alludes to the massive “harvest/ of millions” of these birds causing their extinction, when once they were reported, “’the most numerous/ bird ever to exist on earth,’” what the/ Narragansett called Wukoswhan, the blue/ dove, . . .” Of this extinction of the passenger pigeon in the 1870s, Naturalist, Mark Avery states in an interview:


Cutting down half of the USA’s forests by 1870 was the main factor. Passenger pigeons nested in forests, roosted in forests, and fed on the fruits of the forest: acorns, beech mast [nuts of the beech tree], and chestnuts. But we followed that up with an industrialized slaughter of the birds—mostly for food, but also for sport—and this was aided by the invention of the telegraph, the spread of the railroads, better firearms, and the lack of regulation of hunting. It was a slaughter rather than a harvest. Trainloads of millions of passenger pigeons were sent from Wisconsin and Michigan back east to the restaurants of New York and Philadelphia.


Plumly intelligently introduces this contemporary threat and worrisome issue. In some ways he evidences “Negative Capability,” the term, John Keats spoke of in 1817 in which the true poet is able to “pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty, . . .”

Broadly speaking Plumly merely observes and reports on the natural world he experienced and experiences both in memory and in his active present; on the one hand a natural world teeming with variety, life, and wonder, and on the other, full of hastening species extinction, death, and wasting.

Again, I am reminded of the Romantic vision of the bird as correlative to the lyric poet. Plumly, the boy, gains insight and an ear for Nature, and is awakened to the lyric and poetry at an early age. He identifies the American landscape as one of his major subjects and themes for his poetic imagination.

He speaks of the “wild mourning dove,” which he heard near home when growing up, which “haunted the afternoon,/ which you heard all day till dark” and which “were the sound in my sleep those long naps home,/ the last train calling down the line in time—" And then by extension in the fifth stanza he mentions Whitman and Keats. Here he refers to the thrush’s particular literary significance for these two poets; in the case of Whitman in “Starting from Paumanok”— “Paumanok” being the Native American name for Long Island where Whitman was born and spent his boyhood— and, in Keats’ case, in “Ode to a Nightingale.”

“Starting from Paumanok” is toward the start of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In this poem Whitman invokes the American landscape and proclaims his awareness of its rugged beauty and expansiveness, speaking of America’s “divine soil,” and its mysterious richness as “a New World.” His famous listings of America’s riches through bold declarative verse lines, lines of robust lengthiness and incantatory energy, will become Whitman’s signature style. Whitman writes:


Having studied the mocking-bird’s tones and the flight of

the mountain-hawk,

And heard at dawn the unrivall’d one, the hermit thrush

from the swamp-cedars,

Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.


Birdsong has classically been associated with poets and poetry throughout history. Frank Doggett in his 1974 essay “Romanticism’s Singing Bird” states that: “By tradition and connotation, the image of the bird at song embodied the poet’s idealization of his art,” and further that the image of the bird has long been “compared to the soul in its brief span of mortal life.” In regards to this association of the “art of the poet to the song of the bird,” we find “Milton’s characterization of Shakespeare as a singing bird warbling ‘his native woodnotes wilde.’” The British Romantic poets saw “a singing bird as an embodiment of creativity and spontaneity who could give the poet advice on inspiration.” Doggett writes:


As an image of the soul, of the poet’s spontaneous creativity, of nature

as a creative source, the singing bird was a complex of inherent suggestiveness for the Romantic poets…When Shelley’s skylark is associated in this way with his idea of art, then the vast space through which it soars can be conceived as space within the self, one existing in thought, and the flight of the bird as a symbolic flight like its singing. With this connotation in mind, Shelley’s singing bird in itself suggests the idea of the poet in the moment of the rapture of invention and open to the springs of creativity from which issue light and sound and music and thought.


The nightingale’s song in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” is “accordant” with the landscape of the woods. Birdsong, compelled by natural forces, therefore becomes the spirit song of Nature. The lyric spontaneity of the bird is representative of “an overflow of vitality,” of “’shrill delight,’” and is connected to the “idealized landscape” of the poet’s environment. Plumly, like Whitman, links birdsong with the American landscape, with its legendary grandeur, majesty, and beauty.

It is no wonder then that in this poem as in many others, Plumly employs the observation of birds and the sounds of birdsong to evoke literary associations as well as add lyric intensity to his settings of memory. Like Whitman, Plumly cites the “fluted voice” of the “thrush,” and associates it intimately with America, as well as links it to the country’s indigenous people’s history and ancient past.

As I have mentioned, Whitman calls his beloved home “Paumanok.” This Native American term preceded what the English settlers called, “Long Island.” Plumly makes mention of the Narragansett tribe and their word “Wuskowhan” for “the blue/ dove, the wanderer, whose flight is silent.” Both poets display a level of cultural sensitivity and knowledge which is not entirely Eurocentric, but uniquely American and respectful of its native history.



***


But from the rural landscape and the memory poem, Boy on the Step, moves toward the more modern subject of the American urban. Plumly who up to now has focused on the rural agrarian mythology of the mid twentieth century world now transitions to the urban American world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Urbanity and the changing political and social realties of American life in the sixties and seventies and onward, to the arrival of the technological revolution, the greater isolation of social life, where solitary communion with nature, Romantic contemplation, are jettisoned toward less privacy, more interconnectivity, mobility and commercialism and information, are all addressed in his later work.

“Coming Into La Guardia Late At Night” is one of Plumly’s first poems to introduce the changing demographic of America, the growth of the urban and suburban coasts, the start of a swift jet-age society, one more internationally sophisticated, cultured, media savvy, mobile, transient, and anti-pastoral.

Likewise, we also hear the first inklings of disruption and alienation, anxiety and the quickening of change. The poem reads in its entirety:



The glide almost outside of time, the plane

at landing speed. It’s January, dead

clear as starlight, the city in the air,

the Manichean pitch-black of the buildings

six thousand feet up the window mountain.

Adrift and north: Capella, Canis Minor.

In another year, leaving the city

in a car, I could see in the mirror

from the backbone of the bridge the wet sun

gliding into just one building, gold on

gold, and into the shadow wells. Like those

blossoms that fall to earth from light-years off,

some of the fire stays, some floats like torches

passed ahead of us along the pathways. p51



“The glide almost outside of time, . . .” is a telling statement. “The Manichean pitch-black of the buildings/ six thousand feet up the window mountain. / Adrift and north: . . .”

would suggest a very different landscape than that featured in Plumly’s earlier work. New York City and the world of the urban and suburban seems menacing. This is a new America which seems unmoored, “adrift,” and uncertain.

