JANUARY 13, 2021
ORDINARY MOMENTS of seeing, of presence that simultaneously speak to something eternal, have long been at the heart of Stanley Plumly’s poetry. What’s changed in Middle Distance, which he completed just two months before death in April 2019, is its prescient urgency. Very early on in his long and distinguished career, he taught painting. He may have called himself “an awful painter” in a 1996 interview, but he understood how painting teaches one what to look for and mine. “Middle distance” is a term from pictorial representation to single out what occupies — or exists inside — the space between the composition’s foreground and background. In this final, superb collection, “middle distance” becomes that state between life and death. And crucially it is a state in which the forces of memory and imagination continue to hold immense creative power.
In the title poem, the speaker stands apart. But he is not alone. For his companions, he chooses J. M. W. Turner and John Constable, the English Romantic painters at the center of his last book of nonfictional prose, Elegy Landscapes: Constable and Turner and the Intimate Sublime. Though he acknowledges Turner’s transcendent angel, in “Middle Distance” the speaker aligns himself with the homelier Constable, who became known for his English landscapes. It is Constable whom the poet imagines watching over him as he, too, draws near the afterlife:
He [Constable] thinks I’m a cloud, a long white body
lying in the air over Hampstead, he thinks
clouds of storm shapes are bodies, like great elms.
I’m his anomaly, still thinning out.
Another day he sees me lying down
undulant in the middle distance, the
cloud come at last to earth as the earth is
part of the corn, the good ground under corn,
the painting piecemeal, the way he paints, so
that you have to stand at a real middle
distance just to see me. Turner wants me
to be The Angel Standing in the Sun,
apocalyptic in the afterlife,
though I prefer my body as a field
in which I live over again as flesh —
or is it flush? — against a stream, or of
the stream, as C also sees me …
As the late Plumly has done elsewhere, and perhaps most famously in the earlier “Constable’s Clouds for Keats,” he writes with both reverence for and affinity with Constable’s studies of clouds which Constable created using oil on paper, applying the most permanent of paints to the most ephemeral of surfaces. (Not without significance: Constable painted this series of clouds in Keats’s native Hampstead while caring for his dying wife Maria, who, like Keats, perished from tuberculosis.)
The speaker of “Middle Distance” admits his admiration for these studies of clouds in oil, calling them “drafts” and preferring them over the “too finally / finished” works. In this way, the poet seems to be cluing the reader into what he most values in his own poetry: that sense of catching a moment of vision, of what has become insight, and ideally fusing that moment with other moments, thereby enlarging their significance as the poem’s architecture takes shape. This he does, not only in periods of beauty and repose, but also of brute anguish and incomprehensible suffering, as in these lines from “Planet”:
When I was twelve, when all of us were there,
I watched a bawling steer, locked in the vise of a large steel collar,
receive — between its wide black eyes — at least one blow
of one sledgehammer, if only to stun it
and allow it to be dragged and strung up by its length
where another boy — maybe high school or older — slit its throat
with the half-moon of a knife […]
Then, in the spring, Mary Neal, the one true angel in the class,
whose beauty was enough, could not transcend the polio around her,
which rose like heavy water inside her,
so that on our visits all we could see was her loyal head
emerging from the white enamel breathing of the lung,
the rearview mirror fixed in such a way she didn’t have to look at us.
“Planet,” the third poem in the collection, immediately follows “Middle Distance.” It is both an extended meditation on death, one that wisely surrenders the ontological need to assess whether or not the life matters or has mattered; and it is a reverie in which 12-year-old Mary Neal, confined within the iron lung that prevents her from looking back at those who are looking at her, coexists alongside the terrified steer who is brutalized as he nears death. The mastery of “Planet” is that it allows for proximity without creating too close a relationship between the two figures. Rather these images, one of an animal’s instinctual terror, the other of a trapped, sick, and beautiful girl, coexist in a dream state “once the closing dark has subtracted everything.” Everything being the feeling that remains within the speaker, who has surrendered hope and at last come to understand that the “loneliness we long for in that someone / no one else can be.” Plumly’s subtle but transformative shift from “I” to “we” invites the reader to join the continuum of yearnings that all human beings possess.
