Nakedness, Death, & the Number Zero: Poems
|Nakedness, Death, & the Number Zero: Poems
Brooks Haxton's latest book of poems, his sixth, brings together a rare appreciation for the lucidity of classical
Hellenism, the usual inner preoccupations of the Baby Boom generation, and a happy respect for form and structure in poetry. The result is a mostly stimulating, often unexpected, sometimes illuminating collection.
Haxton, a translator of Greek literature, comes honestly by the casual, familiar references to Archimedes, Orpheus, and Heraclitus that are sprinkled through his work. Beyond that, his ease with the classics allows him to draw authoritative pictures of a frighteningly chaotic Hades and an ancient scribe's ordinary working environment.
The poet's job, however, is never just to echo lost civilizations or show his erudition but, in Shakepeare's phrase, "to give to airy nothingness/A local habitation and a name." Haxton's work fulfills that requirement. Much of it is intensely local, personal, even intimate. He describes his first sexual encounter, the delivery of his twin daughters (which, I suppose to the disgust of all women, he compares with his own experience of tooth extraction), and scenes of his Mississippi childhood with clear precision and telling emotional impact.
Like his fellow Southerner James Dickey, Haxton's best poems are narrative, using all the apparatus of a good short story. "Teenage Icon," for example, one of the longest in this collection, tells about the narrator's best friend in adolescence, with whom he fished, drank, and generally hung out. The scenes are described in almost eidetic detail:
After the rain quit, overflowing
Later, he tells of an ugly, dangerous incident that changed them forever. And then suddenly the story jumps to the present, then back again to a midpoint in time:
mud-blond current from the river settled
in the backwaters into a deep tea green
as clear as we would ever see it.
We could spend all day adrift,
the rowboat filled with willow shade,
where twenty thousand straight tree trunks
in all directions stood neck-deep
or deeper in the flood. . . .
He'd be fifty, if he's still alive.
Most of the verse shows just that kind of restrained, careful craftsmanship. But this poet is a Boomer, after all, part of the generation both ennobled and spoiled by Holden Caulfield. The trouble with Holden was that he thought he had invented human sensitivity, and that no one else had it. Some of these poems, unfortunately, occasionally partake of that kind of emotional arrogance, straying away from their usual reportorial conciseness and veering close to sentimentality:
I saw him twenty years ago in a fern bar,
just before I moved away. On a night
that warm, he must have worn long sleeves
to hide the tracks, but he looked good.
that first time we made love, nighthawks
The title poem – maybe the least satisfying of all in this volume – errs in the opposite direction, toward a flat, prosy didacticism. It explains Archimedes' major scientific accomplishment (Archimedes' Principle, of course) and recounts the most famous anecdote about him, that the discovery excited him so much that he ran naked into the street to proclaim it. Then, not clearly connected to the first part, the poem reviews the history of the mathematical concept of zero. It is all mildly interesting, not new to most readers, I suspect, and in spite of elegant hexameters never shows the fine ear for rhythm that the poet usually displays. Here is the ending of this dreary poem:
dove from out of sight among the stars
and just before they struck the earth
swerved – the woof of their wingfeathers
like Ben Webster's fluttering way down on the sax.
Soon after the Enlightenment, among Romantics, zero
Maybe this poem only demonstrates how limited are the possibilities of poems about mathematics.
as an idea dawned on Europe. Doctrine formed. Division
into zero, and by zero, zero parts of zero, overflowed
into a great nonexistence where the empty set
lay empty of infinities and finitudes and of itself.
Never mind; a poet should be judged by his hits, not his misses. It's a pleasure to find a poet who knows poetry and seems to understand how it works. In his homage to Milton, "Memorizing 'Lycidas' Under the Warhol at the Walker," the long lines roll with something of Milton's own ponderous music, though the form is closer to Beowulf in its long lines See how the prosodies merge without any jarring:
Though no one I had met believed it genuine, it gave me goosebumps.
Yet in another poem he can move from Milton's gravity to assume a conversational, contemporary tone reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, as in "In Rhetoric, Adynaton Declares the Matter Inexpressible":
I was learning the flower passage, and my shift was ending,
when the next guard caught me with my xerox reading on the job,
aloud, how "daffadillies fill their cups with tears." . . .
. . . Look! If I could tell you
Perhaps Haxton's best poem in this book is "On Re-Reading Hillman in the Light of Heraclitus." In this marvelously descriptive poem the poet's ear remains steady and his vision projects as clear and as baffling as an etching by M. C. Escher. A sample should make you want to read it all:
how I feel, maybe I wouldn't have to search
between the stitches in the window ice
and ransack disused languages for scraps
of God. . . .
. . . Of their own weight pages loosen,
falling to my lap and to the floor. Snowflakes
at the lower margins of the panes drift,
in the night beyond, a few blurred spots
of light. The calm inside the quiet falls
away. In sleep, my twin girls, both of them
at once, shift poses, . . .
© 2002 by
Conrad Geller for Curled Up With a Good Book