Vagrants & Accidentals, Kevin Craft’s new collection, unsettled me the moment it arrived in the mail. Let’s just say it’s been a few years of vagrancy and accidents in these parts, and I wasn’t sure it was wise to embark on pages that might conjure memories I’d been working to forget.
It was impossible, though, to resist the poems’ call because the book was a pleasure to hold and behold. While a review should focus primarily on the words between covers, there is something about this book’s design and texture that cannot be divorced from its ideas. At first, I wasn’t sure why I was deeply rocked by the book’s hard-cover heft, and its soft, white jacket with a stark black cover design that suggests woodcuts or folk art. A bird’s silhouette rises as the center image, a shape below resembles shark or alligator, and rising vertically through the bird and creature are the suggestions of trees.
It’s through the central image of the bird that Craft’s poems begin to open themselves. In ornithology, a vagrant or accidental is a bird that has strayed or been blown from its home or migratory route. But birds in this book are far from lost. Instead, they’re touchstones, creatures that invite Craft’s exploration and wonder. Located nearly dead center in the book is “Not Waving but Growling.” With its nod to Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning,” the poem juxtaposes one perception of a puffin with another: “…Clown-faced / prismatic flyer, little solitude— / riddle us now the face of the deep.” The puffin, which the speaker first identifies as rather silly and careless, transforms into a well of unknowability.
Craft, in this poem and others, suggests that people are the true vagrants and accidentals; we don’t quite belong, we search ceaselessly to find a place of rest or at least understanding, and we are always vessels of loss.
Indeed, this is a volume in which “Every season swallows someone” and “each of us [is] already a biography in tatters.” Wisely, the book offers a range of approaches and structures—narrative, lyric, fractured, ekphrastic—which help Craft explore how the accidents of our lives, in many ways, begin us. Built in four sections of thirteen poems each, with each section containing the death of a loved one, the book opens with one poem, “Little Big Chief,” set outside the carefully engineered parts. The poem suggests the loss of a child, perhaps stillborn, and this seems to be the event that sets the speaker on his grief-shot meditation across years, people, and places, as in “Among the Cypresses (23 Remedies)”:
For you who’ve gone missing
in the vertical shadow,
who knock headhearted in the deadbolt trunk—
salvo or echo, some bystander rage: sing me
the password to your dumbstruck grief.
So, yes, I was right to be wary of Craft’s work. It’s heavy stuff. The irony, the poems suggest, is that despite lives of hurt and failure, we vagrants and accidentals can look to nature for answers and inspiration. The presence of paintings, architecture, and music in Craft’s poems reminds me of Pierre Bonnard’s dictum: “Art will never be able to exist without Nature.” Craft’s approach also conjures Rilke who, in Letters to a Young Poet, advises that a person who must write should “come close to Nature . . . For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.”
But perhaps Craft’s most satisfying accomplishment is his play with repetition and mimicry, which approximate birdsong and play into the book’s title: in music theory, vagrant chords are defined as wandering, ambiguous harmonies, and an accidental is a note that doesn’t belong to the scale indicated by the key signature. In “Wilson’s Warbler,” end rhyme lifts like a bird’s melody in one stanza, then progressively darkens:
where do you begin again
counting down your next-of-kin?
Once the nest is robbed,
Once you’ve dropped
your weaver’s bobbin,
Scatter every nom de plume
Composing poems at the loom
To pull a baby through a sonic boom.
In an even lovelier melding, “After Caravaggio” brings art and bird-music together through a call and response of syllables: “Where image out of blackness deepens black. / Where white of doublet sleeve doubles wave / on wave. Slack water, lack luster…”
As the poems sing, though, they also mourn the degradation of the natural world. From the mass death of redwing blackbirds to shrinking pinelands and oysters “dissolving in acid / like any reckless tongue,” Craft reminds us that we humans are not the only ones who live a precarious existence.
Through the conflation of music, birds, personal lives, and a shaky natural world, Craft troubles the reader with the impossible question: How are we to live when loss—personal, environmental, and political—is heaped upon loss? In its most devastating moments, Vagrants & Accidentals provides no answers, instead demonstrating the uselessness of our bodies to achieve an end or a purpose, such as in “Borders without Doctors”:
Things fly out of our hands
People fly out of our hands
Our hands like kelp crabs
in a tide pool of braille
scratching at the sandbar
pinching the air
I know that terrible feeling of not being able to hold on to anything. Of flailing, and even drowning. But when I first saw and touched Craft’s carefully made book, and even more as I read the poems, I was able to hook my fingers onto an object that knew me. It said we commune through loneliness and hardship, art and nature. There, somewhere between destruction and redemption, flickers not solace, but recognition, which is perhaps what we have longed for all along:
The poem of daybreak
begins to write itself again
in limestone fissures. In it bison and ibex
stumble out of the cave, steaming
in torchlight, grazing their way
to the now distant coast. Behind them
in outline a hundred hands waving—
one of which must be yours.