The Tyrant Gods Are Overthrown: a review of Book Of My Nights by Li-Young Lee and Gravedigger's Birthday by BJ Ward.
Poetry has always looked to memory and the re-imagining of the past for subject matter, for drawing lines between the things that matter in human experience, for healing, for illumination, for transformation from the deeply experienced to the archetypically beheld. Two books that seek to do this and more in very different yet startlingly convergent ways are Book Of My Nights by Li-Young Lee (Boa Editions, 2001) and Gravedigger's Birthday by BJ Ward (North Atlantic Books, 2002).
Both books travel back to consider family: father, most prominently, but also mother, and siblings as if they were constellations in the night sky of each writers' life. Stars play across the pages of both books recurring in images such as this in Li-Young Lee's "The Bridge": "The stars report a vast consequence/ our human moment joins./" From BJ Ward's poem, "The Star-Ledger": "If the stars spelled something real,/ they might spell the equation/ that my father never mastered--/" These excerpts epitomize the contrast in the books' tones. While there is much shared concern, Lee's is a quiet, more contemplative experience, the kind that might be done sitting at a window in the dark, looking out at the world when you can't sleep, not afraid, but knowing you will be visited by other spirits of the night. Ward's poems are more concrete, rooted with a sense of the visual; one could almost expect many of these poems to come with storyboards.
Both books are lyrical, tackling the issues of human fragility and the intended and unintended consequences of legacy. For Li-Young Lee, the father walks at night and "sets all the clocks for spring" weaving rich, instructive stories for the narrator and his brother. For Ward, the narrator and brother find themselves hunched in a drain pipe, hiding from a father who has instructed more than he knows or can understand, not with words, but with fists, later, in teaching words that mechanics use: "converter, viscosity, timing light,.."
Both collections ask the reader to venture into the night, one with grace, Lee, Ward with humor and bravado, both confronting us with elements of our interior tapestry. Lee's work is full of a kind of personal mythology, the kind we all create in our dreaming lives, birds who enter and re-enter the narratives, leading us from the moment to the moments we haven't imagined yet which is finally what Lee wants us to experience: the blessing of the now illuminated with what has been and what will be. Ward's work invites us to re-inhabit our selves, to strip the walls down to the lathe, remove the crumpled newspaper and horse hair of old construction and rebuild again, not just with insulation, but with windows in every wall, a fishbowl to be seen in, a lens to look out through.
Both collections are generous and courageous, pulling down their respective Gods while we watch, letting them die in their arms with as much love as they can bring to bear. These are books of compassion and a kind of yearning that comes with a certain self-possession that can only be earned, the yearning to connect with other like-bodies, to add more constellations to their already full skies. You're invited, these books say to me, there's room enough for us all.
Li-Young Lee is the author of two books of poems Rose and The City in Which I Love You both published by Boa Editions, a book-length prose poem, The Winged Seed by Simon and Schuster, and most recently his third book of poems, Book Of My Nights also by Boa Editions. It is a collection that deceives. These poems are so seemingly, disarmingly unambitious, yet this voice is so clear, so simple, so elemental, that the poems go down like a cool drink of water after a long thirst: transparent, satiating, beguiling the reader into the fullest presence in the moment. The opening poem, "Pillow" tells the reader, "There's nothing I can't find under there." with an authority that conveys that the poet is in control of his effects. And yet, there is such a feeling of discovery, as if we've gone into the night along with Lee to find what he already knows is there, but it is always amazed to see. The collection closes with the poem, "Out of Hiding" and it begins, "Someone said my name in the garden,/" Later in the poem, "while the quiet seemed my true name,/ a near and inaudible singing/ born of hidden ground./ Quiet to quiet, I called back./" Could that someone calling be me, you, the reader, traveling with Lee through the variously dark hours of the night, arriving at this garden? Is Lee calling us back, the quiet of each of our true natures only truly revealed in those moments he discovers along the arc of the book? Are we as revealed as he by the time we meet him, up from his pillow, finally at ease with the "spreading shadow"?
