THE STRENGTH OF AMERICAN POETRY these days must lie in its sheer variety. Poems that develop with the linear cohesiveness of naturalistic fiction, poems that work by collaging or mashing up received idioms, poems that unfold as narratives yet with an undercurrent of associative strangeness—all these may prove first rate, and all may render the tones and contours of contemporary life. But such variety can also make for beffudlement, at least for readers without some partisan creed about poetry. How do different styles reflect different types of experience? How can we tell between our personal taste and genuine aesthetic judgment? What transcends style? How can we find it?
The beauty of David St. John’s new book of poems, The Auroras, comes in large part from the authority with which it quells such questions. St. John’s imagination holds a vantage back behind any given approach. This allows him to step through whatever door becomes available, and fully inhabit the poetic world on the other side. Readers familiar with his earlier work will recognize his talent for shape-shifting. Here’s a poet who has written one of the best contemporary poems in rhyme and meter (“To Pasolini” in Study for the World’s Body, 1994) and has also perfected several of his own, invented forms, a poet who has written gem-like lyrics and also a novel in verse (The Face, 2004.)
In The Auroras, he designs a grand structure from his aesthetic flexibility: although at moments they may resemble one another, each of the three sections provides an entirely different sound and feeling. Listen to the openings of three poems, one from each section:
The blonde carrying the tote bag full of bones
Is dressed in a chiffon blouse printed with
& all across the desert
The sound of
Three jade dice rattling in an old man’s palm—
— “Three Jade Dice”
Then one of the bikers
Went at the other – a quick
Steel flash & a breathless
Grunt made it clear
He’d taken the brunt
Of the blade in his gut
—“In the Mojave”
What is it about the motives of the night? All of those lovers
Walking in the luster of their pasts. The strings of melody plucked
In the lightness of sleep.
Encountering these passages in some poetry taste test, would anyone guess they were by the same author writing in the same period? The first excerpt appears surreal: the images show convincing particularity — the “persimmon-colored butterflies” on the woman’s blouse startle from the page in high-res — and yet the setting and drama lead us into the realm of dream and allegory. The second opening registers as contemporary realism: with brash immediacy, counterpointed by precision of diction and elegance of syntax, these lines might resemble the best prose of, say, Robert Stone or Denis Johnson. The last of the three exemplifies an entirely different mode — the meditation. The searching, metaphysical pitch of the sentences, even the crepuscular setting, could remind readers of Wallace Stevens (whose “Auroras of Autumn” St. John’s title calls to mind) though any such influence has been absorbed.
At least when considered like this, as separate tissue samples, the poems resemble one another only in being well made. Whatever tone they strike, the lines and phrases fulfill their potential completely, and so contribute to an action of mind and feeling that seems impelled by necessity.
What makes The Auroras so unique is that St. John’s formal range corresponds with his subject, the process of renewal his title suggests. St. John is obsessed with the process of becoming, the means by which forces evolve into forms, and the movement between styles both reflects and enacts his obsession. Such transformation through formal means can even occur within a single poem. Consider the lyric with which the book opens, “The Lake,” a poem that, characteristic of those in the first section, takes place in a landscape winnowed down to essential emblems:
Opaque the lake woke emerald
The raw decorum of the night giving way
To a slow extravagance the petal-felled touch
Of skin & mist allowed by this
First undressing of the day So much for beauty. . .
That is not so much as in
Well my friend That’s that nor as in I’m certain —
At last — of something . . . No instead I mean
What’s given to us however dulled & undeserving we remain
Is beyond our reckoning though we gaze expectantly into the sky
Entitled to nothing & yet demanding all like these swollen red
Poppies at the end of each sudden summer’s
The awakening that this poem describes, it also embodies. Working in a form he has employed off and on since the early eighties, a verse line that remains unpunctuated even as the voice articulates fine distinctions through the twists and turns of syntax, St. John creates a tensed interplay between part and whole: the phrases pull against the sentences even as the sentences pull back. Reading these poems often involves asking, what will this sentence, what will this whole shape, turn out to be? The late Larry Levis had verse movement in mind when he spoke of the eroticism of St. John’s poems, of how “there is a desire his words have for each other.”
