Between Good and Bad, Right and Wrong

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James Longenbach’s fourth book of poems, The Iron Key, feels like it has itself arrived from a different era. It oozes nostalgia for the many charms of Venice, the complexities of Greek myths, and the ethereal pleasures of opera and poetry that is, paradoxically, both old-fashioned and refreshing.

In a 2005 interview, James Longenbach recalls a famous quote by Elizabeth Bishop in which she explains that since poets can’t write poetry every minute of every day, they have two choices when not engaged by the muse: write criticism or drink—and it doesn’t really matter which. It certainly matters for Longenbach, who appears to have internalized Bishop’s Bishopism in reverse. Longenbach published four influential books of literary criticism and wrote dozens of essays and reviews in the 80s and 90s, emerging as one of the most important scholars of 20th century poetry. Over that span of time, he must have said no to a lot of martinis, because he was also producing poems of his own. His debut collection, Threshold, appeared in 1998 and is a strong first collection with resonances of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens. Since then, he’s been balancing reviewing, writing criticism, and writing poetry with alacrity, establishing himself as what people from another era might have called “A Man of Letters.” Longenbach’s fourth book of poems, The Iron Key, feels like it has itself arrived from a different era. It oozes nostalgia for the many charms of Venice, the complexities of Greek myths, and the ethereal pleasures of opera and poetry that is, paradoxically, both old-fashioned and refreshing.

Like Bishop, Longenbach embraces high lyricism. His poems are tightly conceived, elegantly architectured, and, sophisticatedly enunciated. There are no tricks. No experiments with typography, syntax, line, or form. He capitalizes the first letter of every line and collects those lines in standard stanzas. He never holds to a specific meter very long, but his typical metrical and syllabic pattern skews toward the iambic. None of the poems rhyme, but Longenbach is gifted with a wonderful ear, as in these two stanzas from the beginning of “Little Song:”

To climb the stairs I lift my right foot higher
Than my left, then lift my left foot
Twice as high and twice as far.

It’s hard to have a bad thought
Halfway up the stairs, your body stuck
Between good and bad, right and wrong—

Like most contemporary poets, Longenbach eschews easy rhyme for an aural echo that is subtle but pleasing. The soft l, f and t alliteratives in lift and right foot get murmur back a line down in left, lift, and left and foot. The even softer h sounds of “hard to have” and “Halfway” blend with the internal rhymes of “higher” and “stairs.” Even the parallel structure of “Twice as high and twice as far” is mirrored in “Between good and bad, right and wrong.” One hears the gentle repetitions of stair climbing in these stanzas, and it’s a beautiful moment.

Also like Bishop, Longenbach cottons to a personal symbol or motif that, over the course of a book (or a lifetime in the case of Bishop) becomes a public symbol and a revolving doorway into the orderly rooms of the poems. For The Iron Key, that motif is, not surprisingly, a key. This is handy, because the book tries to jimmy three main locks—the poet’s own memory, the puzzling simultaneity of war and everyday life, and the deadbolt of Venice. The connections among these three themes are not immediately apparent; indeed it is only after completing the book that the foggy windows framing the poet’s perception begin to clear up.

What do we see?

Well, pretty much different versions of the poet’s perception. This is a book about the self. The poet prepares us for as much in the opening poem, entitled, “Knowledge:”

Here, what’s left of the lost book On Knowledge ends.

Where was I born?
Where was I when my mother fell?
When Gail died?

Of the gods’ existence that
These wonders were their handiwork—

New Jersey.

I don’t know who Gail is, and The Iron Key never really tells us, but what it does do is warn us that it will only open certain doors. These are poems not of observation but introspection, not appearance but remembrance. Consider these lines from “Archipelago:” “I don’t remember staying at the San Gallo; neither do I remember visiting Madonna dell’Orto . . . / I remember eating in the little trattoria at the base of the Zattere . . . / I saved the bill: 12, 600 lire.” Here, the poet makes the act of remembering the cause of (and for) poetry. Or, put more theoretically, one composes memory the way one composes a poem. If a literary work is, in part, a map of what it lacks, then the elisions of memory become the caesura of poetry.

