Perhaps we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but then again, don’t covers often give us clues? Clues about content and structure and style? Clues that beckon to us as readers, or caution us, or both? Take, for example, the cover of Christopher DeWeese’s second poetry collection, The Father of the Arrow is the Thought. When this book arrived in my mailbox, I spent several minutes simply savoring the feel of the book in my hand, its slightly wider-than-average dimensions, the pleasant heft of its pages. I noticed how the surface area of the book is blue, but not the darker blues—royal or navy—that we might associate with words like “father” and “arrow” and “thought.” The nouns in the title belong to the realm of the traditionally masculine, yet the words themselves are printed in bold pink (something subtly subversive here, I muse), centered at the true midpoint of the page against a delicate, robin’s egg background.
There is no cover image. The title words are placed where we expect the picture will be, and so we study them instead: THE/FATHER/OF THE/ARROW/ IS THE/ THOUGHT. The cover becomes a dart board, the title a bull’s eye. I find myself viewing the title as well as reading it, encountering the words themselves as image, as art—each noun set apart on its own line.
What else is missing? The author’s name! There is something at once brazen and humble about this omission, something I don’t recall seeing before. The book is bigger than the author now, and separate from the author, too. Ultimately, this gesture feels generous to me—an offering—a way of saying without saying, “This book belongs to all of us now.” On the white flip side, CHRISTOPHER DEWEESE appears in robin’s egg print. The ISBN, price, and genre appear in pink. OCTOPUS BOOKS appears in black.
Are you curious yet? Are you eager? Shall we open the book and see what awaits us inside?
DeWeese’s book is an artful and bewitching enterprise from cover to closure. There are 29 poems listed in the Table of Contents, each one titled with this construction: “The ______.” Each blank is filled with a noun denoting a place within the natural world. For instance, we begin with “The Atmosphere,” and we end with “The Tide.” Along the way, we visit swamps and orchards and rivers, fields and mountains and lakes. Then, this epigraph: The father of the arrow is the thought: How do I expand my reach? Over this river? This lake? That mountain? This quote is attributed to the expressionist painter, Paul Klee (1879-1940).
So: If thoughts are the fathers of arrows, and DeWeese is the father of this book, how then do DeWeese’s own thoughts, along with his channeling of Paul Klee, fill the quiver of each page?
Here is one credo of the project, one quivering ars poetica stocked with arrows:
To peer inside myself
would require instruments
beyond those among my purview,
so I look outside
at the burning off
of what filled distances
into a newer emptiness,
an altogether more specific,
intensely orange world.
Where we so often expect the contemporary poet to turn inward, DeWeese continually reinvests himself in that “altogether more specific,/intensely orange world.” In that world, there are “tourniquet trees,” a “lake’s wide blue arm,” “platoons of insistent geese,” a “blue and hungry wind.” All the arrows his thoughts have fathered include these small, incisive ways of recounting what is seen, piercing the visible world with phrases that resist cliché and stoke imagination. No subject is falsely idealized or falsely mastered here, which perhaps is why I trust this speaker so completely.
Here again, with the credo-quiver, another moment of ars poetica:
I guess I must have been an optimist,
stuck in this raw belief
that if I could only stop living outside the poem,
its words would open up
the way shadows do
when you view their source
and then the sun.
What would it mean to live our lives purely inside the art we make? This thought is passed along to the reader. It pierces our minds, our hearts. At once, the rumination here foreshadows others yet to come in the collection, as DeWeese rides the meta-waves, climbs the meta-trees:
I’ve been weeping
in the nature poem
buried just beneath this one,
a melancholy lyric
Suddenly, I see how these poems are like children, how DeWeese’s thoughts resemble those of a parent contemplating the next generation. His poems are of him, but they are not him. This is both a source of relief and a source of disappointment. The poems bear his likeness, and yet they mask it, too. His own lyrics are “buried”—still present but tucked in—beneath another poem, another nature. That is the one we see.
And I’m remembering now how Paul Klee, an artistic father-figure for DeWeese, was known for the child-like quality of his paintings. Somewhere I still have the notes from art history class about his idiosyncratic use of line and color, the deceptive simplicity of his compositions. Klee exhorts, and DeWeese quotes, “Be winged arrows, aiming at fulfillment and goal, even though you will tire without having reached the mark.”
And here is another winged arrow, another ars poetica that seeks to show how the art is made in the act of making it:
To live is not just to have a vision
so much as it is to be a description:
to swim through the image
and maybe find a way beyond it,
past the traditional clouds
and thick blue frame
that obliterates its canvas.
Is this not Klee’s philosophy, too? I’m struck by how DeWeese turns to the language of visual art: image, frame, canvas. This can’t be coincidence, but rather a nod to what is Klee in him, the legacy he carries on from the painter who once dreamed of becoming a poet himself.
There are other influences here, too, other father-poets who have fashioned spears and javelins of extraordinary insight. Most notably present is the spirit of James Wright, who lingers in the poem under the poem called “The Pasture.” Remember when Wright was lying in a hammock at William Duffy’s farm in Pine Island, Minnesota? There were cowbells; there were the droppings of last year’s horses blazing up into golden stones. And now, the literary son retells and laments his poetic inheritance:
Waiting’s many testimonies
fill the landscape
in timbered fences
and the shivered hammocks
where dead poets
portrayed their own histrionics
lying there forever
above the moving capital
where cowbells follow
last year’s horses
Every maker of art discovers the Sisyphean nature of the work: what is “to again be rendered/ and then to be rendered again.” No one gets it right. No one captures the essence of experience, just as Klee warned us: “you will tire without having reached the mark.”
Perhaps it was in response to Klee that Wright ends his famous poem with his famous line, “I have wasted my life.” Who hasn’t? Who won’t? In the voice of his own generation, DeWeese steps in and writes this, to the forefathers and to the readers and to all the art-makers yet to come:
To Whom It My Concern:
I have wasted your life
and the lives of many things
to deliver you this body,
to leave you with this spreadsheet
of personal experience
multiplied by the imagination.
Is it an apology? Is it a caveat? Is it a disclaimer? Perhaps this tiny, candid epistle is all three.
DeWeese is writing his way from the atmosphere (some notion of origin, of creation) through the things of this world epitomized by their places, and he is also preparing—as we all must—to wash away with the tide. Channeling Eliot, another forefather, he takes us on this journey to the “all that is always now,” to this final ars poetica, the last of his quivering arrows:
In the now that is always
at least a lifetime later,
depending on who died
and how much they mattered,
I have not lost much,
and am thus not prepared
to lost much anything,
so I came back here
to try to understand
how to lose everything.
We’re all shooting in the dark, DeWeese reminds us, but sometimes—will you permit me the pun?—we shoot the moon. Sometimes, as DeWeese is in this keen and poignant volume, we are “compelled/ by the angry moon/ to invade once again/ just a little farther,” to find our way ashore “in the changing light.”