“Planet” is deeply elegiac, diving inward into the dreamer’s loneliness, all the while fighting off any trace of cloying sentimentality. A very different tone, one of sly, playful, and outward-reaching humor that strives to accept death, presides over “Middle Distance.” This acceptance emerges in the homely, highly musical desire to become part of “the / cloud come at last to earth as the earth is / part of the corn, the good ground under corn / the painting piecemeal.” The image calls forth Constable’s late painting The Cornfield, which, in Elegy Landscapes, Plumly names a “meditation on the pastoral.” In Middle Distance, this phrase describes Constable’s portrait of the poet in the afterlife. And yet, the poem continues, with the expansive addition of “piecemeal” — nothing is ever finished. One is part of an ongoing continuum in which perspective and proximity are key. For Plumly, as for Constable — and Turner — that continuum is art, which is dependent upon talent, but also upon the sustaining consistency of work. The poem ends with a gesture toward work, as the poet closes with one final vision of himself as “the sky domed over the boat boy’s / possible future, when he then arrives / and puts to work all that really matters.” The boat boy is another one of Constable’s subjects, and so the poem looks ahead to Plumly’s death while cradling, in memory, the boy that he once was. “All that really matters” is still ahead of him. In this way, “Middle Distance” allies itself with the lesser known Latin meaning of distantia as “an interval of time”; or in this case, with intervals of time, these being the time of Constable’s actual painting, the time of the poet’s figurative death, and that of the poet’s youth which belongs to every boy, and is thereby archetypal.
“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced,” Keats believed. For Stanley Plumly, it can be re-experienced, relived, and reshaped in art. Middle Distance revisits the poet’s history, which includes central people from his life, among them his father and mother. One particularly gorgeous moment occurs in “Travel & Leisure,” a long, meditative sequence that alternates between prose passages and lyric poetry. Here the poet returns, via the imaginative powers of memory, to places he has been, including Paris, London, and Venice. It is for his mother, “for whom imagination is everything,” that the poet “invent[s] Venice,” a place his mother likely never visited. In conjuring Venice for her, he focuses on this ancient, storied place, “not as City of the Dead but City of the Afterlife, soul to soul, spirit to spirit, and so on.” Throughout, Plumly writes of his mother in the present tense: “That’s how my mother sees in general now,” he says of the way she takes in his descriptions. And in this way he imagines himself writing from the afterlife also. Yet this is nothing like Keats’s “posthumous existence” in Rome when the dying, 25-year-old poet wrestled with all he had lost or forfeited — his lost love and the life’s work he feared would remain anonymous or “writ on water,” as his gravestone reads. Plumly understands the immense privileges of his life and wisely brings real gratitude, if not humility, to “Travel & Leisure,” and to so much of Middle Distance.
The humility comes from one who has had a foretaste of death, as “Night Pastorals” reveals. Here the speaker returns to the long hours he spent in the hospital. For his companions he returns to his grandmother Ruth, the ancestral center of “Night Pastorals.” Like Plumly’s child self, Ruth “liked listening from a distance.” Throughout the collection, this kind of listening, or standing apart, brings one closer to the suffering of others. Later on in the poem, the speaker reflects on his great-grandfather, a former schoolteacher who was about 10 years old when the Civil War broke out: “Lying there, awake with the nurses, after some middle-of-the-night treatment, I could walk myself back there and think it real. Think it something, anyway.”
