The Way That Poetry Works: Holdfast by Christian Anton Gerard

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In Making Your Own Days, Kenneth Koch writes of poetry not as one of the ways in which language is used but as a separate and distinct language in and of itself. Through this language, one does not simply explain the factual details of one’s experience: one instead conveys the experience, and in such a visceral, concrete way that the reader doesn’t just listen. Instead, they enter into the experience themselves. Christian Anton Gerard’s Holdfast serves as sound proof of Koch’s theory. In his searing, soulful second collection, Gerard uses the language that is poetry to invite the reader in to the experience of his darkest and brightest moments.

Like Koch, Gerard seeks not just to create poetry but to understand what the act of creation is and how, through both the act and the creation, poets are inextricably linked. Indeed, Gerard’s very identity depends on poetry—not just his own work, but the work of those who have written alongside and before him. Gerard proclaims this idea in “The Poet Making a Scene,” the collection’s opening poem:

______________________________________… I am Spenser’s Calidore
up in arms. I am Calidore the hunter telling Artegall, but where

ye ended have, now I begin to tread an endless
trace, withouten guyde or good direction how

to enter in, or how to issue forth in waies untryde
In perils strange, in labours long and wide.

Here, we see the beginnings of a theory about the way that poetry works: by working its way into our lives until it is indivisible from our own language, our own workings, our own narratives. Narrative proves particularly essential, as it provides not only a way to allow the reader into the experience itself but into the way Gerard makes sense of the experience: his struggle to verbalize the experience, to explain, to contextualize, to make the facts of a life make the kind of sense that is survivable. Perhaps as a way to seek the good sense of a narrative, Gerard makes himself into a character about whose life he writes in third person: fourteen of his titles include his full name.

In many of these poems, Gerard seeks the narrative of struggle, redemption, and not just survival but triumph. It is no surprise, then, that Gerard reaches beyond the community of contemporary literature into the canon, especially to Milton, who triumphed over his own blindness to compose with grace that great Western epic about falls from grace. In “Christian Anton Gerard Thinking He’s Milton’s Adam,” he imagines the terror of living in a new and unknown world: “I can’t be the only one scared shitless / imagining that first night outside // the garden.” What makes that world liveable, if not entirely comprehensible, is the guidance of language, of the voice making sense for the stranger in the very strange land: “What could Adam have thought of those night lights / without Milton’s narrator telling him / what to think?” As the poem progresses, Gerard moves from Adam’s narrative firmly into his own. The fallen world becomes the world in which he lived before admitting his alcoholism. The new and terrible world is the one he enters as he struggles to exit his alcoholism, and, invoking Adam and Eve, he wonders if he has “lost something despite having // gained the whole rest of the world.” Gerard prays that part of the world he’s gained includes agency, the desire to “make it if this world’s a wilderness / with room for those who’ll give themselves to it.” The poem ends with a prayer that he can find a way to make his life through the words of others already walking this new world:

Maker, don’t let me be the only alcoholic

who stands out under your stars praying
all the lights I see are others who’ve lived
by listening to all the words you’ve made.

We watch Gerard change through the process of making these gorgeous acts of language because it is the act of making language that changes him. Sometimes, this occurs outside of his own volition. In “Vocabulary,” for instance, Gerard focuses on moments in which language assigns new roles for him before he has accepted or willed them: “How a person can become a moment, / a father, for instance, and a child. You’ll be / standing in a room one minute, just a son. Then, / a plow, a yoke, a row to hoe, like nothing happened.” Here, there are roles that words set out for us, and we change out of and into them like verbs conjugated in chronology’s syntax. At other times, it is the utterance a person wills into being that creates change within them. In “Anonymous,” Gerard writes of his experience in AA that “I can smile, and when I do, I remember once / how I stood in a room lined with strangers and said / my name.” That powerful moment of admission grants him agency through language. Changing the way he operates through language also changes the way he operates through his life:

And I remember thinking I was less concerned
________with concepts than concretes, remember
_______________feeling that
________difference in trusting
my thoughts and knowing I can enjoy them without
trusting them.

Poetry becomes the mode through which Gerard anchors himself in the deepest seas of human experience, from impending fatherhood to an addiction to alcohol that nearly drowns him. A holdfast is, after all, a root structure that anchors and steadies aquatic creatures—most notably, the sea pen, named for its resemblance to quill pens. The collection is rich with poems about the act of poetry, whether Gerard is adopting and adapting Sir Philip Sidney’s “The Defense of Poesy” or falling in love through the poetry of “this woman with books for eyes” in “Christian Anton Gerard Reads Her.” To return to the collection’s opening poem, the phrase “Making a Scene” holds a doubled meaning: there is, on one hand, the scene he euphemistically makes in the real world, when he stops a man from filming “shirtless boys practice dancing […] making // love to each other, the dance, the ways a body moves— / A lyric.” Already, the meaning of “making a scene” has transformed into the idea of making the scene his own through language in the world of the poem. It’s the way he has of understanding the world, a way he learned from poetry: “I have Spenser, // though, his own allegory, to show me I am / my own allegory, to help me see the heart’s racing in, // stumbling.” In studying the language they left behind, Gerard arrives at an intimate understanding of the lives and intentions of poets distanced by decades and even centuries from him. In this way, poetry becomes commonality, building a community that transcends the bounds of time and space.

