Cool Reconnaissance of the Cursive M

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Weather, for all of its pyrotechnics, is a tender book, artfully charting the landscapes these poems inhabit.

It would be easy to dismiss Dave Lucas as Yet Another Wonderbread Formalist. His first book Weather reveals received forms, bell-clear rhyme, and a tone that shifts primarily between two well-worn gears: exaltation and its cousin lament. Poems take their titles from the Holy Bible, Macbeth, and the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, and “In Elegy,” “Aubade,” and “Epithalamium,” cover as much ground as you might expect. Even the collection’s opener, “Midst of a Burning Fiery Furnace,” dares you to roll your eyes: “I am familiar with the dying arts,” its speaker declaims, before concluding, “I am also seething / in my depths, I too have come to forge.” For those keeping score at home, that’s one blank verse sonnet that ends with an echo of Stephen Dedalus at the conclusion of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and borrows its title from the Book of Daniel. Halliburton has a more subtle mission statement than this.

And yet, Weather, for all of its pyrotechnics, is a tender book, artfully charting the landscapes these poems inhabit. Set primarily in Cleveland, Ohio and the waterways around it, Lucas balances a formalist’s restraint with the naturalist’s barely-contained fervor for discovery. Whether what’s found is the “cool reconnaissance / of the cursive m” in “Red-tailed Hawk,” an excavation of the past in “December 1678, New France,” or brief, penetrating submersions in Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, Lucas’ poems explode with technical and imagistic virtuosity, while also showing careful, even curatorial, restraint. One of the best displays of his talents is “The Fox,” quoted here in full:

Because the hunted learn a furtive grace
that hunters never know: pursued, escape
becomes an art of need, as serfs took tripe
discarded from the master’s table-place

and founded haute cuisine. And so, the hounded
fox, hidden two dogs deep in earth, may perk
and snarl, may offer a triumphant bark.
The thwarted dogs yelp away, confounded.

It is difficult to imagine a poet doing so much so successfully. Lucas captures the “furtive grace” of his subject with enjambment that would ordinarily exhaust the poem’s energy. However, these lines charge forward relentlessly, defiantly accelerating through the alliterative dash of stanza two. That’s to say nothing of its other music. Lucas has a deft ear, and while the envelope rhyme doesn’t necessarily surprise, what does is how carefully he arranges these pairs to echo throughout the poem. In addition to the poem’s technical mastery, our author has also slipped in a brief dissection of class warfare, metaphorically yoking the socially oppressed to the fox, both of whom escape their oppressors through artful use of the master’s tools. By the end, the poem snaps shut, trap-like, leaving the reader as dizzy and overwhelmed as those confounded hunters, and perhaps questioning our expectation of whom a formal poem serves.

Elsewhere, Lucas will be similarly subversive, deploying this scrappiness in poems like “Wires” and “At the Cuyahoga Flats,” both of which ensnare the reader with similar philosophical and technical effects. Each poem is again built of rhyming quatrains, but the sense here is that neither is a whole poem; instead, what’s left are half-there ghosts of sonnets, as if their sestets had been worn away by the fires and rust that chew through many of the poems, and the lives these poems describe. This is not to say the poems in Weather read as if half-finished. In these poems, Lucas captures what remains of a part of our nation abandoned to its decay. It is possible to see “the muddy unmarked grave of Republic Steel” in “Cuyahoga” beneath “the heartache of an endless sky” in “Wires,” and in both understand this poet’s need to preserve the places these poems inhabit and the formal scaffolding holding the poems to the page.

Only rarely does the book misstep. Occasionally (most often when the poems themselves are occasional) the poems do not work. Despite their syntactic and lexical complexity, and an obvious love of music, some fail to modulate the exuberance that is elsewhere a strength. Lucas so often dexterously wields the heavier tools of his trade that when he turns his eye to these more delicate subjects, say, the blooms of “Every Veyne in Swich Licour,” he can’t but pound them to tatters with his booming exaltations and relentless pentameter. Arguably, the poem’s “O”s, archaic word choices, and its meta-nods to both Chaucer and Joyce (again) are likely not meant to be taken too seriously. But if that’s true, then the poem is almost solely about its tongue-in-cheek machinery rather than its subject.

When Lucas balances a poem’s needs with his adroit formalist tendencies, the result is a poem like “Suburban Pastoral,” likely the book’s best. In it, two men lament their lack of prospects and prosperity. Their conversation, punctuated by sprinklers and “fireflies . . . in lucent droves,” only further widens the rupture between a promise-filled past and the present which lacks it completely: “‘It’s all someone can do just to survive’,” one man offers feebly.

But the structure of the poem—a modified rime royal—resists, at least temporarily, this enfeebled collapse. The poem adds, “at least a man can keep his yard in shape,” and Lucas clearly has his mind on more than a patchy half-acre. The poem unspools along lines sculpted into a conversational pentameter (I resisted saying “like Frost,” but there it is) that allows Lucas not simply to ventriloquize, but distill for us actual, heartfelt loss.
At the same time, Lucas embraces this decline structurally, letting the stanzas accrue half-rhymes—beers/chairs, dishes/ashes, song/lung—until by the sixth and seventh stanzas the rhyme pairs are rusted out completely, mirroring the holes unemployment, nostalgia, and despair often punch into the dispossessed:

what good is it now, when anything
recalled is two parts true and one part false?
When no one can remember just who sang
that song that everybody loved? What else?
It doesn’t come to mind. The sprinkler spits
in metronome; they’re out of cigarettes.

“Suburban Pastoral” aches with ruin—of economic stability, of the sure-footed memories that sustain us. But these lines also comment on themselves, indicating that the poet remains aware of his own obsolescence. Here, the embrace of form remains an exercise, but it’s an exercise in willed futility. Paradoxically, only the corruption of his beloved forms and the tradition he has inherited offers a possible outlet, creative or otherwise.

“Pastoral” concludes with the sons of these men coming home “too full of songs and girls / to notice dew perfect its muted pearls / or countless crickets singing for a mate.” These lines remind us that even that which is passed over for dizzy and immediate pleasures, or remembered only tenuously, well remains. This message twists through the DNA of every poem in this book. Many of them appear as received forms. Many of them are haunted by loss. Nearly all of them handle both in a thoroughly satisfying way. In “The New Poetry” the poet concludes, “The new poetry . . . will not come as a thief: / it will be what is stolen.” One hopes Lucas will continue pilfering the past of its best effects. His work illuminates the necessity of such theft, as it constructs from what remains something entirely new and vibrant, even if—or simply because—the poems, the poet, even our attentions, won’t last.

Eric Smith has written reviews for Pleiades, Smartish Pace, Verse, and the National Book Foundation. His poems appear most recently in Five Points and Best New Poets 2010. He is also an editor for Cellpoems, a txt-message based poetry journal, and teaches at Marshall University. More from this author →