These Veins of Leaf, Hand, Storm and Stream

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Ideally, critics and teachers are humbled by their vocations and the artistry the vocations expose them to, encouraging effort to stay fresh , emotionally resonant and intellectually worthwhile. Say yes to all of the above when the subject is Di Piero.

Like not nearly enough writers of his generation, W.S. Di Piero is more often than not superb, and is always interesting. Nitro Nights, his latest collection of poetry, is from Copper Canyon Press, and like its predecessors, it is intelligent and accessible, with an affecting modesty. Credit his many years producing art criticism, and his many years teaching at Stanford. Of course not every teacher or critic becomes a fine poet. Ideally, critics and teachers are humbled by their vocations and the artistry the vocations expose them to, encouraging effort to stay fresh , emotionally resonant and intellectually worthwhile. Say yes to all of the above when the subject is Di Piero.

“Only in Things” is imbedded with indebted associations to William Carlos Williams (quoted in this volume’s epigraph) and still clearly independent :

Some days, who can stare at swathes of sky,
leafage and bad-complected whale-gray streets,
tailpipes and smokestacks orating sepia exhaust,
or the smaller enthusiasms of pistil and mailbox key,
and not weep for the world’s darks on lights, lights on darks,
how its halftones stay unchanged in their changings,
or how turning wheels and wind-trash and revolving doors
weave us into wakefulness or dump us into distraction?
This constant stream of qualia we feel in our stomachs.
The big-leafed plant lifts its wings to greet the planet’s chemistry,
the sun arrives on rooftops like a gentle stranger, rain rushes us
love to love, stop to stop, these veins of leaf, hand, storm and stream,
as if in pursuit of us and what we are becoming.

I once gagged at a reading when a mediocre writer was compared to Hopkins, and I believe it wise to be cautious and prickly when making connections to the greats. “Only in Things,” nods to Yeats’ “pavements gray” of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in “the bad-complected whale-gray streets,” and also brings to mind the urgent tenderness Ed Roberson, a poet I recently praised lavishly.

It is sweet (not cloying) that the last line takes in the poet and his creative lineage, as well as anyone else’s place in natural and built environments. All this, without sounding overcrowded, and always utterly inevitable, as is “Sea to Shining Sea (III):”

Shaken awake, get my ticket punched, time feels columnar and the vertigo makes me shiver : March, riding the New York-to-Boston Regional, my San Francisco air back home pounded by rainstorms that scroll hillsides more tighly green while things here get whippy and skinny with the season’s denials. The same liquid intimacy with trains as when I rode a musty Pullman with an aunt taking me to a ball game. No, the circus. Evergreens washing past the window, the only tickle of color a witch hazel’s yellow leaf-sprouts in a Boston backyard.

The train keeps moving, but this is a good place to stop, or at least to try to, because that train’s motion, the way Di Piero writes it, is right here. Immobile words so well arranged, can’t stop it, any more than vision can be blinded to the ‘season’s denials” and the “color of witch hazel.” The idea of “imagery” in poetry can feel like a bad high school class unless its as original as “liquid intimacy with trains,” and “color of witch hazel’s yellow leaf-sprouts. “

Di Piero was born in Philadelphia in 1945, and now lives in San Francisco. He is obviously well traveled, literally and imaginatively, and he never commits the mortal sins of being apologetic or bombastic. For all the deft jitteriness in many poems, compositions are deeply at home in their “American Skin.” This is true wherever he is, including Paterson, the last word in “Sea to Shining Sea,” shouted by the club car hostess after “Pines reduced to the horizontals of their branches, / scorings, staves in the air, a swift lyric continuity,then an old fallen stone/wall, talus and scree.”

Words as loaded as “Paterson,” deserve to be used with the kind of controlled abandon displayed here. Aside to Rumpus readers , just in case : “American Skin” is a Springsteen song that made many urbanites very unhappy. Many of them were cops whose beats Di Piero has walked in quiet hours and at hectic times. Di Piero even calls one poem “Dancing in the Dark,” an obscene (Springsteen) appropriation if the poem were not such a ride of potent, immediate intensity, with just enough breathing room to make it bearable:

Pain and ecstasy kissing, tongues and spit and all. What’s happening to the room? All that broken glass in your back and legs, but keep at it, get lost in the motion and the pain will release you and become aboriginal glass, shape-shifting melting sand.

The poem continues, connecting jagged authenticities that fit like a kaleidoscope so finely crafted it could have been made in another century and cost a fortune. The technicolor motion is symphonic and with the last word Semba!, I can hear the drums, in a jazz quartet, in a symphony, in an urban or rural village or on a savannah. I can even hear the band that played with such devastation in the film classic “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” “Dancing in the Dark” makes me want to sweat and makes a vicarious, tangible shimmer, without any kind of pretense.

Nitro Nights is Di Piero’s tenth book of poetry. His most recent before this, Chinese Apples, won a California Book Award, and the Academy of American Poets gave him its first Raiziss de Palchi prize for his translation of This Strange Joy—Selected Poems of Sandro Penne.

After time with the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and the photographs of Alfred Steiglitz, Carl Sandburg wrote that he “went away shaken and soothed.” Di Piero’s poetry continues to have that effect. He deserves more prizes. Anyone unfamiliar with his earlier poems and prose will find in him the range Sandburg felt and named, necessities that unflinchingly nourish the “ deep heart’s core” of Yeats.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →