January 2015

Patrick James Dunagan

poetry

Essay Stanzas by Thomas Meyer

Thomas Meyer's Essay Stanzas consists of three somewhat interconnected long poems and a fourth shorter poem (a lovely nuptial for his husband, Michael Joseph Watt), which serves as coda. The book is a vast exploration of personal as well as cultural myth and allegorical lore, mixed with observational commentary both intimate and archetypal.

Meyer's title returns the word "essay" to its root meaning: a trying out and testing of material at hand. In this case, Meyer tests the mettle of his thoughts and imagination against the truths of lived experience and observation. Tying together scattered fragments of image and story, Meyer meditates his way through the poem's occasion: "my poor brain / is the mirror of this / endless unraveling" ("Been There").

The majority of stanzas across all the poems hold their own individual space on the page, representing nearly complete statements of thought:

forever it seems
we hear about
the whims of fame and fortune
their easy come their easy go
the hard lesson
they teach
everything we have
is a gift
we haven't earned a thing
just wait and they
will desert us
not if but when

("Been There")

Short commentaries such as this, offering everyday household wisdom similar in nature to what any familiar elder might impart, appear throughout the book casting a common atmospherics stanza-by-stanza. 

hard times have their rewards
they are the outward mirror
of our lives
just as they are
an inward source
to call upon

("Been There")

A quiet book, aiming for a subtlety which on occasion is overshot, Essay Stanzas is nearly too quiet. There's no questioning of Meyer's poetic skills or his ample knowledge of the material covered, however at times he both overreaches and under-reaches in regard to his subject matter, entering territory where clichéd observation or statement tends to intrude:

"I'll tear apart
even the biggest of elephants
when I get him,"
brags the lion king
who once sharpened his claws
on rocks in the woods ---
but today just scratches himself
with those claws, chained up
in a narrow cage.

("Caught Between")

This bland, anthropomorphic projection lacks any punch. The literalness oozes out marring the elegance found elsewhere. It's not that poetry needs be of earth-shattering profundity, but when profundity is offered, best be sure it is in fact profound.  

When at their best, Meyer's lines are instructive in the most useful manner: reminiscent of Zen koans, they stray from the alluring yet ultimately stultifying effects of an overstated clarity towards the virtues of a much rarer witnessed opacity:

My shadow, I used to think,
backed me up from behind.
Now I realize
I am my shadow's human shield.

("Caught Between")

Mixed in with these nuggets of advisement and occasional wry observation are reoccurring glimpses of larger allegorical tales which seem, on a personal level for the poet, at least to flirt with mythic-seeming association. Meyer's asides arrive as outgrowths of these fragmentary glimpses offering a commentary of "truths" to be gleaned from them:

there's a story
about a decapitated head
gobbling up the sun and moon
to which
there is some truth
how we humans look to heaven
trying to pull ourselves
out of the mud of our lives
yet we are haunted by
strange longings
that pop up
out of nowhere

("Been There")

This same "head" appears dozens of pages earlier in the preceding poem:

Only his head is left.
Yet he doesn't have any problem getting around.
Why all the fuss? He swallowed the sun and moon.
So what?

("Kept Apart")

While it's difficult to understand exactly whose "head" this might be, any ensuing murkiness proves to be just part of what's at work operating throughout these poems. There is no intention of presenting any straightforward narrative. Instead, a balance between lyric and narrative is struck. The poems cast a whimsical yet truth-relating light. Statement of the obvious is found within the inexplicable:

it's worthwhile
no doubt
to think about stuff
but who
in this world
can take apart
the wind

("Been There")

The punctuation absent from "Been There" amplifies evidence of Meyer's technical control, which is frequently displayed in his use of enjambment, reigning in lines when necessary and allowing overflow when called for.

where is that mysterious 
hand
that does and undoes
our dreams and wishes
that pulls down
the walls 
around us

("Been There")

The un-named proprietor of this "hand" must surely be some god(s) or other. Earlier, Meyer directly addresses a creator, or at least the idea of a creator, lodging complaint against human suffering:

God, you live on this earth deathless.
In fact, you are a traveler here
going from one place to another.
But think about this, all the people
whose lives are brief
yet they are stuck to the land,
even as it slips out from under them
and they die. What is that about?

("Kept Apart")

This "God" appears unnamed in "Kept Apart" yet is held accountable all the same for becoming consumed by the vanity of responsibility for the world in which the poem operates. Several stanzas later, Meyer describes "the gods" as being just as vulnerable as anybody else to getting caught up with miniscule personal affairs. They simply "are / what they are"; 

Despite their deathless lives
the gods envy the devils,
wanting what they have,
unable to bear what little
any one of them has.
But then
gods are
what they are.

("Kept Apart")

Meyer offers a world where the irony of character faults is to be found everywhere. It's a world view that's Classical yet retains every notion of Modernity as well. The poet is clearly operating in the present day world of his moral imagination tinged with healthy skepticism.

Meyer addresses inequity and false promise, yet refuses to offer anything beyond self-affirmation as solace. The moral tone is pervasive but only backed up by the clear sense that there's an eternal cadence to which all are held accountable. No matter what else, every individual arrives at his or her own fate:

Some are famous eventually. 
Some get done what they want to.
But then there's the solitary figure
weeping tears of blood 
forever cursing his lot. 

("Kept Apart")

It's ultimately the individual's responsibility to work out the world of experience for his or her own self. And it's made clear that the self is formed of its own occasion: 

The sky reaches out
to hold me.
East, west, north, south:
wide open.
But I am wrapped up
in myself.

("Caught Between")

As Meyer acknowledges "How we are // is where we are" ("Airs Waters Places"). Only through observation and statement is there any chance to knowingly observe the forever advancing reality of experience:

life is like
a spiral staircase
where we never
get back
to where we were

("Been There")

These poems are exactly what they are. Reading them requires patience and a greater understanding of the place in the world from which poetry may yet wield a powerful voice. They perhaps offer a belief in a better human nature to help guide us in our stumbling, or it could just be that imagination doesn't require any such belief.  

Essay Stanzas by Thomas Meyer
The Song Cave
ISBN: 978-0988464353
140 pages