Somewhere, thirty-eight thousand feet above Wisconsin, a flight attendant call light dings. From the back of the plane, the intercom manages to sputter out: It’s too rough to make our way up to you. If this is an emergency, please press the call button again, and one of us will try to crawl our way there. If, like me, you’re not very comfortable with flying, then you’ve already begun to sweat and fidget. So, I grasp for whatever I can in the storm: my partner, the armrest, and Justin Boening’s 2015 National Poetry Series winning collection: Not on the last day, but on the very last.
It seems turbulence, though a cliché, is a compelling way to begin talking about Boening’s book. The metaphor is apt because the collection begins in a storm with the poem “When I Cannot Sleep—Day Six—A Letter,” which describes “the wind having its way with the house tonight, / with the windows. / It’s finally possible.” Boening is a master of massive observations masquerading as minor heavenly bodies, all singing to each other in their coupled descent. This is a book where “everything seems / like something you’d say to me / in a small town / to keep me breathing like a small beast—.”
This is a collection where the inanimate animates the speaker(s)’s world(s), and that embraces the impossibility of material objects acting upon that world, affecting each wounded moment. Wind is a rough lover; rooms walk into women and not the other way around; the knocking of the doctor’s needle becomes a stage cue. In “The Jukebox that Ended the World Twice,” the speaker begins: “There are many predictions / about how the world will end, / and I believe them all.” And these poems convince me to believe them all too. In this book, I feel okay about being the boy who “makes a mess of things. / A bird sings.”
The collection’s first section ends with the poem “Opera Singer,” which stands out as one of the book’s most intimate, and (strangely, and perhaps conversely) most associative pieces. Like many others in the first section, there’s consideration of a “mother,” while action is associated with performance; each disparate piece and pomp a poor repertory company’s prop. We’re costumed in this place and we’re in a costumed place. We’re surrounded by music that’s always just about to begin. We find ourselves:
[in] velvet bolero, long
_____________white gloves, one
It doesn’t look right,
______________but the audience loves it
when I clear my throat,
when I raise my hand. When I start to sing
I’m blown away by that last adverbial phrase, especially because it doesn’t end with a period. There seems to be an almost dream-like argument about these moments that augment the “real” in Not on the last day, but on the very last: there’s an end, sure, but only because the pall begins to absorb all assorted flashes.
Back in the air, as the turbulence subsided (now somewhere over Minnesota), I began discussing the collection with my partner. She’s an Early Modernist and we had been talking about Shakespearean sonnets some nights before, and I couldn’t shake the notion of the volta from my mind; the “turn,” as it were, in any Elizabethan sonnet, right before the final couplet. Much of the complication in Boening’s collection relies on turns in the same way, though not formally. A volta in these poems might play out in the expression of the personal, a world of the speaker’s own making—a clear, momentary understanding lost, as in the first line of “The Mistake,” which reads: “You and I have likely a very different understanding of why.”
Though I wouldn’t say there’s any specific political argument in the collection, there is, most assuredly, a political stance in it. This is especially true of “Election Day,” a sharp and moving piece that seemed to echo through the thundering and empty mountain passes of the late James Tate’s early and mid-career work. This is especially true in Boening’s use of narrative and oratory elements like: “our replacements. A voice / from the mob / rose above it, / shouting ‘Here they come!’” I couldn’t help but recall Tate’s The Lost Pilot and The Oblivion Ha-Ha as the poem continued:
______“The soldiers! The soldiers!”
We all put down
__________our ballots, tearfully
the distant battles,
how the beginning
___________of war is always
a myth, just as its end,
how even the present
as it leaves you.
So much is lost in the collection. In many ways, Not on the last day, but on the very last reads in an almost Neo-Sapphic way. And no, I don’t mean that its form is generally a four-line strophe with mostly trochaic and dactylic feet. Instead, I mean the way we, as contemporary readers of poetry, come to Sappho: broken, both by the X and Y axes of time, and by distance. In Boening’s collection, the issue isn’t so much the lost spaces bracketed by history (there are no brackets or inserted “lost” metrical feet in the book), but the impossible spaces of the contemporary dream, often discussed sua sponte by the author, as in the poem “The Door”: “In the wilderness, a door / stands upright. Its paint / peeling, its knob / a little loose.” Or, later in the poem, “Every time I open the door / there’s another child / we call wolf.”
I’m not sure, as with those brief moments of terror on a plane, there’s an eventual smoothness to look forward to in Not on the last day, but on the very last, but there are moments of clarity to hold on to in the storm. In the third section, “The Story as it was told to me,” addresses not the “new, new story,” but the “new story, new.” Perhaps in some ways this poem addresses the resistance to narrative in contemporary poetry that, in and of itself, spins a kind of narrative, as in the final lines of the poem:
It’s the story you tell yourself
________________when you’re waiting,
patiently wanting nothing to happen, nothing
___________________________you’ve prepared for
or believed could ever come, something
like the day you entered
________________the house you owned
by not owning a house, something
_____________________like speaking to the father
you love by not loving one.
There’s something more, here, in the sky. How a plane moves even faster because air begins to give up. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the wheels come down and we move about the cabin of our lives. A cookie here, sandwich there; this mostly inconsistent dedication. Not on the last day, but on the very last reminded me that these clasped talismans are just as important as any other; that there’s a science to the religion of an open field/hidden forest. In the end, it is, as Boening writes in “How I Came to Rule the World”:
First, no one loved me. Then
I learned to love myself
too much. The rest, as they say
is the rest.