The best of these memory poems is “Seven Venices,” a series of meditative couplets in seven sections that offers up seven different perspectives on Venice, all seen through the poet’s lens. Reminiscent of the Stevens of Harmonium, Longenbach’s poem asks if there is a meaningful Venice besides the poet’s Venice, and even more importantly, if the poet’s Venice bears any real resemblance to that thing those of us without the iron key might call “the real Venice:”

Cross the Canonica, then walk straight as you can.
You’ll pass the Palazzo Priuli,

The one with the windows you like.
Bear right at Da Remigio. Remember?

We ate sea bass there in 1981.
You could see the Carpaccios again

But if it’s twilight, go all the way to the riva,
The little house given to Petrarch in exchange for his books.

Often I fall asleep at night imagining that walk.

Stevens writes in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “I do not know which to prefer / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendos, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” What, Stevens asks, is better—hearing the blackbird sing in real time or saving it on the hard drive of memory to re-hear, revise, and re-hear endlessly? Similarly, which, here, does the poet prefer? The Venice of reality or the Venice of imagination? Ultimately, the book comes down on the side of the power of memory to override the lived.

One of the things memory overrides in The Iron Key is the intrusion of contemporary or popular culture. There is no cell phone service in Longenbach’s world, no computers, no reality TV, no wi-fi, no blogs, no iPods—not even compact discs (instead the poet references “Busoni’s transcription of Brahms’s last work, / The organ chorale preludes, opus 122. / Arbiter Records, B0004W1KS”). The book is heavy steeped in the accoutrement of high culture, replete with references to Ceres, Fra Angelico, Andrea del Sarto, Honoré Sharrer, Meleager, Menippus, Anacreon, Leto, Apollo, Ampelos, Ceryx, Daedelus, A. Walton Litz, and Richard Blackmur. Not coincidentally, there is also a notable absence of humor here. Longenbach’s poems have always bowed toward the earnest; he is, after all, a serenely serious poet. His books avoid chuckles. No jokes, no celebrations of the absurdities of contemporary life, no sass, no snark. I do not, by the way, intend this as a criticism (I could make the same claim about W. S. Merwin or Jorie Graham, two poets I adore). Nor am I saying the book lacks joy or wonder; it celebrates both. But, it lacks a modulation of tone. It lacks lightness.

That incredulity toward lightness bears some exploration. In his recent review of Troy Jollimore’s award-winning Tom Thompson in Purgatory, Longenbach makes a fascinating claim about Tom Thompson that, along with The Iron Key, reveals a bit about what Longenbach wants poetry to do and be: “Jollimore has written a snappy, entertaining book, but it feels unhappy to be a book of poems. It wishes it were a page turner.” Jollimore’s book is really funny. It’s sad and edgy and crazy clever. To me, few recent books of poems feel happier to be poems than Jollimore’s, and so it remains particularly telling that for Longenbach—one of the best readers of contemporary poetry—the Venn diagram of “Snappy/Entertaining” and “Poetry” with a capital P enjoy little or no overlap.

One explanation for this seriousness could be that Longenbach, like Stevens, hopes poetry might somehow participate in the political sphere, which, of course, can be heavy business. In “April 2003,” a poem that references the Yeats of Responsibilities, Longenbach writes “Poetry is against war or else it isn’t poetry / Said my friend the poet, as if by breathing / We were glamorous. / War was the air we breathed.” Indeed, war makes more than a cameo in this book—it sneaks on stage here and there to remind us of its role in our lives, its mask of terror. For the young Longenbach, it’s the Vietnam War, an ominous soundtrack to the film of his memory. For the reader, a distant war playing in the background is supposed to be a metaphor for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a subtle and effective move. It’s neither forced nor egregious, and it comes across as genuine—a statement one could make about The Iron Key itself.

Dean Rader’s debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book of the year. He was won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2016 Common Good Books Prize, judged by Garrison Keillor, and the 2015 George Bogin Award from the Poetry Society of America, judged by Stephen Burt. He writes and reviews regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Huffington Post. Two new collections of poetry appeared in 2017: A book of collaborative sonnets written with Simone Muench, entitled Suture (Black Lawrence Press), and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon), about which, Publishers Weekly writes “few poets capture the contradictions of our national life with as much sensitivity or keenness.” More from this author →