The drama of desire, grafted onto language, often feels like suspense, and it shows here at in the phrases and line-breaks, as well as in the larger gesture. The article “this” and the modifiers “swollen red” stand alone for a moment before they apply to “First undressing of the day” and “poppies.” But the interruption in the middle of the poem, that question about the meaning and intonation of “so much,” makes for the central drama. The tone shifts suddenly, and we wonder, has the speaker abandoned the high lyric mood of the opening, has he given up on beauty, on transcendence? He hasn’t — the splendor returns at the end. Yet the insinuating doubts remain too: the feeling of almost miraculous good fortune, pure wonder at the fact of being, depends upon an element of helplessness: we are “entitled to nothing.” There will be no curative doctrine here. The people in St. John’s poems — the speakers and also the readers — must remain in uncertainty about what is both vital and fatal and “beyond our reckoning.”
It is this undercurrent of chance, even of danger, that makes St. John such a believable poet of paradisal states. The enchantment in his work feels real because the risk of disenchantment always lingers. In another poem from the first section, an avatar named Gypsy Davy (the book contains several trips through sixties California) states this troubadorial imperative. Here is the ending of “Gypsy Davy”:
I learned my job was to play a little tune
On a flute of jade & rain
To sing a simple song about the end of pain
& if you read on you’ll no doubt discover those ways
Such strange tender renders new life to any
Woman or man who’d follow a song beyond the beds
Of the forgotten
into lavish fields of blue light
Only the luckiest lovers may claim
The belief in redemption appears genuine, but St. John won’t take any short cuts around humanity to reach transcendence. Gypsy Davy’s offer of transport carries a few earthier undertones: there’s a wink of the medicine show in a remark like “if you read on you’ll no doubt discover the ways,” as well as a warning inside the promise, if “only the luckiest lovers” will reach “the end of pain.” St. John’s imagination may not be religious in any conventional way, but words such as “Fate” and “Sin” are not mere abstractions in these poems.
The pull between splendor and trouble informs the whole structure of The Auroras. To move from the first section to the second is to turn from a poetry steeped early on in the symbolists and surrealists to a more naturalistic and narrative style. St. John has long had an expert feel for character and story, a knack for weaving cinematic techniques into his poems — like a movie director who’s taken to heart Baudelaire’s description of the modern artist as a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.” Like Baudelaire, St. John has an unabashed interest in the way people look, in fashion. Also like the French master, he takes seriously the insistence upon reproducing “all the elements of life.” His camera angle extends from ecstatic rapture to mortal terror, from highest glamour to sheerest poverty.
Several poems in the second section delve deep into the darkness of human action. In “Creque Alley,” a former sex worker faces her own mortality with stunning ferocity. In “The Girl who Lived in the Rain,” a daughter returns to her father’s farm after a fatal encounter with her own husband. In “Human Fields,” a woman walking through Central American wilderness realizes that the beautiful surroundings were also the site of atrocities. Here is that poem:
It was she thought
A glorious trail coiling
Through the jungle beneath
The terraces & pancake layers
Of viridian leaves & limbs as
The parrots & howler monkeys
Delivered the day’s editorial
Although she knew
She was hiking along those
Clearings & fields
Where hundreds of bodies
Had been shoveled into shelves
Of earth & sockets of rock
Villages hacked entirely to pieces
& planted haphazardly in the ruts
& furrows & she made herself recall
These were now human fields
No longer given over to local crops
From which at times a stray
Stalk of mud-caked shin-bone
Or some misguided white rake of
A hand might reach up
Out of its bed as if
A new order had been announced
As if some heaven of actual memory
Had begun to radiate at last beyond
The cold & actual sky
The poem shows a deep moral imagination, but no “moralism.” While neither St. John nor the hiker editorializes — that’s left, amusingly, to the poetry of “the parrots & howler monkeys” — mind and feeling nevertheless reach a moment of crucial reckoning. Any true promise of “heaven” in this life or the next needs to account for the whole depth of human experience. Simply seeing good and evil in the same cosmic wash, however, would make a pat ending. The irony of those final lines, that quicksand beneath the phrase “new world order” and the repeated “as if,” ensures there will be no resolution, no dogma. The poem ends on earth, among the unsettled dead, even while the pursuit of justice or “some heaven of actual memory” remains sincere.