The community poetry builds for Gerard is an intimate one, no matter whether the poet is living or dead. Gerard frequently borrows or shifts lines from other poems, from Merwin’s “Peire Vidal” to Ashbery’s “Some Trees” to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In “Defense of Poetry; or Love Prayer Prayed By Christian Anton Gerard,” James Wright’s vision of his bones becoming “dark emeralds” becomes Gerard’s vision of bones as “green embers.” In “Christian Anton Gerard And Her Yet Without A Past,” an image of separation from H.D.’s “Night” (“The night has cut / each from each”) becomes the moment that brings him and a lover together, “prayers inside a night making each from each.” This sense of community and commonality extends beyond language and into an understanding of who these poets were as human beings. In “Water Skiing with Robert Creeley,” Gerard describes what he knows about Creeley not just from his words but from the photograph of Creeley driving a boat on the cover of his Selected Poems. “Robert Creeley’s driving a boat, having his picture taken, and probably writing // a poem in his head or at least thinking to himself, This will become / a poem.” There are, however, limits to the understanding we are granted through language. There will always be a great mystery even in experiences as intimately shared as poetry: as Gerard writes to Creeley, “When I read your poems, especially the early ones, I feel like I’m skiing behind you / into a whale’s mouth.” This is not to say that poetry offers an escape from the self; on the contrary, the poem is inseparable from the person. Here, Gerard makes clear that it is not that the poem is personal, but that the poem is the person, and in a visceral, physical way.

Sometimes, however, the whale’s mouth is empty. “Christian Anton Gerard Is Unable to Be Opaque” serves as a warning that language has its limits. Unlike most of the poems in this collection, this reads more like an apology for poetry, to borrow Sidney’s title, than a celebration:

…eyes are windows to the soul; what a crock.
Windows have crappy backstories.

Windows are for making space.
Eyes are not for making space.

The fact that poetry has its limits isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What we can and can’t express, what poetry helps us to say, what we can spend a whole life’s worth of time in search of and never get to language—this is partly what makes life so precious and so sad.

“Holdfast: My Alcoholic Head in Recovery” explores the idea of the poem as artifice, as a place where he can “say I am not I over and over // until I’m more comfortable with not being I // so I can hide something in the third person.” But “Behind all this some great happiness is / hiding,” a line borrowed from Yehuda Amichai. Here, Gerard transforms the metaphor of the collection’s title: A holdfast may serve as an anchor to the world, but it isn’t the world itself.

Intriguingly, this transformation occurs outside of the page. Gerard does find the triumph and redemption he sought through narratives like Milton’s. However, he finds it not in poetry but in reaching out beyond poetry to others. Just as the reader travels into the darkest of Gerard’s experiences, the reader also accompanies him as he confides in friends and loved ones, finding balm in shared struggle. His poems are often direct addresses to friends and fellow writers, to whom he reaches out so he can break through the narrative of the poem to resolve the narratives of his own life. Reading Gerard’s poetry at times has the edge of eavesdropping; this is particularly clear in “Christian Anton Gerard to Scalise from New Orleans.” In this poem, Gerard writes to writer Mike Scalise, speaking directly of his addictions: “I’m a smoker, an alcoholic, Scalise. / By all accounts I should go / into the earth before you and everyone else I know.” It’s a piece rife with poetic language: writing, for instance, is more solid and lasting “than marble,” and a tree reflects our own mortality, as it “has no choice in its becoming timber.” This language leads, however, not towards a recognition of its own power but to its ultimate powerlessness, its meaning fading in comparison to a life lived off of the page:

_________That metaphor falls apart under pressure—

probably all metaphors do—except
the living. Next time we meet, let’s exchange
small rocks we’ve found. Let’s swallow the stones knowing

they’ll pass through us into toilets somewhere into pipes into
_________water somewhere.

The collection ends with a series of love poems, positing the possibility of transcendence beyond mere survival. The poems are unabashedly joyful, almost giddy, and veer occasionally into sentiment: “Sometimes I cry,” Gerard writes, “thinking of the way you listen.” However sentimental, it’s a move that’s welcome after the deep waters through which the poems in the first part of the collection move. Through love, he also moves from mere language into the kind of concrete meaning he wished for in “Christian Anton Gerard to Scalise from New Orleans.” With his lover, time itself is defined in the kind of specifics he longed for: “the minutes / account for seven / cookies, thirty picked up pine cones.” In the end, it is not through the making of these love poems but through making real love in the real world that Gerard comes to a vision of the world as he desired, through Adam, to see it:

Giving everything to start again,
_______you’d hear the new world’s hiss

against the shoreline
_______and some miles under

the world’s not orange. Its red
______ fires aren’t looking to go out.

Emma Bolden is the author of House Is An Enigma (forthcoming from Southeast Missouri State University Press), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2015) and Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013). She received a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, The Best Small Fictions, and Poetry Daily as well as such journals as the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, TriQuarterly, Conduit, Shenandoah, the Greensboro Review, The Pinch, and Guernica. She currently serves as a Senior Reviews Editor for Tupelo Quarterly. More from this author →