This collection is full of flowers, of rich soil in that hidden ground, of birds, of seeds, of clocks and time passing, coiling back, driving us forward, yet pulling us down close enough to the earth, under our pillows, that we can hear the inaudible singing of our own lives. Gorgeous, unselfconscious, so seemingly simple, yet these are poems that someone might take to a literary Antique Roadshow someday, having kept them in a box so the light wouldn't fade them, only to discover they're worth millions. These are those kinds of poems: majestic, essential, chiseled with permanency and a beauty that is so much larger than that word, the kind you find in one of the flowers in Lee's work: the peony. Small, astonishing, ignored by the unthoughtful, an eternal re-discovery to aficionados of the soil. And who else is in this mythic garden of the night? There are many entities there, some shocking. From "Nativity": "each must make a safe place of his heart,/ before so strange and wild a guest/ as God approaches." Who is more a lover of the small: one peony, one star than whatever the mystery is that we call God? From "Little Round": "...an apple's secret cargo/is the enduring odor of a human childhood,/" I sense Lee knows that each spirit in the night, whether it is the father, mother, brother, sister, or the narrator himself, or perhaps us as well, that we are somehow buried in that pregnant apple, adored like that peony, bright like that one star in a sky of worthy stars, and perhaps God alone can see how connected they are, the lines between the flowers and the sky, the bright constellations of families and accidental families that Lee reveals in his poems. Book Of My Nights delivers me, in the end, after having traversed the arc of his poems over the course of the collection, to a place which is fundamentally non-linear and paradoxical.
Can a son be a son and a father at the same time? Of course, we know this, but Lee asks us to experience this as he experiences this himself: as a simultaneous knowing, being, a way that allows forgiveness, a theme that resonates in both Lee's and Ward's books. For Lee, the forgiveness is of our families and ourselves as well. In "My Father's House", the narrator says, "...telling, dissipating/ the boundaries of the story to include/ the one who has died and the one not yet born." This is the father and the son to be, but it also the self in any given moment where we die as the self we were and are only discovering the self we will become. We are the father, the self, the son, the remembering what has been, and the imagining what will be, but always, as we are in the night, finally, alone in the moment with our breath and the light from a night sky filled, whether hidden from us by clouds or not, with a google of entities we call stars.
What is shocking to me is the lack of fear in any of these poems. How many of us at some point have feared sleep? Have secretly prayed before we closed our eyes that the beasties of the night would be held at bay? This isn't why Lee is awake. In "The Sleepless," we are told: "Like any ready fruit, I woke/ falling toward beginning and/ welcome, all of night/ the only safe place." Breathtaking. The fertile image of a fruit, ripe with its own inherent beauty, all the possibility of the future laden in the inevitability of its demise. Fruit must be borne, must fall, must be eaten, the cycle matters more than the one self. He gently begs, what are we so afraid of?
Yet I confess to that fear and think I am not alone. How many night-before-the-wedding jitters issue from the fear of loss of self to the union the couple has longed for? How many of us have love/hate relationships with the families we came from wanting to see them, but sometimes wishing the visit would hurry to a close? What kind of spiritual psychosis is that? We want to be the fruit, but not to fall. This culture begs to stay on the edge of ripeness all the time, the most luscious we can be without any spots on the skin.
Lee's work recognizes this tension and asks us to relish each of those moments, including the one where we fall to earth, afraid of our own motion. Lee exhorts us to embrace the multiplicities of our nature and our existence. In "Buried Heart": "...what I've always known:/ Whoever lets the flowers fall/ suffers his heart's withering/ and growing scales,/ whoever buries that horned root/inside himself becomes the ground/. Lee captures the beauty of the fallen flower as our life is spent only to become the soil that will produce more beauty. This is true, as is much of Lee's work, on a literal and figurative basis, self and the generative-self as family member both residing in the same bed. The poem concludes, "that sings, declaring a new circumference/ even the stars enlarge by crowding down to hear." In that last line all the universe is complicit in the changes that time wreaks, the growing into and past ourselves for the sake of others, and I would argue Lee's work suggests, for the sake of ourselves. The stars enlarge above us just like ripe fruit about to fall and recollecting for me the father in Ward's poem, "The Star-Ledger" who spreads a little sky over his sons each morning when he returns from work, an image both ominous and comforting at once. That sense of simultaneity is best seen in Lee's poems such as "Words for Worry" where the word for son is both "delight,/ another word, hidden" as well as "One-Who-Goes-Away./ Yet another, One-Who-Returns." Or how folded and unfolded clothes can have a happy relationship that is not an indictment.
Lee watches his parents as themselves as in their relation to him, but they rise as active figures in a wraith-like manner. In Ward's poems where mother figures in importantly, he watches her with his sibling, once, even through a hole in the wall, the narrator hidden, guessing over the years the meaning of what he's spied. In Lee's poem, "From Another Room" he seems to test himself by what the others in his night might see of him. "...himself no longer/ the names his playmates know him by,/ but not yet the boundless/ quiet of his mother's watching/ from another room." What does the mother see over time and space of the man her son is becoming in each moment? More than that, what is the mother inside the narrator, inside Lee that looks out of one room inside himself, seeing? Does she see what the world is ever arcing toward?
In that poem, he is not yet the quiet that the reader will meet in the last poem, asking us by his own journey what work we've done yet, what rooms we've refurbished, what soil we've tilled, have we planted anything at all? This amazing, hushed, humble, yet monumental collection asks us to look with many eyes at the sky, the night, the soil, our own inner clock springs, the laundry to be tended to, the dreams to be had, the impermanence of any one thing, the permanent grace of it all.
