Excerpts > Summer 2005
Stephen Behrendt

John Gery, Davenport's Version, Portals Press

Donald Finkel, Not So the Chairs: Selected and New Poems, Mid-List Press

(PDF Version)

The first Gothic novel appeared in 1763, when the English aristocrat and literary dilettante Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto. In that novel’s first edition, Walpole introduced one of the most venerable of fictional subterfuges, the so-called “found manuscript.” A nameless fictional “editor” reports in a prefatory essay that he has discovered a mysterious old, unattributed manuscript dating, he believes, from early Renaissance Italy and whose curious nature and sensational story has motivated him to edit and publish it. The tale, full of crumbling castles, mysterious apparitions, mistaken identities, lascivious old men, endangered young women, and heroic young men, was of course Walpole’s invention, a fact which he admitted in a new preface when the novel went into a second edition. The device has become ubiquitous in our own time, and not just in Gothic tales any more, but also in mainstream literature and, perhaps more notoriously, in journalistic phenomena like the stories attributed to “unnamed sources.”

John Gery has taken up this framing device in Davenport’s Version, a long and wonderfully engaging pseudo-historical tale set in New Orleans during the Civil War. For Gery, a widely-published poet and cultural critic, a long poem of this sort marks both a departure from and an extension of his previous work, in which the intersection of history and human affairs have figured prominently.

Gery trumps Walpole (and others, like the Coleridge of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) in his handling of the framing device, however, embedding the tale within not just one but several fictional and metafictional frames. His own prefatory essay, “A Brief History of the Poem,” introduces him as a well-known but harried “poet and teacher” up for promotion in an English department and worrying about the associate dean’s ominous hint that his “faltering status on the faculty” stems from the administration’s view that his “scholarly output did not really suit the direction of the college” (p. 10). Into his office wanders a strange, twitchy, conspiratorial man, a teller at a local New Orleans bank, with a tale to tell of an old man with indefinable accent who had plagued him at the bank and subsequently enticed him to his filthy and derelict French Quarter residence, where the old man entrusted to the teller an ancient manuscript, telling him he would know what to do with it. The teller wants the poet-professor to read the manuscript, but the busy writer, with too much already on his mind, responds dismissively and the teller disappears, never to return. The mail soon brings a fat envelope with no return address. It is, of course, the mysterious manuscript, which the professor glances at and then shoves into a stack of papers where it languishes for a year. One day, struggling with writer’s block, he pulls out the manuscript and becomes intrigued – indeed obsessed – with the verse tale of a curious relationship among New Orleans figures, centering upon a woman called Bressie LaRouché and told from the perspective of a Federal officer during the city’s occupation by Farragut’s forces during the Civil War.

So far, so good. The professor-poet now edits the manuscript, he tells us, regularizing spellings and generally “cleaning it up” as unintrusively as possible. But he also tells us that among the manuscript pages is an excerpt “copied from a letter by Lafcadio Hearn to his friend H. E. Krehbiel” and describing a mystical sort of poetical prose that is neither antique Greek nor Sanskrit but something powerfully fanciful. Also in the manuscript are a pair of epigraphs (from Chaucer and Crane), but none of these materials, the “editor” tells us, goes very far toward solving “the mystery behind thus poem” (p. 10), which he says he has decided on his own to call Davenport’s Version, an enigmatic title that communicates nothing while hinting at an apparently well known story that exists, “off-stage” as it were, in a version that is perhaps better known.

Thus framed by these chimera-like, obsessive and self-involved narrator-interlocutors, titled by someone other than the “author,” introduced by epigraphs that may or may not even be relevant to the manuscript they purportedly accompanied, the poem is printed at last in 2003, supplemented by lovely colored illustrations that reproduce actual and “imaginary” nineteenth-century scenes relating to the tale. That tale, finally, is a meandering meditation in five parts, or Books, that division of materials hinting already at the poem’s epic sweep. That this is in fact an epic project is evident also from the many references to mythology that pepper the text, as well as from the manner in which scenes are unfolded, characters and battles are catalogued and framed, and descriptions are unfolded through extended and carefully wrought metaphorical descriptions. Even the poem’s idiom, which is markedly modern in many ways, is nevertheless dressed also with cadences and inflections that are more than simply “southern” or “northern”; not regional language but rather an educated narrative idiom that embraces and seemingly absorbs the individual, localized idioms of the poem’s regional speakers, the voice assigned to Davenport is the sort of wise, universalized voice one associates with the narrators of epic works ranging from Homer to Whitman and Crane. And indeed these are the voices – and the poets – with whom Gery is entering into implied competition in this remarkable poem.