And the descriptive phrase “Manichean pitch-black,” which Plumly uses to describe the city buildings, adds an element of soulless materialism and cold evil to the scene. “Manichaeism” here is an interesting choice of adjective for it refers to the ancient religion, which has been variously defined as: “an old religion that breaks everything down into good or evil. It also means ‘duality,’ so if your thinking is Manichean, you see things in black and white;” as well as a belief that: “taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.”

An air of death and coldness is associated with the city. Notice how the occasion of the poem is the month of January, the depths of winter; and, how the line-break after “dead” as in “dead/ clear as starlight” throws greater emphasis on the deathly image. Also, we see how Plumly emphasizes the “materiality” of the city, hinting at its inert otherworldliness, its hostile and alien nature, its stark duality as empty and dark to light as the vast reaches of space. The city, seen in the rearview mirror of his car, presents “the backbone of the bridge,” its skeletal remains, and when the sunlight falls on Manhattan it can barely reach the deep canyons of streets bathed in shadows. Only one lowly building is touched and this sets off the gleam of “gold on/ gold . . .”

This gold illumination would again seem to suggest wealth, surface, conspicuous consumption, luxury, and the material opulence of the city. It also seems to my mind to have an almost Biblical connotation, as the bridge’s “backbone” and the “gold on/ gold” might signify the famous Golden Ram which the Israelites falsely worshipped while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments. This Pagan act of disobedience was a return to the deification of material wealth and secularism.


***


By 1997 and The Marriage in the Trees Plumly has transitioned away from the rural past of his youth and the deep lyric explorations of his family history and his parental memories to an America much changed. Identity politics, performative poetry, protest poetry, AIDS, Reagan, the heavy influence of technology, Wall Street, and the alienation in contemporary America’s booming suburban and urban life; all these factors have propelled America swiftly into a post-Industrial, Information, and Service Industry Age. The rural areas of America became depopulated, the small farms disappeared, corporate farming ventures took over. The social shift had begun. Homelessness, poverty, income disparity, all became commonplace in a country soon to be engaged in continued warfare abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brutal insurgencies and sectarian fighting raged around the world.

If we look at Plumly’s writing in these later years, the dreamy Romantic sheen of the past with its mythic detail and iconic gestures, with his mother and his father as central psychological figures, symbols of early and mid-century American life, have now transitioned toward a deeper meditation on individualism, the anti-Nature environment, and the assault on human emotion and feeling. In “Detail Waiting For A Train” Plumly tells us:


The main floor of Penn Station, early,

the first commuters arriving, leaving,

the man outstretched on his coat,

wide circles of survivors forming.


He’s half in, half out of his clothes,

being kissed and cardio-shocked,

though he was likely dead before he landed.


This goes on for minutes, minutes more,

until the medics unhook the vanished heart,

move him onto the cot and cover him

with the snow-depth of a sheet


and wheel him the fluorescent length

of the hall through gray freight doors

that open on their own and close at will.




Here is figuratively and literarily, the shock of the new. We are plunged into an urban world where life and death have become fragmented, images glimpsed in a crowd, distractions in transit. Stylistically the lines are more prosaic and use the flat tone and diction of modern news reporting. There is little figurative language. The narration is quick, and the mundane nature of the scene, its central figures, are not surrounded in dreamy, atmospheric language, nor a golden, natural light or the sepia tones of a nostalgic past. Here we have “fluorescent” lights, “gray freight doors” that are on automatic, acting on their own. The human element has been whisked away, replaced. The man, the victim, in question, is sprawled half-dressed on the floor in a less than dignified manner. Resuscitation is tried with a machine to cardio-shock the man’s heart back to life. All this is performed by the intervention of medics in full view of a gathering crowd. The unknown dying man is surrounded by strangers, who will soon hurry off to catch their trains. We never learn the man’s name. It is inconsequential to the poem. We are all strangers. And his body becomes one more object, something impersonal to be quickly covered in a sheet and carted away. Death here is presented in a modern context. It is not found in one’s home with family nearby. It is not given spiritual connection or context. There is not the ritual of dying or the slow “making of peace” with one’s earthly departure. It is instead the “unhooking” of some leads, some wires, and metal paddles.

The lyric subject of previous work, adhering to its dictates to find beauty in the natural world and to venerate, paint and frame the past, is violated. Plumly includes a poem entitled “Human Excrement.”



The detail and distinguishing odor,

the sight of it in nature, the odd

fragment on the sidewalk or at the edge

along the skeletal shrub, where those who

look down or feel small in the world see the

new order like a trail of pins or mother-

of-pearl, the starling picked apart like eyes.



Whoever it was had to squat down hard

in the dark and hold breath like a diver,

had to shut out the lights of the cars and noise,

as the failed intimacy of the body

was once more counted against us, so human

after all, so animal or angry,

this answer to longing and our hunger.



We observe how Plumly’s enjambed lines have lengthened and break after words such as the article “the,” which goes against the formal lyric sensibility and is more indicative of prose and news print. A note of reportage has invaded here as it did in the previous poem which detailed specifics about the EMS incident in Grand Central Station. A sense of alienation is found in “Human Excrement,” and its sardonic and coarse subject matter and title combined with its graphic descriptions of human bodily actions reflecting baser needs, is anti-Romantic if anything.

Perhaps Plumly’s most horrifying poem in the 1997 collection is “Farragut North” Plumly begins:


In the tunnel-light at the top of the station two or three

figures huddled under tarps built against the wind crossing

Connecticut at K. It’ll be noon before they rise in their

Navajo blankets, trinkets, ski masks and gloves to start the

day, noon before the oil slicks of ice on the sidewalks thaw. —

In the forties, after the war, in the Land of Uz, when

somebody came to the house for a handout, my mother’d give

him milk money or bread money as well as bread and milk.

