Randall Mann: A Poem I Love

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The last poem I loved is John Casteen’s fifteen-line poem “Regret,” from his first collection, Free Union.  Here’s the first stanza:

This life, it is like conducting
the symphony of a warring country;
the cellist has been shot through the wrist it’s all in,
the horn player has buried his child
and sworn off music.

The first things I love are as follows: the brash opening; the attention to music, those r’s and l’s; the pointed awkwardness of the third line, which Frost would have loved.

In the second stanza, after the knowing, elusive line “The conductor will never hear his piece as he hears it,” the poem turns to the speaker (I admire the delayed first-person), he who wakes in the middle of winter nights “clenching tightly the what-is-not-there, / and I can’t negotiate with that kind of failure”:  such grappling with dark abstraction looks like bravery.

And the final stanza:

I had to throw away someone I loved.
The thing that I said at first, about the conductor?
Such a man has no cause to expect redemption.
Fine. So I’ll never understand anything.
So this life, it’s never going to explain anything.

I love the crushing, throwaway, Bishop-esque grace of the first line of this stanza; the way the second line both questions the conceit of the poem and the reader’s very trust in the speaker; the rhetorical power of the third line of this stanza; the richness of the tone of that “Fine,” how it pushes truth away and yet somehow holds it fast; and the way that the last two lines seem world-weary and offhand upon first reading, then grow more and more dispiriting as I re-read them.

In our often slightly disingenuous, map-and-dazzle, Wave-book American poetry world, how cleansing it is to come upon a piece so well-crafted, emotionally dense, and unvarnished.

Randall Mann


Randall Mann is the author of two collections of poetry, BREAKFAST WITH THOM GUNN (University of Chicago Press 2009) and COMPLAINT IN THE GARDEN (Zoo/Orchises 2004), winner of the 2003 Kenyon Review Prize; and the co-author of the textbook WRITING POEMS, Seventh Edition (Pearson Longman 2007). He lives in San Francisco. More from this author →