rev. of Day Moon by Jon Andersonby
Poems by Jon Anderson. Carnegie Mellon Univ. Press, $24.95
paper. Reviewed by David Rivard.
Day Moon, Jon Anderson's canny and refreshing new book, is his first since publishing
The Milky Way in 1983. In the intervening years, he seems to have undergone a poetic makeover on the order of a head transplant. But
Day Moon will remind readers of why Anderson is among the finest poets of his generation. Few poets alive can match his gifts -- immediacy of feeling and intuitive intelligence, combined with one of the most distinct ears for phrase-making and rhythm since Berryman and Creeley.
The meditative gravity of Anderson's earlier work gives way in
Day Moon to a more playful, even cartoony character. Think Berryman's Henry updated via a forty-inch television screen and making a long trip through the back streets and forests of a forever weird America: "back among the weasels & weepies & nose freaks, / / back where I get cold feet stretching a buck above despond, / / & everyone's out in the heartless cold, / & everyone's out in the freezing wind, / / & I feel good, I feel ok, I feel like everyone, / munching a dog, palming a gun, trotting along" ("Travels of a Budding Monk").
Anderson comes close here to inventing a persona -- an aspiring but impulsive student in the school of crazy wisdom. A kind of Crazy Cloud for the turn of the millennium. One result is a widened range of feeling and response. What's startling, too, is the flickering intensity of his language, the shifting texture of attention and mood. "Amusing to discover / Satan in your cardiovascular / while the sun / / blisters behind a cloud / of verbanium red / & a lone marsh bird / / blows its mournful horn. / More & more I'd like / to
hear that, people / / noted for cautiousness / crying in public at sundown, / leering between sobs / / with orgasmic guilelessness. / Flopsy & Mopsy got caught / in some kind of adult crossfire / / of kidding around I guess . . ." ("Plaint").
Some of this -- the tonal flux, the image assembly-sounds typically postmodern; but Anderson's use of collage, delay, non sequitur, and musical disruption is really something other than the period style at work. Out of an attempt to risk what hadn't yet been risked, he seems to have felt the consoling, graceful power of his earlier poetry had to be destroyed. No one will be getting rescued by that particular lifeboat, least of all the poet: "Leo, I perforated the life boat. / It has become a dead one, incapable, now, of surfacing / / above its circumstance" ("Listen Leo"). The rewards, in these new poems, are an acceptance and a verve that have little to do with resignation, Anderson's former trademark.
"In lieu of wisdom, cunning," Stanley Elkin once wrote. It's an impulse Anderson appears to have taken to heart. Having given up everything, what's left but sleight-of-hand and invention? You start, as in "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," with an unavoidable fact: "On the one hand I know we're talking about television & it's boring." And somehow, by way of Anderson's naturally associative mind, you move from there to channel-surfing as a form of "future psychotherapy" to touch-typing to Lightin' Hopkins learning to play the accordion. In the end, you're offered a metaphorical shorthand for living: "By common sense & feel." The slyness is in how Anderson gets you to this place. The knowledge feels arrived at accidentally, and it vanishes without self-importance.
Some things have not changed at all in Jon Anderson's poetry. Tenderness of feeling. Vulnerability. Heartbreaking humanness. I can imagine no one else starting a poem this openly: "Now that I'm actually living my solitude I'm clueless." And sometimes even the old grace shows up, a music made mostly out of generosity and forgiveness: "Experience taught me the world is far from well. / But I'd like to think, upon that opposite dark ridge / the dead still love to gather & watch these trees / turn, in their seasons, gold to green to black to pink" ("Our Romance").
Old and new readers alike should welcome the return of one of the strange true masters of American poetry.
David Rivard's most recent book is Bewitched Playground
(Graywolf). He won the 1996
James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets for Wise Poison,
and he teaches at Tufts.