Informed as it is by this complex fabric of literary, historical, and cultural allusion, and framed as it is by the fantastic multi-level prefatory narrative, Gery’s book runs many risks, not the least of which is the potential charge of “over-doing it.” But Davenport’s Version is not overdone. It is an intriguing read, despite the challenges it poses for its reader. The obvious literary analogue is the historical novel, and in particular that variety of historical novel which was performed so brilliantly by Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels and has been carried forward in other compelling novels (especially of the Civil War) by his son, Jeff Shaara. In these, factual history blends easily with what may be – or may not be – the words, thoughts, and actions of real historical figures whose activities are also related in ways that link the novels to the traditional epic.

The plot itself is so involved – and yet so simple – that it is best to account it simply the record (Captain Davenport’s record) of the beautiful Creole widow Bressie LaRouché– proud, cultured, cosmopolitan – and the hopeless love of the Confederate colonel Trosler White and the Federal Davenport, a triangular relationship that melds passion, deception, and betrayal in ways that parallel the tragic and bloody internecine war being drawn in its own epic fashion upon the national canvas. Like all great epic love stories, this one is complex, powerful, and finally painful in its irresolution, its banishment into a tale whose origins and details (the framing device reminds us) can never be wholly verified nor banished but must always exist in the rags of memory with which we all clothe our dreams and our fears. Like Coleridge’s mythic mariner, Captain Davenport ends as he begins, the tale on his lips, told compulsively but without any resolution but that which we are invited to place upon it. The tour de force comes full circle, a remarkable feat of poetic and psychological sleight of hand.

Donald Finkel’s Not So the Chairs is something entirely different that takes the more familiar form of a collection of shorter poems, but in this case a selection of them from the many years of his long and productive career, plus thirty-four pages of new poems. The book is more than just a retrospective, however, even with the new poems. Rather, it is a celebration, a culmination, and an invitation. The poems selected from Finkel’s earlier work, dating back to 1959, when the first of his fifteen books appeared, and extending through his prolific career, remind us again and again of his poetic versatility, the distinctive power of his voice, and the sheer energy that has characterized his work from the start. Nor has he lost any of this characteristic vigor, as the two dozen new poems remind us in their idiosyncratic and often acerbic perspective upon the human condition, and upon the activity and experiences that define us. “Odd Jobs,” for instance, show us Finkel in full stride:

Thumbs locked behind him in the August dusk,
rocking on his run-down heels in the picture window,
Professor Emeritus considers his seedy kingdom.

There to the east in the gathering dark
his neighbor’s lawn lies, cropped, lopped, dead-level,
a carpenter’s garden, a prairie brought to its knees.

Along the border, the Professor’s crabgrass
tramps along that sawed-ff waste,
dogged, in dead earnest, looking for work.

(p. 115)

These are the sort of life-parables that Finkel especially likes, these tales in which the natural (and often naturally derelict) phenomena of the natural world communicate wry lessons about the larger issues, struggles, triumphs and defeats of the human world.

Still one finds, too, Finkel’s carefully lush detailing of his poetic canvasses, as for example in the deft opening of the long, multi-sectioned “Prowling the Shallows”:

Midmorning traffic scant at the intersection:
one idling mail-van, one androgynous jogger
hooded against the chill, and one bag-lady
steering through the moth-pale sunlight
a market basket heaped with all she needs.

Into the park, through her black iron gates
I teeter, canting to the right, a phantom limb
exploring a half-life, a measure of decay.
Grass by the footpath shabby as a bag-lady’s mackinaw.

Stoic by nature, unsentimental, taciturn,
grass never complains,
under the mower, under the stone cold rain,
waiting, come what may, to be reborn.

(p. 118)

One is continually surprised in these poems by memorable touches like “the moth-pale sunlight,” the troping of grass as “stoic by nature, unsentimental, taciturn,” and the gendering of the park as female, a suggested by “her black iron gates.” These are the touches of an experienced craftsman who knows how to squeeze the most out of his materials.

Indeed, Not So the Chairs is in many respects a minutely particularized set of observations, of markers along the way of life, that epitomize rather than merely summing up Finkel’s long and diverse experience as man and as poet. These are poems of remarkable life and vitality, poems that celebrate life richly lived and intricately observed by a poet whose penetrating eye and distinctive voice continue – as they have done for four and a half decades – to engage us and to challenge us.

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