To her each day was the thirties. The men at the door had the

hard-boiled faces of veterans, soldiers of the enemy. My

mother saw something in them, homelessness the condition

of some happiness, as if in the faces of these drifters could be

read pieces of parts of herself still missing: like the Indian

woman in Whitman’s Sleepers who comes to his mother’s door

looking for work when there is no work yet is set by the fire

and fed: so that for my mother, the first time she felt, it

became a question of whom to identify with most, the

wanderer or the welcome. —The stunted sycamores on K are

terminal, though they’ll outlast the hairline fractures marbling

the gravestones of the buildings. Under the perfect pavement

of the sky the figures frozen in this landscape contemplate the

verities too fundamentally for city or country: their isolation

is complete, like the dead or gods. When I think of a day with

nothing in it, a string of such days, I think of the gray life of

buildings, of walking out of my life in a direction just

invented, or, since some of us survive within the mental wards

of our own third worlds, I see myself disguised for constant

winter, withdrawn into the inability to act on the least impulse

save anger and hear myself in street-talk talking street-time.

—Such is the freedom of transformation, letting the deep

voice climb on its own: such is the shell of the body broken,

falling away like money’s new clothes; such is my mother’s

truant spirit, moving dead leaves with the wind among

shadows. . . .

The bleak landscape depicted here is officious and cold with sepulchral-white marbled government buildings, which Plumly refers to as gravestones cracked and worn. Plumly points out that at the top of the metro station exit is “tunnel-light,” which alludes perhaps to the divine light supposedly seen in dying as the dearly departed loved-ones wait on the other side during our ascension. However, Plumly gives us instead “two or three/ figures huddled under tarps,” images of the lonely and the homeless; a Holy Trinity debased, abject, and profane. He mentions Whitman’s poem Sleepers, wherein Whitman speaks of his mother showing compassion toward an Indian woman adrift and alone, looking for work. Whitman’s mother invites the Indian woman inside even though there is no work to be had. This is the moral conviction of an older pioneer America, the all-encompassing compassion and charitable love of a far-more democratic spirit; shared fellowship in the face of adversity. No one was shunned or seen any the less or shamed for being poor. Money did not solely equal nurture or sustenance back then. Paper bills and coins alone could not physically appease a hungry mouth in the wilds.

Likewise, Plumly is reminded of his own mother’s acts of daily decency in feeding the hungry men that showed up at their door during the Grim Thirties and the Great Depression. He makes the point that his mother not only gave them money for milk and bread, but also supplied them with the actual staple.

In this regard Plumly reminds us that at one time in American society, money was not everything; it was not sacrosanct. Goods were bartered, people shared life’s immediate sustenance freely with their neighbor—expecting the return in kind. These were lofty aims and values less tangible and commodifiable. Now charity and generosity in modern America, when it exists, is mostly corporate or Federal.

There is so much in this poem to unpack. The only image of nature is in the “stunted sycamores on K” which we are told “are/ terminal,”. Nature has been ravaged, crushed and is dying. The figures of great men and women with their lofty and praiseworthy ideals, D.C.’s abundance of memorials and statues, are frozen and isolated, dead, and as silent as the gods. Plumly presents to us “the gray life” of modern American society: monotonous and passionless, where one thinks “of a day with/ nothing in it, a string of such days. . .”, of walking “in a direction just/ invented, or, since some of us survive within the mental wards/ of our own third worlds, [we] see [ourselves] disguised for constant/ winter. . .”

A “direction just/ invented” is here a marvelous turn of phrase, which, like the best poetry, conveys in one singular image a series of complex thoughts; namely, that modern life, like the modern city, is endlessly being reinvented, suffering from perpetual obsolescence, an alienating impermanence, disorienting as it is transient—the streets and their directions altered and continually changing. The poem finally coalesces into a final barren metaphor of “constant/ winter,” which Plumly joins with a feeling of pervasive paralysis, withdrawal, and the inability to act except in anger. How prescient is Plumly’s thinking at the approach of a new millennium with 9/11 and a dystopian America just on the horizon.

It is here Plumly gives us the complex lines: “—Such is the freedom of transformation, letting the deep/ voice climb on its own: such is the shell of the body broken, / falling away like money’s new clothes . . .” Does America’s liberal freedoms, perhaps—its free enterprise market economy, its emphasis on individuality and free speech, its unbridled forces, not open the door to an authoritarian voice climbing to the top? Doesn’t the common good and the fundamentals of an ethical, democratic human society need strong oversight, discipline and rule of law? All this to temper an incautious transformative credo. Can we condone a society that allows the severest income disparity? Where homelessness is tolerated and human beings are discarded and easily devalued?

This last grim question is amplified by Plumly’s poem “Will Work for Food.” Here are its first three stanzas:


1

He was off the road on the island, the

handmade sign held up for recognition,

his hard face starved around his commitment

to hard work or a handout, staring straight

as a prophet, the slow summer traffic

gliding to the corner, looking, gliding,

as if he were part of an accident,

the lost parent, unnatural, or part

of another thing, a richer flowering,

and we were the poor in spirit passing.




2

Job saying, Thou my God are cruel and cast

me down to be lifted up like driftwood

on a wave, like ash above the burning

of my body, where my bones are starlight

in the cold night air, a night cloud drifting. . . .

Do I not grieve the poor on either side,

on the right and the left, did I not grieve?

I know thou will bring me into the house

let me mourn, let me stand up ignored,

letting me cry in the congregation.



3 The flowering at the end of the long stem of the tension, the way the mallow rose seems nervous in its stasis, taller than a man, common, pale, mucilaginous, the kind of study we will wade out to just to touch and then be disappointed in its color, texture, odor, this wild- flower of the destitute who cut up flowers for flavor and want for everything except spirit, solitude, and famine.


Here we have a homeless vagrant seeking work or hand-outs standing on a traffic island in the middle of a road. He is holding a handmade sign. The man has the austerity of a prophet, the prophet Job. He suffers as Job does for no apparent reason; finds himself tested and adversely tormented by God. And all by virtue of seemingly random and inexplicable chance and circumstance. Trials and tribulations plague him. The “slow summer traffic” glides to the corner to look upon him as though he were “part of an accident/ the lost parent, unnatural, or part/ of another thing, a richer flowering, / and we were the poor in spirit passing.”

