David Baker Essay - Critical Essays


David Baker’s poetry reflects the influence of time and space in rural communities and the relationships within them. Baker consistently writes about a future that encroaches on the past, producing images of landscape and stories of long-term personal relationships. His poetry, rooted in the architecture of the human community, tells of the deep histories and the small towns that influence his readers’ lives. Baker’s poems, written in various forms (he is an expert sonneteer) as well as in free verse, offer an extended and verifiable memory of objects and events, even those not always visible to or recollected by all of his readers.

Empires, and the villages within them, endure when time (permanence, custom) and space (expansion, progress) are held in balance; they decay when either time or space is overemphasized. The United States, with its bias toward growth and expansion, depends on the work of poets such as Baker, who recall the archeology of specific places and remind their audience of the value of a private history.

Laws of the Land

Baker’s earliest collection, Laws of the Land, illustrates the emotional attachment to landscape that would later suffuse his work. “Stories in the Land,” a prose poem about fossil hunting on Missouri Highway 63, tells readers that “words” found “among the rocks” speak to those who will listen. The land Baker writes of in “History as Place” records the past and is “formed/ by the shape of its dead,” by what has lived before.

The carefully metered poems in this collection recall the landscapes of not only Missouri but also Utah and, by incorporating the writing of the eighteenth century spiritual naturalist William Bartram, a lagoon in Florida. The landscapes are connected because Baker shows what the people who live in these landscapes have in common. Bartram, in “Ephemerae,” watches the future poet, who watches Bartram “in the sweet/ shade of the past.” Baker’s family members mentioned in the poem “Antioch Church and Cemetery, 1840- 1972,” who worked in “the old pit mines,” foreshadow the miners mentioned in Utah’s “Peabody #7 Strip Mine.”

Smith, Baker’s former teacher and mentor, writes in the introduction to Laws of the Land that Baker wanders the landscape so that his readers may “behold . . . the hope for” and the “idea of home.” Indeed, the idea of home, of how long-term relationships influence readers’ lives, is like a watermark on the pages of the poems here.

Sweet Home, Saturday Night

Ten years after his first collection, Baker published what writer and Georgia Review columnist Judith Kitchen called a “tour de force—as exciting as Eliot’s Waste Land in its mix of voices, its fractured sensibility, and its visionary sweep.” In Sweet Home, Saturday Night, the poet analyzes the home he was part of even as he is separating himself from it. Missouri is the home where the poet hears “the oldest voices . . . aching again,” saying “This is the living we make. This is our love and pain.” Missouri is where the poet fondly recalls attending baseball games in the late 1960’s and cheering with his family for the St. Louis Cardinals (“never more perfect than now”).

The book’s twenty-two-page title poem recalls a Saturday night on “August 15, 1977” at the “Com- On-Inn, Rt. 63, Missouri,” where the poet is the lead guitarist in a band playing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” as he simultaneously sits at a “solitary corner table” watching the band play. The modernist structure of the poem counterpoints the voices of an observer (the sense of the poet as observer emerges in this poem; later work would expand this theme), a participant, a singer, and a postmodern analyst. This integration of voices and the rhythms in which they overlap underscore the sense of meter Baker learned as a musician. In fact, lyrics from familiar songs accompany...

(The entire section is 1647 words.)