Like a blue jay, thrush, or white-chested robin, darting in last light into leaves, twigs, or sky – after the rain, say, but before evening falls, when dark follows a darkening, Stanley Plumly’s Orphan Hours shows us moments rife with a startling beauty, terrible with longing.
His poems are aware of a cursedly blessed momentariness that, in their unfolding and passing, lead the heart down candle-lit passages of necessary pathos, and the mind (wandering purposely) through meditations of – and on – meaningful, exquisite meaning. “I remember,” he writes in the opening poem, “Lapsed Meadows,”
in Ohio, fields of wastes of nature,
lost pasture, fallow clearings, buckwheat
and fireweed and broken sparrow nests,
especially in the summer, in the fading hilltop sun,
when you could lose yourself by simply lying down.
Although, like Keats and Wordsworth, his major themes are nature (birds, trees, wind, mountains, landscapes) and nurture (his family, including especially his mother and father), (he has two poems side-by-side entitled “Nature” and “Nurture,” and the title, “Orphan Hours,” from a fragment of Shelley’s revisions, connotes a kind of Romantic feral child quality), he is also, like any masterful poet, intoxicated by the elixir of words themselves. Thus this passage is a Whitmanesque commentary on the exhilaration of naming, the sublimity of incantatory cataloguing, the matin-like power of the hushed chant.
Plumly, like a soberer Keats or Whitman (he has written a book on Keats), he quietly intoxicates us with his own private mythologies. Boyish and manly, his head and heart hurts, then flutters, and you feel it. He finds compressed phrases and subtle effects that labor under cover of simplicity – “fading hilltop sun,” the slight natural rhyme of “sun” with “down,” the innocent tug of “especially,” the saddened, heart-stirring nostalgia of simply saying “I remember.”
Other times his poetry can be simply crushing. Here is “Sitting Alone in the Middle of the Night”:
Maybe it was summer and I was back home for a while
working to pay off debts from school, painting white
barns and long field fences and on off-days baling hay.
It was hot then in Ohio and sometimes so dry the corn
or the soybeans would fail. I’d get up at two or three
in the morning to find my way to the kitchen for water
and he’d be sitting there in a kind of outline,
smoking and staring at something far, his eyes by now
long adjusted to the dark. Mine were just now opening.
Nothing would be said, since there was nothing to say.
He was dying, he was turning into stone. The little
I could see I could see already how much heavier
he made the air, heavy enough over the days that summer
you could feel in the house the pull of the earth.
Does the “pull of the earth” refer to gravity or the grave? Who is “sitting alone in the middle of the night” – the poet, writing this poem, or his father, refusing to speak? Imagine waking up in the heat of summer at two or three in the morning, stumbling through the house for a glass of water, only to see your father sitting in the kitchen by himself, the light failing, the room humid, not moving or speaking. The poem conveys this feeling of unspoken tension, trauma, and heartbreak very quietly, but more forcefully and forcibly because of its quiet. And the sadness in the line “He was dying, he was turning to stone” – reaching behind the coals of our feelings, setting them aflame. We feel what Plumly calls the heaviness of the moment, what Robert Hayden called “the chronic angers of that house.” Notice also the urgency with which Plumly begins his poem – he knows what’s on his mind, what’s weighing on him, as though he just asked himself, “What was going on with my father and me around this time? What stories do I remember?”
Many of Plumly’s poems located at the beginning of the book, like “The Crows at 3 A.M.”, “The Jay,” “My Lawrence,” (the latter a wonderfully chilling poem about Plumly’s love affair with D.H. Lawrence) proceed through the dance of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, whereby a problem or question is raised, explored in the next stanza or movement, and resolved, with greater complexity, in the resonating finality of the third stanza or movement.
In one of my favorite poems, however, called “Lost Key,” which is sadly too long to quote in its entirety, this strategy towards moving into a greater synthesis is abandoned, for the sake of a kind of cultivated un-finality, whereby hints or clues as images, like lost keys, or a woman glimpsed through a window, or Plumly’s mother, continually surface and sink back into the rich texture of the poem. The poem’s own modus operandi is therefore a metaphor for the process of writing poetry over a lifetime – a kind of ocean, night, and mother unto itself. Thus we read, in the second stanza, “My mother would sit for hours inside silence,” (with echoes of the later “Sitting Alone in the Middle of the Night”), then of “my mother’s / half-moon scar” in the eighth stanza, and then, ending the eighth stanza and beginning the ninth:
The night my mother died she held on to me
in order to keep her body upright over depths
above which lying down means falling.
Outside, the crystal skeletal snow was falling,
while in the wind that starts from the ground
it would suddenly rise. The sky was nothing,
but fifteen floors below carlights under the streetlights
slowed, the midnight into early morning passed,
and windows seemed so sheer they opened on the cold.
There is something marvelously haunting about this passage. It is as if the room in which Plumly sits, attending to his dying mother, has taken on the qualities of lucid austerity that attend his own mother’s consciousness during her final breaths. The rising and falling movements – between life and death, wind and snow, carlights and streetlights and sky, morning and midnight, inhalation and exhalation – echo masterfully the poem’s own movement and form of surfacing and sinking.
Then there are the poems that proceed by a kind of breathless desire to tell, to remember, to chronicle. We might end with the final poem of the book, a devastatingly inspired lyric, but I don’t want to give too much away. Therefore, let’s end with the third-to-last poem, called On the Beach at Duck,” short enough for a book review, long enough to stay with us:
The almost gray brown pelicans flying in from nowhere,
and as far as the eye can see flying out to nowhere,
though they do it to perfection in formation
above the invisible lines drawn perfectly in sand
and in the inching blowback waves measuring the shore,
since once inside the wind they hardly move their wings,
except to readjust or sometimes change the leader,
until once inside the light they’re gone.
The poem is just short enough to document the brilliant image of a flock of pelicans, flying into and out of sight, over a twilit beach. Yet it also reminds us of what it is like to be inside one of Plumly’s soaring constructions. The description of “once inside the wind they hardly move their wings” is beautiful, and not less so because it is accurate. We might say the experience of reading Plumly is also often a breathlessly moving experience.