I've much too much to ever tell --
My feet have chilled on steps from hell,
My lips are blue and frozen shut --
I now carefully skate when I used to strut,
Working my way out of a very dark place --
Step by step with the wind to my face,
I walk on ice in fear but soundly --
A deep cold frost on those around me,
Trudging onward in spite of my doubt --
A relentless search for the one way out,
In pursuit of the warmth of the setting sun --
Lost on a journey I should have never begun"
Poetry by Richardson's own William Gordon. My review, after the jump.
Grade: Pass. I used pass/fail because, first, I have no qualifications to grade poetry in any case, and, second, I have nothing to compare this to, not having read a whole book of poetry by one author in, I don't know, forever? I remember being given a book of poems by Rod McKuen in the 1960s. He was a best-selling poet at the time. Not a good poet, but popular. I couldn't finish it. Give me William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and so many other poets whose work I do thoroughly enjoy... in small doses. Not by the bookful.
I don't think I'm alone. Few people read poetry anymore, books of poetry even less. Fewer people still actually write poetry. So, how should I approach the task of reading a book of poetry? Adding to the complexity: how should I approach a book of poetry written by someone I know? That's the pleasure and risk of 86: A Collection of Poetry by Richardson's own William Gordon. It's a collection of 86 poems written between 1976 and 2013. It's his second collection, following 293: A Collection of Poetry published last year. This is delicate. Knowing the author, you hope to have unique insight into the poems. Knowing the author, you fear giving offense with a bad review. What to do, what to do? Well, I figured, I don't know him *that* well, so I'll just read like I would read any other book of poetry and let the chips fall where they may. That is, if I had any experience reading any other book of poetry.
All that is the prologue that led me to decide to read 86 straight through, even though the poems are not related to each other and are not presented in any significant order (alphabetical by title, not chronologically, not by theme). The collection is short enough to be able to read in one sitting, kind of like listening to a whole album of music in one go. And, like an album of music, the whole carries a bigger impact than the individual poems would on their own.
That impact is one of raw emotion. Expressions of pain, anger, fear, violence and death are relentless. The first lines of the first poem are "There was pain in his tiny voice -- And the anger was all his own." Loneliness and alienation are common themes ("I am who I am, Regardless of where I choose to be -- Although no one seems to care, Except me"). Self doubt and recrimination are throughout ("I'm a man of questionable character"). Sometimes the poems dip into despair ("I stand before the firing squad -- my eyes focused on each pistol rod"). Even when Gordon has a positive message to convey, its context is morbid, like the wish he extends as epitaph ("Cherish sweet pleasures of living as I once did on this earth").
I imagine Gordon writing poetry as catharsis. By channeling his stresses and frustrations into poetry, he clears his mind and restores his equilibrium. At least I hope so. Every so often, a poem reveals a recognition that his aggravations are normal feelings and not entirely his own responsibility. In these moments, his poetry takes on a confessional tone, with forgiveness and absolution presumably following. ("Dear Lord, I've weaknesses and passions that ensure I'll never live mistake free -- So forgive me the sin of being the man whom you chose to make me.")
Although Gordon's poems can be read on their own, many were inspired by others' poetry. For example, the selection I chose to highlight above, because it holds out a little hope, the hope of perseverance ("Trudging onward in spite of my doubt"), is titled "Hart," presumably for Hart Crane's poem "The Broken Tower" which contains the same imagery ("... to wander the cathedral lawn From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell"). Here's the thing, though. Hart Crane famously committed suicide at a young age. William Gordon did not. Gordon continues to search for "Something that gets me out of this chair -- Which gives me a reason to awake, arise, and care!" Poetry could be that reason. The last lines of the last poem in the book suggest another reason for optimism: "I am alive with her in this world of mine -- Yes, I know with her I will do just fine."