This collection is both private and public, and like Ward's work, takes the personal and makes it universal. Book of My Nights will leave you feeling there is a world of possibilities that you'd forgotten about and much to aspire to still in the daily and the millennial. It is so the opposite of the consumer-driven moment in time we find ourselves in, and yet suggests a kind of spiritual and elegant life-jacket in a sea of advertising that promises that if you buy this, do that, fully develop your own bad self, you might be able to achieve a kind of cheeky, hip immortality. We know that's not so, but we've been seduced. Lee whispers to you in that garden under his pillow to remember a time in your life when the stars were still precious, when you loved your mother with all your being, and your father was still the most powerful force in the world.
It's still all true, Lee says, pass it on. Call down to the next dreamer. None of us are alone.
BJ Ward is the author of three volumes of poetry, all of which are published by North Atlantic Books of Berkeley, CA: Landing in New Jersey with Soft Hands (1994), 17 Love Poems with No Despair (1997), and Gravedigger's Birthday (2002). BJ's poetry is full of life; his writing is brave, compassionate, wry, unapologetic in its bald depiction of what he has discovered to be true, ribald in its irreverence, restrained, but only like a good Irish wake, naked with devotion when confronted with something that inspires awe. This is courageous writing, the hallmark of a true bard, writing that aspires to make you, the reader, complicitous in the act of art, the act of discovery, the act of moving beyond our daily lives to touch something beyond ourselves. It is in stark contrast to the gentility of Lee's book, but is equally as elemental and deals with many of the same concerns. He celebrates the harsh reminders of our humanity, is a willing digger in the trash of our lives that tell us so much about who lives behind the protective facades of ever house on the block.
BJ' Ward' s poems are also personal. I'm here to tell you not to be fooled though. They're all lies. When I say these poems are lies, I am speaking about Ward's ability to transmute the deeply experienced into art. In the poem. "Bastards with Badges" the occasion for the poem are the nights BJ spent in a car with his brother and mother when she finally had the courage to leave the abusive relationship she was in. In the poem, they sleep in the car for five nights; in his real life, Ward reports it was closer to two weeks, but the poem, the truth of the poem, couldn't bear that reality. The reader can handle only enough of what's true. Stephen Dunn, in his essay "Artifice and Sincerity" from his collection of essays and memoirs, Walking Light wrote that "sincerity is something other than what one "honestly" asserts, and it is arrived at with the help of a mask." BJ's poems are not honest; they are not real in the sense of historic truth, place, and time even in the closest autobiographical poem. They lie, as Stephen Dunn would say, in the service of truth, and BJ is a master of masks. He writes to you, his reader, with the same quiet attention that a lover pays you when the seduction is only just begun, but it is so good, we are willing to give ourselves away without the promise of tomorrow; the now is exquisitely good enough.
Dunn writes, "We really don't want sincerity from poetry anymore than we want it from a flower or a finely made watch. We want something that is so wholly itself that it can be ours." BJ knows this. He is the trickster teasing the king; the magician directing your gaze away from his years of practice in front of the mirror, so all you see is the rabbit; the trapeze artist wielding words like strong limbs that take us out and hold us over open space just a little longer than we can bear. He knows how he's working us, and he loves to dance with his readers. From "Instructions for Using the Tongue," in 17 Love Poems with No Despair, BJ writes, "Your tongue holds secrets on its surface, performs/spell-binding dances in the hall of your mouth./Always pace. Never vent./ Your tongue is a precise instrument." As is BJ's pen, or keyboard, and the poems in Gravedigger's Birthday will sear you with the truth with which BJ lies to you. His artifice is clever, the best kind, transparent, like the magician's wand, and yet you believe the way you can't ever believe the magician; you will feel BJ has shared something real, a kiss on the cheek, just enough, not more than you were ready to handle, leaving you wishing he'd pushed the issue; or a drink in a bar late at night when none of your other buddy's would stick by you.
The closing poem in 17 Love Poems, "Words, Love Poems," ends thus: "the way you move me/as my pen reaches the end of this book/is always toward you./See? You are holding the trail I've left." In Gravedigger's Birthday, he wants you to keep hold of the trail while he writes of father and mother and alcohol and violence, stripping aside the myth of a class-less America to talk frankly about white trash. When Gravedigger's Birthday arrived in my mailbox, I stood in my driveway and thought, "I'll read one poem." Tears streaming down my face, I read the next, and the next. I was so moved, shaken with the honesty, the exposure of things suppressed.