We hear echoes of Plumly’s previous poems “Coming into La Guardia Late at Night,” and “Detail Waiting for a Train,” where a cold, modern detachment is at play; as in that “glide almost outside of time” of the airplane coming in to land. All around a dark, heartless Manichean city; or that crowd of rushing commuters who circle momentarily to observe that man on the floor of Penn Station, stricken by a heart attack, and the way his nameless corpse is wheeled out through grey freight doors automatically opening. A curious machine-like behavior and rote detachment has entered human life. The American personal is at a distance. People move through their lives like objects, devoid of an ability to become involved, make contact, or emotionally react other than with remote detachment. They are mesmerized by spectacle and violence, and reduced to always observing. Life becomes a voluminous collection of details and information, visual and auditory, with little chance to process.

The verb “to glide” or the word “gliding” is repeated throughout Plumly’s later poems. This action, like that of the plane landing at La Guardia, seems to signify for Plumly the ever, negative flattening and suspension of reality and human experience; hopelessly transformed into artifice, automated regularity; servile to physics, technology, and perpetual, frictionless, forward futurity.

It is in Old Heart of 2007 that Plumly explores further this enormous shift and transformation, and delves deeply into his own personal journey. An increasing number of his poems are prose poems. “’The Morning America Changed’” deals with 9/11 and Plumly flatly describes:


when I heard the rain in the distance breaking

and then the voice through a window calling

and then on the tiny screen inside

pillars of fire pouring darkly into clouds.




Many poems in Old Heart chart and date the poet’s political and intellectual development as a young man. Some give grave warning to the destruction of the environment or the degradation of our human society. Many begin as nostalgic ruminations on things and people and develop into timelines, exemplars of change. In essence the poet self-examines his contemporary relevance to the American present and takes inventory of his past. And of course there is Plumly’s melancholy kindship with the British Romantics, who understood mortality, the loss of innocence, and of beauty, in face of England’s grim Industrial Revolution.

“Long Companions” chronicles Plumly’s life in regard to America’s modern political history. As with Wordsworth’s masterpiece The Prelude or Growth of a Poet’s Mind: An Autobiographical Poem, Plumly seeks to understand his intellectual and emotional growth; his guilt, short-fallings, core beliefs, and scope of understanding, or delusions thereof. He begins:


We are born the year Hitler invades

Poland.

Blitzkrieg, lightning war, lightning.

We are three months old. And two-and-a

half

when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor.

Kamikaze,

God wind. And six when the war is over,


He continues later:


We are twenty-to-almost-through-our-

teens,

and ready, in a steady year or two, to vote

for Kennedy, outlived by everyone,

including

Johnson, Nixon, and the Cuban. . . .


The poem employs the first-person plural, “We.” A curious choice of pronoun instead of “I.” Does it invoke Plumly’s generational identification, calling attention to his age and historic pedigree? Is it meant to echo “We, the People of the United States” from the opening of the American Constitution? Suggesting the collective voice of all Americans, participants in the originary democratic experience, as a device to remind us of our originary ideals, values and provenance? This short poem rhetorically mirrors declaration, anthem, and jeremiad. We are told the “violent/ sixties” will become “the virulent, violent seventies, /” as Plumly is “fingerprinted, visited, interrogated, / inoculated.” He speaks of growing:


. . . into a life of unintended

consequences,

promises, spilled milk, The Great Wall

the Berlin Wall, any wall on which too

much is written.

Here his voice merges with the nation’s and shares in the country’s own personal culpability, naiveté, and blunder. And how he has been participant in this “Great Experiment.” Plumly enjoins:


Tear them [the Walls] down, start over. Love our

friends

anew, watch them disappear, one by one.

Watch the face of the deep darken

and roll in. Watch the tallest window

buildings break and fall. The heart bobs

and breaks. There is fire in the mirror,

a ghost peripheral profile at the eye.

Time passes, light pours, in themselves

a happiness.


We cannot ignore the reference to 9/11 here as well as the biblical tone of prophecy and Old Testament entreaty. The oceans will “roll in” and flood American coastlines as the earth is polluted and warms; our tallest urban towers will succumb once again to terrorism and assault; the heart of the citizens will again be swayed and betrayed by leaders of the present or to come; there will be race rioting and rage as there always has been, with the ghosts of our past haunting us in the mirror—slave victims, the undocumented, the “unintentional” wrongs; but “Time passes” and “light”—spiritual, idealistic, restorative and beautiful—Plumly’s Manichaean duality of before—can and may return. The apocalyptic and the dystopian may pass, if only momentarily, as the broad arc of history moves on



* * *


Poems such as “Sweat” continue Plumly’s move toward a language that is physically graphic, clinical, corporeal, and coarsened. This diction runs counter to some of the qualities of lyrical Romanticism, but paradoxically it can be seen, on the other hand, as merely a continuation and deepening of Keats’ and Wordsworth’s strong themes of mortality versus immortality; for Plumly by focusing in such realistic measure on the actual deterioration and disease effects of the human body, emphasizes the mortal in order to bring us closer to speculation and persuasion of the immortal. One of these cannot exist without the other ironically. Absence augments and defines presence. Plumly here extends what I call the Neo-Romantic and merges it with the modern lyric.

Thus in “Sweat” Plumly describes a physical memory of his father’s body while at work in the summer heat and later elides this with the deterioration of his father’s dying body. First, he contemplates his Dad’s sweating back while his father is at work building their family home:


. . .boiling from

the massive forehead down, the big salt

drops pooled off the

nose like tears. Then those fluids we keep

mostly to ourselves,

that help us maintain balance or mean to

make us lighter on

our feet—excrement, the urine, the

violent black nose-

bleed, the serum semen phlegm we cough

up in our sleep;

blood on our hands, sun in our eyes; ichor,

chyle and gleet,

invisible, if painful, until some wound or

hemorrhaging—


Then these details transition to a contemplation of his father on his death bed:


. . . everything was obvious—the

night sweats,

stains, and last excretions, old terrors of

the soul now almost

cleansed; old memory, old worry, old

matter from the softest

tissue deep, upwelling from intestines and

bad heart, emerging

at the surfaces of skin, crude oil and water

mixed, as if, by

nature, he were fuel, combustible, on fire,

the welder whose

work it is to burn, the builder who

dismantles brick by board,

his own ruined body in order to build.


