During by James Richardson
Much of James Richardson’s verse has, in the past, been about looking to the future: not in the sense of big ideas and science fiction—though a bit of that—but simply our day-to-day what’s coming: what might it look like? act like? think like? His aphorisms turn and twist to reveal old wisdom in new light. His poetry is full of conjecture—scientific, cultural, interpersonal—his tone always betraying an immense curiosity and willingness to seek out, surprise, and explore. He is, in both senses, keen, with a will-to-discovery so full to bursting it shows up as optimistic.
Richardson’s new collection, During (Copper Canyon Press), begins in just this direction, but takes a wholly different tone. The introductory poem, “To the Next Centuries”, is a typical Richardsonian rumination, but with a prevailing (and acknowledged) tiredness, a fixation on approaching death. This sets the mood for what turns out to be a much darker, heavier collection of poems than Richardson’s previous volumes (the wonderful By the Numbers and all-inclusive Interglacial). During embarks in darkness. There is a lot of autumn. A lot of night. Numbers, as that title might suggest, is rather neatly laid out. During, with its trial by tailing off, is messier, more inconclusive.
One effect of this is that the poems are less seamless than in these previous volumes (this may be intended). Even the aphorisms, normally fleet, read more ponderous and heavy. Richardson’s primary themes here are Time and forgetting, memory and death. A string of poems deal with the deaths of his mother and father, including the rather heartbreaking “All The Right Tools”, which concludes:
That good, slow tool that turns
trees and lives to wreckage
brilliant and strange,
that train so smooth and slow
we hardly know we’re on
is Time, but is there one
that would reverse
these words and call
your breaths and all
your strayed thoughts home
to be you, standing again?
The change of stress and rhyme in the last stanza (just after the word ‘reverse’)—I hear/see a film scene rewinding—is perfect. Other highlights in this first half (“Watch” is one) are similarly sorrowful, and all the looking back takes its toll. “So much of the past has vanished because it was never really present,” Richardson writes. We lose ourselves two times over: first when looking forward, forgetting where we are—then when wishing we could look back, seeing nothing there.
There is a powerlessness in many of the poems, even an anger, as in the searing “Theory of Everything”. Much is indebted—as softly stated in the wonderful “Late Aubade”, later in the collection—to the poetry of Thomas Hardy. Looking back over the poems, Hardy seems almost an immanent force, and the subdued tone and backward gaze throughout the collection reminds one to the older poet (poems like “During the Great Storms” and “Essay on No” in particular). Indeed, the overarching theme, the During-ness, the dealing with constant processes, inevitable natural forces, the enduring of a life, all call to mind the late poems of Hardy.
Richardson may have laid out the book as a progression (the section titles suggest this) and the verse begins to shape itself more lively in the section titled ‘Long Stories Short’. This opens with the terse “What’s New?”—“My heart leaps, running for the stick / you never threw.”—and continues with “Noah in Age”:
It would be the two of us
and two of everything: enough.
We could hardly hear each other
through the clatter of hammers.
Somewhere south, I think,
and with children of her own.
I do not remember any rain.
Richardson’s control of rhythm is delightful (notice the extra stress in the second line about fullness, abundance—and the absence of a stress in line seven, marking the absence of a memory). Some of his odd, sometimes long-winded and/or awkward phrasing reminds one of E.E. Cummings (also his frequent use of parentheses). He will throw out absolute paradoxes or contradictions like Cummings does, endless reversals on the way to truth:
Our darkest secret is that we don’t need each other. Though it’s not a secret. Though it’s not true.
Richardson’s trademark curiosity in things—“a world where the simplest things have stories”—his love of the uncanny, the slightly strange, the whimsically weird, can be terribly comical; though, frequently, it isn’t the funny bone he is tickling, but the philosophical one.
It is interesting that there are no long poems in During. Nothing, certainly, like the brilliant, breathless “Are We Alone? or Physics You Can Do At Home” from By the Numbers, or the Joycean “Song For Senility”, from the same collection. The aphorisms, here again titled “Vectors”, are more thematically arranged than in previous volumes. They are also not numbered, and read more like single poems (there are four of them in During, spread out over four of the five sections in the book). The more disjointed, chaotic feel of the older, numbered “Vectors” serve Richardson’s brand of wisdom better. There are highlights here too, of course: “In the long run there was only the short run.” “I hear the thunder, I listen to the rain.” “The books I love best can be read backwards or sideways. Can be read closed, or gazing out a window.”
During’s grand culmination comes in the final, and best, section of the book, ‘Early and Late’, bookended by the phenomenal “Essay on Wood”—a deft and beautiful curl of a poem—and the nearly as good “Essay on Clouds”, a wafting rumination, spectacularly finished. In between, we are treated to the finest poems of the collection: the lilting, dawdling inquisitiveness of “Invasive Species”; the tightly sculpted “Essay on No”; the heartbreaking “Late Aubade”. In these poems Richardson is again at his most acutely aware and playfully creative. From “Essay on Wood”:
Of all the elements, it is happiest in our houses.
It will sit with us, eat with us, lie down
and hold our books, themselves a rustling woods,
bearing our floors and roofs without weariness,
for unlike us it does not resent its faithfulness
or question why, for what, how long?
So the mind comes around. What started with the wariness of “To the Next Centuries”:
I can lighten my suitcase now, discarding my ticket,
since there is no return, the map of the city
I’ll never get back to, the little blue phrase book
for the language I’ll never speak
Ends up, in “Invasive Species”, again in a brighter field:
Let’s sit a little:
there’s so much we haven’t talked about
since talking was invented a minute ago.
It’s a strange life. Welcome. Me, I just got here.
“That’s one of the impulses of poetry,” Richardson has said. “To enliven the universe to make it possible for us to live in it.” During seems almost like a scientific trial in this regard: an initial skepticism, a vital questioning, a mottled figuring out, a final (however ambiguous) conclusion.
Richardson is a true advocate—one of our best—of the broad mind. Many poets are; all should be. He is constantly looking to overturn belief, expose delusion, tackle life head on. With During, we have another collection from a brilliant poet in the midst of his best years of work, even if darkened by death and looming changes. There’s always more to know, to tell, and in this abundance Richardson finds reason to keep looking, keep listening: “We’ve heard it all, but we still don’t know what’s coming next.”