Certainly, lack of any formal dogma is not surprising in a contemporary writer. But what’s unique about The Auroras is how real the spiritual becomes as the book unfolds, how beautiful and true the striving toward revelation begins to feel. This poetry returns to the reader patches of the splendor found in that great literature that does draw from dogma — say, George Herbert or the 12th century Buddhist, Kamo no Chomei. Maybe the most impressive example appears in the final section, with the series of twelve poems that gives The Auroras its title. Those four syllables themselves reveal a deft artistic statement. “The Auroras,” suggests planetary radiance, literal and figurative renewal, and perhaps most immediately, the Greek goddess of the dawn, Aurora — and yet St. John makes her plural: his poems may inhabit mythical spaces and yet they break past their own frames as they adopt multiple aspects. Take the fourth poem in the series, “Florentine Aurora.” Here, the speaker describes a moment from what he calls “the rarest of days”:
. . . . The shell of the day unfolding, the perfume of
The moment filling every pore we call imagination. The day, today, seems
Inexhaustible. This is my praise; this is my proclamation. This is the apple
I place on the white plate before you. This is the metaphysics of possibility.
The praise and the offering are genuine, but the poet avoids any too pious or triumphal tone. In this, St. John resembles Rilke, Stevens, and James Merrill: his poems are agnostic devotions, modern forays into mystery.
Consider the entire second section, subtitled “Lago di Como”:
The blood of the visible hangs like blossoms of bougainvillea
as they turn & twist along the lattice of limbs shading your
terrace, stretching like a ruby squid across one corner of the stone
villa above the lake. We sit looking out over the unqualified excellence
of the morning, & there is nothing you might desire to recall. You
believe in a space that is as large as logic, that is as logical as the word.
Tell me. What is the “beautiful,” what is the “lost,” & what lives still, just
at the edge of the sound of the trees? It could be the syllables of habit;
it could be a single phrase of gratitude . . . or an unbroken prayer. Tell me.
What will stay, & what will hold its grace & lasting ease?
I love the movement from the contentment in the first two sentences to the sheer desire in those final questions. The poem gathers with the single motion of a wave, so the transition from the claim of “unqualified excellence” to the rawness of “Tell me” comes not as some rhetorical pivot, but a sinuous evolution. Seeming opposites, achieved beauty and unsatisfied desire, flex against each other, weaving beyond any mere exposition of ideas to become absorbed into a singular, strong, nuanced form of consciousness.
What is this form? Here and throughout the final series, the poem rises above narration into something like prayer, dedicated to holding beauty and truth together. St. John avoids the usual temptations of poetry as prayer — those airs of earnestness put on to sanctify the poet himself — because he effects such quick changes in tone, and because he places his speaker in the midst of other figures, elemental yet human in their difference: a vanishing lover, a host of musicians, a dead friend, a stranger wearing a feather boa. Such other presences tug against the inward pull of the speaker’s own meditation, like vivid but lightly brushed shapes, both hiding and revealing those hovering beneath.
St. John makes from this process not only a subject, but a vision of individual and collective life. Just as he sees the whole field of poetry — flowing from associative experiment to realist narrative to metaphysical devotion — as the ground on which his imagination will follow whatever path beckons, so he pictures life itself forever opening into other lives. He renders our humanity, our lives and deaths, with as much capacity for wonder as any poet living.
Certainly, his ability comes from a natural gift, and from decades of hard work. But it also has to do with rejecting false dualities. The subjective consciousness at the center of the poems can be cohesive and multiple, social and mysterious. The register of speech can be naturalistic and metaphorical, down to earth and baroque. Drawing such poles together, the poems achieve a feeling of amplitude and depth. Consider the very end of the book, the final three sentences of “Dark Aurora”:
If death has a form, it is the form of departure. If death has a form,
It is lit by darkness. Everything we’ve looked for all these years,
Everything together we’ve called some necessity of invention, any
Syllable & symbol, every penetrating & luminous or prodigious desire,
Every carved line on every page has emptied into this flesh, this flash
Of revelation, this form which is no memory, which is our dark, the form
Of dark, & darkness in its final form.
The seeming contradictions in the title “Dark Aurora” and the phrase “lit by darkness” dissolve here into wholeness, as, in the lifetime invoked, every desire and invention “empties into” a new form. So far from the usual pop mysticism, this view endows St. John’s poem not only with beauty, but with truth — darkness does indeed “light” the world, since we can see nothing without shadowing contrast; the morning and night do exist together on the same continuum, and mingle. St. John realizes such wholeness. And still, he invokes mortality with all its implacable force: the darkness at the end is a “final form.”
To read and re-read this book is to experience something too rare in our poetry: an artist’s devotion not to his aesthetic but to aesthetic possibility. These poems call to mind Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante: the human forms rendered with total attentiveness, even as the planetary circles spin their rings of color. David St. John is a great poet working at the height of his power.