These metaphors associated with the process of dying, which address the physical decay and the dismantling of the body in such a feverishly incendiary way, portray the father as welder or builder in the process of demolishing the body to make way for the new. Plumly documents and describes the father’s body in graphic detail: “night sweats,” “last excretions,” extruded “old/ matter from the softest/ tissue deep,” and “upwelling from intestines and/ bad heart.”, a “brick by board” house— here we might infer the body is metaphorically being seen as a physical house, a “house of worship,” or “temple.” Plumly also describes the body as fuel, something combustible, that releases pure energy—a frequent Christian metaphor: the release of the imperfect flesh and ascension of the immaterial soul, which rises as spirit or flame to the heavenly firmament above. In the end, the father embarks on his own dismantling. His new aim is possibly to make room for his spiritual home to come. The use of the “building” metaphor is an apt choice for the hard-working, pragmatic and earthly spiritual ministry of the Quaker religion—the belief system of Plumly’s upbringing—demanded God’s work be done in the here-now, not in some immaterial after-life.


***

Orphan Hours, from 2012 is Plumly’s great masterwork. Here he is at his most assured and masterful. Here all of the elements of his early poetic practice are employed and grafted to a more mature and complex world view. His style and formal elements have broadened. His range expanded. His subject matter, his themes, have grown. His thinking is alert, profound, and again evidences that incredible facility for figuration, lyricism, and extraordinary visual and sonic expression. The haunting landscape of his Ohio and Virginia history, the iconic imagery of father and mother and their family’s troubled bonds, Wordsworth’s melancholy ruminations over the past, and Keats’ odes to nature and mortality, are all merged with a sharp contemporaneity.

America, having already engaged in two bitter and arguably unjustified wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hardened by the draconian regulation of daily American freedoms after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, had irrevocably changed as a nation. A service economy and the Information Age, an explosion in technological innovation, had altered personal behavior and mores about privacy, as well as changed how we accrue knowledge and the style of our learning. Real time was supplanted by virtual time. Down-time, to some, became unimaginable and productivity accelerated. Humanity now fixated on their cell phone screens, surfed the internet for hours. Attention spans plummeted and life became more proscribed, commercialized. Human experience was synthesized, packaged, sold, and simulated.

Quietly though Plumly pushed the personal lyric’s boundaries to fit a radically changed American culture and society. Just as the Romantics had responded and contested the Industrial Revolution in England and Europe, and sought to preserve and husband nature and champion the individual human experience, Plumly found a compelling medium for documenting the encroaching dangers of a technological and dystopian world.

“From the Window of the Quiet Car” in Orphan Hours illustrates this development. Here we find a technologically changed America, where silence, meditation, reflection, contemplation must be consigned and cordoned off to a discrete train car. Plumly travels through time, past, present, and future, with the ease of swiping windows on a smart-phone screen. Modern life is here a disjointed experience, a desperate assortment of sensory overload, a montage of fragments. He writes:



1


Insular as a Quaker meeting.

How in silence the speed of the several landscapes

quickens,

how the money green of the intermittent trees

multiplies.

How the brick industrial ruins take on integrity again,

as if fast light has at last erased the muscle-bound

graffiti.

How the oil on the native waters mixes and unmixes.

How the basic houses and the backsides of small cities

blend,

one heavy dog on a leash with its heavy urban owner.

How the white sun dapples, goes away, comes back as

glare.

How the words of the sometimes book move

independently.

How the mind is afloat, adrift, finding its way in gravity.

How to sleep, now to sleep, off and on, sitting up like a

child.

How to hear what someone’s inspired to say already too

out loud

into an ear, a cellphone, or the meditating air.


2


Thee for my recitative—

the long whistle, long shadow, at so many miles an hour,

the wheels, if there are wheels, a trailing echo,

yet inside the inside, stillness, if you close your eyes.

All you had to do was cross the cut cornfield and stand

there

and train after lonesome train would pass on schedule,

boxcars, flatcars, coal cars open,

the rails taking tickets, taking tickets, taking tickets,

and sometimes, on the faster run, actual people looking

out

like strangers to futures at speeds overwhelming,

but waving, nevertheless, at this small boy waving back

like the past receding. These were the fall afternoons

after

school—at night, watching from a distance, it was little

lines

of light or nothing but the dark taking tickets.



The poem begins with the “money green of the intermittent trees” multiplying outside the train’s window, as though America’s natural environment and true nature were solely one of money and consumerism, capital and capital gain. The landscape is ruined and littered with price tags. Plumly describes “brick industrial ruins,” whose “muscle-bound graffiti” has been erased momentarily by the fleeting, “fast light” of the sun that flickers outside. But it cannot really hide the ugliness and vandalism, nor restore the industrial majesty when America was a powerful, industrial, nation. That Age has fled, the damage done. Oil, pollution, “on the native waters mixes and unmixes.” The toxic brew so foreign to the native environment fails to be absorbed or integrated, its harmful effects mitigated. The mediocrity of the homes and “the backsides of small cities” display uniformity and conformity to a world lacking in individual character and distinction. The “heavy dog on leash with its heavy urban owner” belies a sedentary society, where human manual labor has been supplanted by rote mental work, seated and automated. Even the dog, like its owner, is physically obese.

The “white sun” which “dapples” the woodlands outside— harkening back to nineteenth century lyric diction such as in Keats and Hopkins— “comes back as glare.” And “glare” is here a clear and effective word-choice. The sunlight of a formerly spiritual, bucolic, and rhapsodic beauty, is now reduced to modern irritant, a nuisance and byproduct; to be neutralized or removed by polarized sunglasses or tinted windows. Nature has been so taken for granted, manipulated, and tightly controlled, that it barely registers on the imagination. The imaginative gaze has shifted elsewhere, if at all. And most importantly, “the words of the sometimes book move/ independently.” Plumly studies his eBook screen, but the words are blotted out by the sunlight and swim almost illegibly on the page, the sensitive and temperamental display easily activated and disrupted. Even the once physical presence of books is now simulation; virtual ghostings of words and characters.

Transience, speed, are commonplace. The present is fluid and distracted. All is movement, activity and efficiency; stillness, quiet, less and less accessible, for both inner and outer contemplation and mindfulness. The modern mind is “afloat, adrift,” uprooted from the physical world, unmoored from the firm grounding to an once manual and labor-intensive existence.

