David St. John Essay - Critical Essays


In his first collection of poems, Hush, David St. John established himself as a master of the musical line and vivid image. He uses details to create both mood and scenic clarity. More often than not, he imbues his imagery with shadows that suggest sadness, as in these lines from “For Georg Trakl”:

Your face,so pale now it is blue.And in the icy, dead moonsof your eyes, the things youloved are trembling; allutterly blue . . .

Most of the poems depict relationships between men and women, with the woman as the focus. In one poem, the woman is the bearer of the poet’s child; in another, she beckons from a hotel terrace. “For Lerida” offers a snapshot of a woman with “bruises, shadowed pink/ with make-up, around her eyes.” Throughout the book, intimacy or fulfillment with a woman is seldom achieved. The focus is mainly on loss and separation, but the sadness of the poems is held in check by the way St. John entwines images of beauty with fluid rhythms and a graceful style. One critic noted that St. John speaks so often of absences that he makes them an actual presence in the poems. In the title poem “Hush,” St. John himself illustrates the point in the poem’s final line, speaking of his son: “The dark watermark of your absence, a hush.” The sincerity of such lines and obvious effort to capture something ineffable in the experience are compelling elements in all of St. John’s poems.

The Shore

In The Shore, the opposition between what the reader feels and understands and what the poet means to say and do becomes the subject of many of the poems, albeit metaphorically. The opposition between men and women, for example, may be viewed as a metaphor of the reader-poet opposition. In the descriptions of natural scenery, people, or situations, an opposition is implicit between what the poet sees and what he wishes to see. The image of the shore, which gives the book its title, implies this opposition, sea and land, which are, paradoxically, unified by the image. “Blue Waves” epitomizes many of the features that recur throughout this volume of poems, the focus on the female and her relationship with the speaker. The woman remains a vague, idealized presence:

the red fallsOf your hair rocking . . . framed by anopen window. . . .

Again, St. John speaks of the woman’s leaving. The poem concludes with the speaker imagining himself looking back “To these mornings, islands—/ The balance of the promise with what lasts.” The irony here is that these mornings are marked by factory smokestacks, the sound of diesels, and the realization that the woman “left a husband,/ And I a son.”

In other poems, the speaker looks ahead to a time when he will reflect nostalgically on the present time, which is fraught with tension and possible separation. In “Hotel Sierra,” for example, he says:

Next week, as you step outOf the darkroom with the glossy proofs . . . weWill have become only a few gesturesPlaced out of time.

In many of the poems, moments such as these entwine a woman, a place, a time, and the whole nexus is filled with longing, loneliness, and lost love.

No Heaven

The poems in No Heaven show a mastery of the narrative that surfaces in the previous volumes only occasionally. In other ways, too, St. John shows the full maturity of his talents, alternating short and longer lines, letting the poem’s subject determine stanzaic structure, breaking lines in two and dropping the second part to the next line, and sometimes abandoning the use of commas, periods, and other end marks altogether, even at the end of the poem. The effect of such techniques is to suggest that the poem is unconfined, like thought itself.

The book’s centerpiece is a narrative poem that fills seven pages, “The Man in the Yellow Gloves,” which St. John also published separately in a limited edition. The poem recounts the story of a man whose hands are so disfigured by an accidental fire that he hides them with a pair of gloves. The gloves and hands together symbolize the union of the injured man and his grandfather, who owned a similar pair of gloves. Thus, the accident fosters a generational bond. The gloves also bond the speaker to the landscape:

I have only to take off one gloveOr another to stare down into the landscapeOf each scorched stitched hand. . . .

Symbolically, he drapes the past over the present, both hiding it and beautifying it.

Terraces of Rain

Terraces of Rain represents a departure in St. John’s development as a poet in that many of the poems focus on art and Italian settings. The book is even designed like a sketchbook, wider than it is tall, and comes with colored drawings. Though many of the poems are about paintings, many are word portraits of people and depict the male and female together. The terrain of these poems is as much physical and sexual as it is artistic and geographical. The forms shift from terza rima to the villanelle to rhymed couplets, but much of St. John’s creative energy, as before, is...

(The entire section is 2347 words.)