rev. of Riding with the Fireworks by Anne Darrby
The problems of voice, subject, and form are crucial to younger poets, who must find solutions if we are ever to read them as older poets. The chronology here is traditional, not temporal. The poets under discussion are "younger" in that, for the most part, they have not published frequently or widely. From their jacket photographs, none appears to be much under thirty, and several are in the prime of middle age. The problems remain, and have been approached, as expected, variously.
Ann Darr, the author of
Riding With The Fireworks, has found a subject which is pure dynamite. As poet-in-residence on a 195 foot barge,
Point Counterpoint II, she has travelled with the American Wind Symphony Orchestra and others on the rivers of the eastern United States. The purpose of these quixotic journeys has been to bring poetry, music, pottery, and other art to the people of the river towns. For a poet, no project could be older than one of such character, or offer a range of subject matter more promising. Darr has become a troubador of the river.
As such, she has found a subject sufficiently large, yet not unmanageable for a single voice; it provides a natural panorama of aspect, mood, weather, situation, from which poems of many kinds may be made. Darr makes them with vivacity and energy which makes them seem casual; her poems have the appearance of having been dashed off on the way to somewhere else. They are occasional poems, in the sense of being charged with a feeling for ephemeral occasion.
Signs seen in Mississippi spark "Riding With The Fireworks:"
Here at the Yazoo River, at
Vicksburg where the wrecked train cars
are still crumpled on one track,
where the Atlas Tank Co.'s sign says
"EVERYTHING" on its storage shed,
we are stopped by the Illinois Central Gulf
switching its piggy-back cars. At the River Store
the sign says "POSITIVELY NO CHILDREN OR VISITORS
OR XXXXXXXX BEYOND THIS POINT." Could the
blackened blank read FIREWORKS underneath?
A church meeting is the subject of "A Flood Was Rising." The decision to splurge one's paycheck for a lovely old quilt resulted in "Sleeping in the Museum." A piece of "found art" is the subject of "Artist," part of which follows:
Someone had taken a bite
out of a doughnut,
put it back on the plate.
George took one bite
out of every doughnut.
Darr's color is silver, as Stevens's was blue, Quasimodo's was green. She makes it flash in several directions, especially when, as often, the subject is music.
The pink river floats the pink boats.
The Navy blue river floats
the Navy blue boats.
The black river turns silver
under the moon, floats
the silver music.
("The Pittsburgh Tea Party. . .")
But this silver has weight, and a glimpse of darkness behind it. See "Quality of a Tone" in its entirety:
The larger the cavity
within my head, the darker
I play, he said.
The larger the cavity
in my inside, the darker
I work, said I.
That "said I" recalls cummings at his best, light-hearted and sly. Perhaps we learn naiveté as we grow older -- Darr's tone often recalls cummings in that regard as well.
But her voice reminds me of no one so much as William Jennings Bryan on the Chatauqua circuit, and perhaps the comparison is not so inapt. It is populist, broadly humorous, accessible, and keen. The comparison fails, and Darr's voice falters, when we realize the lack of a sense of connection with the
people in those river towns. We see crowds, audiences, and we hear the cheers of the populace. In the few times we see individuals -- the fire-chief "top dog," the sheriff -- they are mostly threatening and always remote. Darr is no Whitman, embracing people of every description, cherishing their idiosyncracies. Instead, she seems afraid of them. Distance from the people who stay put, however, is very much the nature of life on the road -- or the river.