Sleep is impossible in a world such as this where existence is a series of interruptions off and on, and technology inhospitable to the human body and its comfort. And, above all, “inspiration” once the progenitor of glorious music in verse, soft, melodious, tones of the troubadour poet, is now the “too/ out loud” cellphone voice, a noisy screed proclaimed to no one and violating the peace of “the meditating air.”

Technology is focused on velocity “to futures at speeds overwhelming.” And, “overwhelming” is indeed an adjective here. In the poem, Plumly moves back into a contrasting past, and evokes the sights and sounds of his boyhood with the predictable ease and simplicity of former modes of travel, when “the lonesome train would pass on schedule,” and “All you had to do was cross the cut cornfield and stand/ there.” as “actual people” would look out and wave back; making human contact despite the isolation of the speeding train.

Plumly contrasts this “past receding” memory with the disturbing self-absorption of modern travel, where passengers, mere strangers, are immersed in a world of cellphones, headphones, detached from the outer world, no longer ones to wave to a small boy mesmerized and excited by the novelty of their voyage, when travel was a remarkable experience to be enjoyed, written about, observed, and not mere routine inconvenience, quick impersonal commercial transactions without human contact or awareness.

Plumly’s final image of the “little lines/ of light” for the speeding train suggests an adolescent’s wonder and lyric imagination, now diminished and less romantic. How this precious thinly narrow streak of light, the train seen from a distance, has vanished like his past and his America, into a Manichean darkness, a darkness that is empty of the human spirit. From a world where “taking tickets” used to signify the gateway to excitement, a chance to experience another world, another possibility for human interaction and understanding, where the journey was as much important as the destination, we have created instead the insular transport of a speeding jet; the plethora of cable TV stations that permit us to watch and assimilate every inch of the planet. All we need is a barcode, a mobile app, or the swipe of a card.

Plumly increasingly mimics the odd flattening and informality of the modern American language, its endless stream of information without formal editing, deeper context or interpretation, and most of all it ignores the human dimension. Language no longer conveys ideas but merely information. He observes further the shocking way news reporting seems detached from the gravitas of the events it is documenting; the off-hand manner that TV and print media make banal the most graphically violent images by a narrative of the arbitrary, a universal leveling of emotional connotation. This arbitrary narrative is unable to convey the true scale of death and suffering, or its larger or smaller implication; the amount of death or horror becomes less relevant or quantifiable. This is astutely conveyed in the poem “As Reported”:



Somewhere in the word casualty is the word casual,

and what they share is chance, the accident,

the unexpected interval, the arbitrary nature

of the natural: or unnatural, like the woman

in the picture in the news, her face obscured,

her covered head half-bowed as if in prayer,

whose right arm is severed at the shoulder

from a car bomb in a marketplace in the Al Jabbar

suburb of old Baghdad, who becomes the captured

soldier beheaded in the district of Dahana-ye

Ghori in a province in the north of Afghanistan.

And so on, as reported: people once collateral

cut to size or killed, turning little death

to larger death then back again to small,

only, by tomorrow, the paper they were printed on.

Meanwhile, the birds, the blackcaps, the fan-tails,

and fifty names or more of other warblers,

plus owls and hawks and golden orioles,

lamented if not prized for their beauty

or their song, are missed by the thousands,

maybe millions, in Cyprus and in general

the Aegean, where they’re caught in traps

of lime-sticks and mist-netting: hard to believe

the animal need for protein from something

hardly hand-sized and literally light as feathers.

Or is it the feather in the voice we’re after,

the secret of the chip, the chir, the tew,

of the feather in the cap, the sign of victory?

Birds in the billions, the elegant article says,

“flooding up from Africa. . .avian populations”

becoming, bird by bird, “sub-optimal.”



The woman’s severed right arm at the shoulder and the soldier’s capture and beheading are just two deaths our of many others. And do they carry a “little” or a much “larger” significance and weight in terms of their level of atrocity? Is the death of the townswoman, a civilian, a “collateral” target, more troubling and persuasive than that of the soldier? The total of deaths becomes numbing after a while—as it does in most wars—each individual death with its terrible legacy of pain, upheaval, hardship, and absence loses significance. As the numbers grow, they defy proportion. Meanwhile Plumly gives us the massive and senseless slaughter of the avian populations in the region, as food for humans, when it is well known that these birds provide little sustenance. This arbitrary, unprovoked and unnecessary killing is paralleled with the human killings he has described in his proceeding accounts from the Iraqi and Afghani wars. Plumly mocks both excuses for killing and the unintended collateral victims that inevitably suffer as absurd. They are all senseless deaths, based on faulty belief and poor intelligence.

The increasing growth of the media and newspeak in America, with its ubiquitous presence in our lives from 24/7 print, cable, and TV news, is found in Plumly’s poem titled “The Day of the Failure in Saigon, Thousands in the Streets, Hundreds Killed, a Lucky Few Hanging On the Runners of Evacuating Copters”:


Old arguments among old arguments

about the common species, late into the night,

nineteen sixty-eight, give or take a year,

give or take uncivil disobedience,

cities terrorized, the assassin honing in,

and the examples still in front of us

the draft and Vietnam, with the evening

TV Cronkite, the generals’ guarantees,

the lottery of dead, the Johnson/Nixon

death mask filling up the screen,

villages destroyed like magic with a match,

a naked burning girl no bigger than a stick

running toward the camera, a man, Viet

Cong, looking at the lens, his face already

oatmeal, while here, on the other side

of the pictures, all two hundred of our human

bones intact, the vestiges, appendages

in place, the Jacob’s ladder following

the spine, the warm brain within the cold

brain—or reverse, reptilian, mammalian—

traces of the graduating faunae and their gods

lingering inside us yet alien as children,

and there’s a bird, a kind of bird,

alive in there, too, between the raptor

and the wren, of a size we can’t imagine,

soaring in the thermals or secret in the hedge

speaking in the bird-talk we call singing,

a missing link along the chain of being.


Even the title suggests the bold, captioned language of headline news. Plumly infuses this lyric prose poem with a TV reporter’s style, mimicking some of the narrative pretense and didacticism of the news program with its heavy doses of commentary and superficial summary. He enumerates various facts and details to establish time, place, and person—all fundamentals of investigative journalism—but, sardonically commandeers this historical account in news-column format of the Vietnam War and the war years in America, specifically 1968, toward a surprising contextual ending.

