Issue 27 |

rev. of The Old Chore by John Hildebidle


John Hildebidle's voice consists of an amalgam of various unstilled voices from the past or present. For the most part, he has gracefully turned away from the poetry of "the Goddamned Self," and finds his inspiration in others. He either speaks
through others, in dramatic monologues, or writes
about others, in sustained exercises in negative capability. His subjects, although diffidently approached, have a decidedly masculine quality: baseball, aviation, pioneering, etc. But because his interest is focused on the matter at hand and not his own combative place in it, we are spared many of the frustrations of trying to crack the Male Code. We are also spared that nauseating preoccupation with "the primary stem" which disfigures so much current poetry by men.

Having thanked him for what is only to be expected (but is so often ignored), I should also thank him for what is genuinely serendipitous. Hildebidle's poetry has the unforced elegance that comes from a mind in tune with itself, that thrills to the world beyond itself, and seeks always to touch others minds, other lives. Its touchstones are intelligence, generosity, and simple, often desperate, beauty. Hildebidle has subtle sense of form (pentameter predominates), an eye for the natural world that rivals Nemerov's, and a sympathy for the characters of myth, history, or legend that brings them alive on the page.

I will let him speak, for once, for himself. In "Some Women in His Life," through the voice of Penelope:

Ten years

and then the others came home, dirty and tired

and so proud of themselves for all the blood and time.

They were kind, in their way. They said
He'll be here

in his own time. It was worse when I believed them.

The suitors, the silly boys you butchered in the courtyard,

arrived in troops and thought they were so clever.

You needn't have worried. They wore more perfume

than I did, and damn you, even the fifteen-years-stale

recollection of you made me smile more in the nights

than anything their bodies could offer.

From "The Great American Desert," in the voice of a pioneer woman:

To stake it all on this one chance,

this indecisive river trail, was his idea.

I don't complain, at least not to him.

There is too much time here for regret.

Once planted it chokes the land.

From "The Deacon's Place:"

He asked to be buried beneath the floor

he whitewashed every spring for all those years

long after the wife he did it for died.

The book ends with two lovely lyrics, "Here," and "In Praise of Corners." The latter follows, complete:

Optimism is absolutely not the point.

Believe whatever you want, whether

we'll sun together in warm reflected light;

or say, like a bitter granny,

don't trust good, it spoils --

what we can believe in is lasting,

and anyway too much sun burns the eyes.

Leave reflecting to mirrors, then;

if need be, we'll take the colder way,

to let our rough edges grate, not for pain

or smoothing, but to catch and hold

like boxes jammed in a tight hall,

stuck for good; and so the trick will be

to manage, if only once or twice,

to say the bitter thing in love's voice.

This is the man's first book, not-so-"short on manners but long in the root," and we wish him more as fine.