The poem I began with has the almost ungainly title, "Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There's Not A Single Poem In There About Her". The narrator of this poem celebrated his mother's stealing of a dictionary for a son she senses has the smarts to rise above the class and circumstances he's been born into. Like the mother in Lee's poems, the mother in BJ's poems is a prominent figure whose actions deeply impact the writer and the concerns of his work. Where Lee's mother is an ethereal figure, looked at through the lens of twilight fog, folding and unfolding the laundry of the family's life, Ward's mother is a concrete actor in the small screenplays that his poems often are: smoking and crying, shame and grief the twin sisters of her life. From his poem, "My Mother's Last Cigarette", dedicated to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II: "You can't rescind her last cigarette/and black eyes and empty pockets and good Catholic shame/for not being a better wife - the priests said to be a better wife - / nor can you rescind her two sons learning to cry without noise,/looking at her through a hole punched in the wall."
It's that last line, the poet, the narrator, and his brother peering back down the years of memory through a broken wall, that resonates so deeply and, for me is the essence of this collection. Mustn't we all do that at some point in our lives if we mean to evolve into our selves? Jim Hollis, noted Jungian psychologist and author, wrote in his Under Saturn's Shadow, The Wounding and Healing of Men that, "In the texture of our bones, in the fabric of our nerves, in the corridors of our memory, we carry that precious child [we once were]..." and many of the poems in BJ's collection echo the child he once was. Hollis goes on to say, "Without meaningful rites [of passage] we sustain the most grievous of wounds to the soul-life without depth..." and the poems in Gravedigger - the digger of holes into the soil where we bury our most precious cargo, those who we must release - is seeking a rite of passage in a family that had no resources to offer either emotionally, intellectually, or financially. Hollis says we must provide what the deficits of our lives have left unfulfilled. "For what is not available through our culture we are now obliged to find for ourselves." Gravedigger's Birthday is a coming of age collection, not coincidentally published in the year following 911, a coming of age for all those in the US under 40 years old. The concerns of many of these poems are the resurrection of buried things, the celebration of them, the knocking out of emotional patches in the sheetrock of our internal landscape to see clearly what can be seen of a smoking and crying mother, a father whose hands are covered in black ink. In the poem, "The Star-Ledger" titled after the NJ newspaper Ward's father worked at in real life and which opens the book, an ink-stained, "black-handed father" heads to his job on the night shift. His life is as good as it can be for an Irish immigrant with little or no education, who "knows that weight, how it accumulates from within/when his mistakes and debt/begin to press on his children and wife./" Yet the closing of this poem is redemptive, compassionate, the knowledge of a child who's lived enough of life to know one must forgive one's parents if one is to survive the life that's still ahead.
This father, this knowledge that we can't look away from the scaffolding of our emotional experiences is at the core of this collection. The closing poem, also about father, called "Down to a Tune-up" is a poem about what ways men find to bear each other when they have no rites of passage large enough to usher us into a world as large as this one, when we have no shared language, and the wounds received are so big it takes generations to heal. The setting: a garage. The conduit for love: an engine. It begins, "My father and I peer into the valley of engine--/ two survivors on the lips of what might/ be a grave--..." and ends with the two, father, son, all fathers and sons, the essential truth of it, sharing what they can, "a few basics on how to keep/ a dying thing running...saying the words/ that keep us going..." It is a gorgeous poem filled with words I've only heard from men in garages, words that speak to the bereftness of masculinities that no longer fit right in this world, but deserve to be preserved like old farming implements or artifacts of clammers and fisherman. Ward's poems are a museum to white trash, to the poverties of inner lives, even, to the loss of innocence we all felt in September, 01.
His poems move from the inner life to the outer one in "For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims" a homage to the silence that one feels when grief and loss are so new they rise over us without language or reason. The poem grapples with this largeness and ends with a confession, one that ties to all of his other poems: pain is relative and those who know it can recognize it in the faces of all who have been wounded. (This poem, I should note, has been cast in bronze and can be seen at Grounds for Sculpture, an outdoor museum in Hamilton, NJ.)
This is what tells me, finally, that although drawn from the woof and warp of his life, BJ's poems are not about BJ. They are about you, about the space between you and the poet, and his endless reaching towards that space where something might be saved. Where Lee's poems whisper to you in the last, late hours of a night that is really a new day, Ward's happen before midnight, the poet standing on a table in the pub of his imagination. I could see these two poets meeting in a street, one wandering, his inability to sleep pushing him into the dawn, the other finally leaving the good company of other lost souls. They might meet on a street corner under one tall light, each assured in their aloneness, the Gods in their pockets either dead or just asleep. They wouldn't have to say a word. They'd know in each other's faces the lands they've traveled, the words they know, both (from Lee's, "Heir to All") "...heir to all those/unfurnished rooms inside the roses./"