His detailed beginning recounting the disturbing TV pictures on the household screen with mention of the “uncivil disobedience,” the race rioting that “terrorized” cities, and the assassins who honed in on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, moves toward a surprising solipsistic meditation. There the common evolutionary and biologic traits that define the human species are described. Plumly identifies what we share with primitive animals and what distinguishes us apart from them. He points out how in our embryonic development we morph through various embryonic stages which favor our reptilian and amphibious ancestors, and, of course, link us to these evolutionary forebears. He points out our innate affinity with the songbird and suggests mankind’s place in this evolutionary line-up is somewhere “between the raptor and the wren”— “a missing link along the chain of being.”

This is all contrasted with pictures of man’s inhumanity to man, to man’s brute and bestial inclinations toward savagery and warfare; in short to our primitive animal origins, which despite our claims to civilized and informed behavior, still exist.

Plumly here returns to the metaphor of the bird, which he uses time and again as we have seen previously. The bird appears symbolic of the abiding human spirit, the creative and imaginative freewill; a symbol of the poet who takes flight to sing and soar in immortal release. So finding in the essence of our animalistic natures this higher bird-like spirit of creativity is for Plumly a reminder of our ultimately finest evolutionary achievement.

***



Against Sunset from 2017 was Plumly’s last book. It is a book that caps a long career and displays a poetic development and mastery that is significant as it is remarkable. We see in it many of Plumly’s previous themes: mortality versus immortality; the tragedy and beauty of the human experience; our ties and reflection to the natural world; and the lyric impulse of humans to re-envision their illusive pasts.

Three poems in particular seem important and central to my discussion of Plumly’s final achievement as neo-Romantic poet. They are interestingly enough: “Dutch Elm,” “Early Nineteenth-Century English Poetry Walks” and “Limited Sight Distance.”

“Dutch Elm” gives us perhaps a central tenet of Plumly’s outlook on poetry. It is his ars poetica, his admission to the lyric imagination, one as melancholy, true, as Keats and Wordsworth, and as troubled as their quiet contemplation of mortality. And like the Romantics, Plumly concedes the immortality of love and nature, which shall outlive all our failed earthly dwellings and brief lifetimes.

In the poem, Plumly invokes Virgil and sets up immediately his parallel with Dante whose Divine Comedy also narrates a journey, a journey inspired by love and driven through the mortal rings of death to the sublimity of paradise. In a like manner Plumly has journeyed in his poetry over the years through the many psychological realms of his past, having seen the agony and suffering of human existence—in his father, mother, neighbors, nation, and his world. But he also has discovered the sublime visionary paradise the poetic mind is capable of reaching wherein the past may be resurrected and preserved into pure light, into the bright “airy dreams” of the printed page. However, he is not blind to the destruction he has seen all around him, the folly, the injustice and the unheeded warnings of ruin and destruction. He tells us of how vulnerable and threatened nature has become under our stewardship, pointing out that he misses the elm trees of his youth and their towering branches above the sidewalks of Ohio, “where the first elm deaths were reported in America.” This allusion to the disease that has ravaged and destroyed almost all the elm trees in North America reminds us of our own inaction or resolve to stop its fatal spread. The poem in its entirety reads:


I miss the elms, their “crowns of airy dreams,”

as Virgil calls them, their towering cathedral branching

spread into a ceiling above the lonely sidewalks of Ohio

where the first elm deaths were reported in America.

I miss in particular the perspective looking down

the distances of all those Elm-named streets disappearing

into dusk, the last sun turned the stained blue of church windows.

I miss standing there, letting the welcome dark make me invisible.

I miss the birds starting to sleep, their talking in their songs becoming

silent, then their silence. I even miss not standing there.

And I miss a life of nothing but such moments, as if they’d never

happened and all you had to go on was their memory

and the feeling in the memory forgotten but brought back

again and again because you miss someone you loved forever.


The older Plumly, facing death, will “miss a life of nothing but such moments, as if they’d never/ happened and all you had to go on was their memory/and the feeling in the memory forgotten but brought back/ again and again because you miss someone you loved forever.” This absence has compelled Plumly to write his poems but not for reasons of simple nostalgia but for the human “someone” you “loved forever.” This wonderful paradoxical play with verb tense: the present used in the case of “to miss” as in “you miss someone,” implying they are now gone and lost in the past, is linked in the same line with the past tense of “to love” with Plumly’s admission “you loved.” But then Plumly closes with an oxymoron. By using the adverbial qualifier “forever,” Plumly contradicts and violates the temporal rules of grammar. And it is wonderful how syntactically Plumly simulates the odd experience of memory with its fluid instability.

In “Early Nineteenth-Century English Poetry Walks,” Plumly returns to his life-long subject of Keats and his lyric genius as well as his obsession with mortality and immortality, the latter something he felt his writing would fail to ever achieve. What is interesting to me is the title Plumly has chosen. There is a sharp personal distance and historical remove implicit in this title. Here we do not have a title that reflects and embodies its Romantic subject matter or suggests a sense of heightened emotion recollected in tranquility, but the rather prosaic and realistic pragmatism of a tour guide description or a travel article. Plumly has relinquished some of his earlier youthful desire to encompass totally the Romantic style and copy it’s heavy stylistic of sentiment, beauty, and melodic intensity; its preoccupation with the past; its use of the pathetic fallacy.

Here there is a more mature methodology at play. The poem covers a similar history of Keats’s life and death, which Plumly so magnificently explores in his book of non-fiction “Posthumous Keats.” But, unlike his earlier poems which sought to apply Keats’s and Wordsworth’s poetic lyricism to Plumly’s own personal past and transform his memories and observations from daily life into a verse of beautiful figurative motifs, and iconic imagery; Plumly, in this poem, keeps his figurative language to a minimum and uses instead literally sections from diaries, historical accounts, letters, etc. The poem as well portrays a world of harsh physical realities, not least of which are the elements of rain and cold, and the terrible adversities Keats faced in his short life. The poem closes with:


The rain is falling, falling from afar. Nothing in nature would not be

better off without us. Wordsworth walking is looking for something,

first in the moment, then in “Those recollected hours that have the charm/

Of visionary things,” in which poetry “is fashioned and built up/

Even as a strain of music.” Coleridge is walking at a thinking pace,

though no less in prison than in his lime-tree bower, the image of an idea

that “Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure” perfect in his heart.