“Night Pastorals” could be called a prose poem in 11 sections, though it is also a lyric essay, as is the even longer “Germans,” which occupies the 15 middle pages of the collection. And here it’s worth mentioning that while Stanley Plumly was a master of form, he understood the possibilities for innovation, not just within genre, but across genres. “Germans” returns to the period when Plumly was just five and a group of Nazi POWs arrived in Ohio as forced labor for his grandfather’s lumber business. “Germans” includes some of the most beautiful meditations on trees as living presences or as “potentially immortal” beings anywhere in Plumly’s oeuvre, meditations that speak to some of the most vibrant scientific writing about trees today:
From the contemplative outside, trees appear absolute in their stillness […]
But inside they are moving, within themselves, all the time, ring by ring,
season after season. Like all living things they grow from the inside out; and
like all living things they are alive with fire.
Here, both the child and the man love, understand, and feel immense kinship with those “immortals,” the trees. “Germans” mourns their destruction even as the poet acknowledges that his “grandfather, in the best sense […] is a farmer of trees.” (And here again is that present tense as an “interval of time.”) Metaphor’s gift is that nothing need be only one thing. So, the POWs, who Plumly refers to in “Germans” as “a self-proclaimed race apart,” are also “a natural fit for the scale and labor of the trees,” as they are men with whom the poet remembers “breaking bread.”
Sonically, Middle Distance is a remarkable achievement, that of a master for whom sound has become intuitive, whether it’s “the whining of the ripsaw machine [in “Germans’] […] an ear-killing sound — its high-scream octave drive[ing] straight to the heart”; or the deeply elegiac music of a poem like “Winter Evening,” which concludes:
Love is a kind of beauty, the moment its own memory
in the eye of the lover looking back at you, her blue eyes
the blue of right before sunset, blue filling the fire
still in the air, blue lingering, blue fading, blue closing,
then first thing in the morning opening blue again,
blue all the longer hours, until the dream end of the day.
Constable called painting “another word for feeling,” and Plumly has always been concerned with feeling. Blue floods this poem, subsuming speaker and remembered beloved at the last, just as blue dissolves other memories and presences in the collection. The painter Turner is “this seer who turns stone into the ethereal, this man who burns away appearances” (“Travel & Leisure”). Plumly, too, needs to arrive at essences, at origins, and the quest in Middle Distance is nothing less than seeing as understanding, if only for a short interval of time, so that these moments can accrue, resisting closure or completion.
Those new to Plumly’s work will be gifted with the lifetime of work that culminates in this final collection. “The last of my kind,” the poet calls himself in the opening poem, “White Rhino,” thereby allying himself with the northern white rhinoceros, a subspecies with only two known living survivors, both of whom exist in captivity. On a figurative level, as “one of the last lovers of flowers / and the lawns of the northern grasses,” he identifies himself with the Romantic poets, with Wordsworth and especially with Keats. More poignantly, Plumly’s identification with the white rhino foregrounds his struggle to find himself in old age’s “disguise, the hard outside, the soft inside,” in which “the trick is […] to look like something broken from a mountain.” Those who have lived with or who will go on to live with Plumly’s work will likely experience the ways in which the intense lyricism of his verse inevitably shapes and can even transform its readers. “How long a life is too long,” this same poem concludes, “the tonnage of my heart almost more than I can carry.” Yet carry it the poet does, sustaining and even lifting up that heart, one poem at a time, until we arrive at one of the final poems, “The Winter Beach at Sanderling,” with its oceanic loneliness and Whistler-like attention to vanishing — “the beach mile either way disappearing / into the thinness of the air.” And air, as poetry teaches us and Stanley Plumly so beautifully knew, is another word for breath.
Jacqueline Kolosov has published three collections of poetry with a fourth, Prevail, forthcoming from Salmon in late 2021/early 2022. She is the recipient of an NEA Literature Fellowship in Prose and has published several YA novels along with essays and stories. She co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Investigation of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Passionate about ekphrastic writing and Keats, she was privileged to interview the late Mr. Plumly and host him as part of the Reading Series at Texas Tech where she is professor of English.