“Mountains, Rivers Lakes, dells, glens, Rocks, and Clouds . . . Grand,

sublime”—

Keats is in Rome climbing the Spanish Steps in order to promenade

the Pincian Hill. It’s winter so the dark falls faster, faster than the rain.

“Tell him,” writes his London friend Leigh Hunt, in a letter he’ll not

receive, that “he is only before us on the road, as he was in

everything else, and that we are coming after him.” And have.


There is an overlay of moments here suspended in time, “in medias res,” that concludes this poem. Plumly positions Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats in the midst of action, each action, Plumly knows and the reader knows, is poised on the edge of each poet’s move toward greatness and immortality as well as the start of their end, their mortal descent into death; turning-points for each or iconic actions, defining moments, suspended and eternal. To Plumly, it is how he wishes to remember them; it is how memory will grant them eternal presence in human culture. Wordsworth, the protean poet, will be remembered for his poems of “recollected hours” such as The Prelude, and the great power of his “visionary” talent and his ear for the “music” in nature and in verse. Also for his great theory on poetry as stated in the Foreword to Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge, the ever pondering and intellectually distraught, the slow, reluctant and less prolific writer, who first saw in nature the sublime, and lived in an idealized world of the imagination; brilliant in person and mind, but less represented on paper.

His was the theoretical mind behind the Romantic sensibility. And finally Keats climbing the Spanish Steps taking a stroll in the winter dark and rain of Rome. He is on his way to his death for he will survive only for a few short days. Sent to Rome in the misguided belief the climate will lessen his TB. And we hear foretold by Leigh Hunt that Keats, his friend, shall receive later his due, his poetic fame; that Keats’s greatness shall proceed all of them, even Wordsworth and Coleridge, and that his genius surpassed them all in the end.

Again, as Plumly, so often does, as we saw before in his early poem that envision his old house in the midst of golden light, then a rainbow, and his mother bidding him to come inside, this desire to suspend time and memory, to upend it, pause it, and memorialize it and ultimately defy its death.

“Limited Sight Distance” is about 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers, but it is not only a poem about a watershed moment in American history but a watershed moment in Plumly’s poetic practice, poetic vision, and commentary on his sense of poetic time, memory and perspective.

Plumly is with his wife Judith in Italy. They are enjoying the beauty, the culture, and pleasure of that ancient European civilization. The “heavenly blue” of the sky, the reverie of “people-watching” on the street as his wife goes for a sweet treat, is suddenly broken by a “loud TV voice” which turns out to be that of an American. This loud intrusion breaks the stillness and tranquility of that Old-World scene. The voice of the New World is jarring, amplified, urgent and very much of the present. Plumly studies the images of the “grand glass tower on/ fire, with equally billowing gray-black clouds worming their way a/ few floors from the top. “

Plumly’s prose poem in discrete paragraphs narrates the swift event in “real time” just as it is happening in that moment of his viewing. He reminds us in his poem after the second tower is attacked and the plane has crashed into its glass exterior: “This was live.”

He tells us about his Italian setting from which he is viewing this terrible event in New York, that it is a “heaven on earth.” He continues:


. . . It tested one’s sense of

reality, especially since the messenger was television, the ultimate

verisimilitude, the medium that needed to print live, like a label,

in order to distinguish the living from the taped. I was sure there

were those in the audience thinking to themselves that the whole

thing was a movie.


The live nature of what Plumly is viewing is here again emphasized and repeated. The poem is in the grip of the present. It may seem to those watching in the small Italian café that the scene was just “a movie;” that the reality of the modern and of America, in this distant ancient land, was always somewhat unthinkable, illusory, fabricated, unreal. That such a volatile scene in a place of such modernity, a modernity known for its constant emphasis on the new, on change, on the constant destruction and reinvention of the past and future was at odds with the timelessness of the Italian world and a place such as Rome, the Eternal City. But Plumly knows that the technological world of America is very real and that most Americans live in an “ultimate/ verisimilitude” of real-time, and the constant barrage of “live” images, “live” news, “live” TV.

And Plumly tells us: “The small screen in the coffee bar, four thousand miles/

away, did not diminish nor contain the event. It merely provided/ an eye and supplied dissociation.” “Dissociation” is what he feels as if his reality in Italy, its carefree leisure time without schedule, its tranquil preservation, worship, and imaginative fixation on a beautiful past, is psychologically and temporally dissonant and incompatible with America’s horrific “verisimilitude.”

Plumly does not wish to spend another day in Europe. “It felt wrong.” He boards a flight back to New York. Nearing arrival he tells us:


so the pilot steered the plane

as close as possible—miles but close enough—and again there was

only a piece of window to see through, to frame, to magnify, to

bring to scale.


I remember, again, some wept. And I remembered pure late

winter nights returning to Manhattan from near and distant

places and for the fun of it the pilot cruising, within acceptable

space, the length of the island, the whole lit beautiful ocean liner

of it.


Here, though in this interminable moment, at this sad distance,

there was only diminishment, a naked sun’s neutral glare, and at

the south end of the island a void, a filled emptiness of still deadly

ragged smoke staining and drifting into the open sky.


Interestingly the window of the airplane on approach to New York City, like the screen of the small TV in Italy, is Plumly’s only medium through which to see that “interminable moment,” that shocking “interminable” reality that modern technology blindly shows. A present that is without perspective or scale to a past.

America, his America, from that moment appears “diminished” to him. There is no golden light bathing his country in idealistic glory, in some golden past of achievement and pre-eminence, there is just a “neutral glare,” and that “void,” that noun that so acutely troubles this poem. Something has been lost, something is gone. And most terrifying and metaphorically ominous is Plumly’s final image of: “a filled emptiness of still deadly/ragged smoke staining and drifting into the open sky.

The “open sky” so resonant with the American West and the image of a bountiful and free land of “open” opportunity and fenceless ambition, imagination and invention, is forever changed. That “deadly/ ragged smoke” could suggest the “drifting” of a dark and “staining” extremism of thought or the slow creep of war, militarism, fear, and a grim pale over mind and spirit for the American people and its way of life. And, of course, we know what followed 9/11 and how that deadly toxicity continues to drift over us and around us.


by Walter Holland, copyright March 14, 2020, All Rights Reserved




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