Luck's Shining Child

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Though George Garrett’s first book, a collection of poems, appeared twenty-five years ago, and though he has published four full-length collections of poetry since then, it still seems at times necessary to recall, in view of his much larger reputation as a novelist, that his poetry is among the real treasures of contemporary literature. Stuart Wright, who produces elegant books under the Palaemon Press imprint, has provided a reminder in his splendid setting of these forty poems; this book is almost as much a pleasure to handle as it is to read.

Reading it, one is struck by a curious mixture of surprise and familiar delight. In nearly all of his writing, Garrett has been faithful to the themes of love and its delights and terrors, and of the frailty of human aspiration, not only in the face of certain mortality, but also in the eyes of God. Here, these themes reassert themselves, but the poems are fresh and new; they are not repetitious of earlier successes. As usual, the diction is often so colloquial as to lull the reader toward a suspicion that the poet’s language is offhand. Garrett seems to have learned much about the uses of conversational diction from the Elizabethans. He is, of course, the author of two novels set in that period; and the epigraphs to this book and to its five sections are taken from Sir Thomas Wyatt, Giles Fletcher, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Francis Bacon. Even the modern epigraph, on the task of the translator, is taken from C. S. Lewis’ English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954). Nearly twenty years ago, in creative writing classes at the University of Virginia, it was Garrett’s custom to use the poems of Raleigh as examples of flexibility in tone and diction.

Garrett’s poems are often so conversational as to include factual errors, by way of drawing the reader into them, to engage him in something like a dialogue, so that at the conclusion the reader has the feeling that he has participated in arriving at it. “Another Hat Poem,” for example, begins in an offhand way to say that the speaker has been trying out different voices and different hats. Then: “I have been taking off countless hats/ like the boy in the (James Thurber?) story. And never keeping any one on for long.” One is pressed to think of the right James Thurber story; meanwhile, the Dr. Seuss story of Bartholomew Cubbins asserts itself in the reader’s memory, and he addresses the question mark, “Well, possibly. Anyway, proceed.” Three more stanzas of explanation, and the poem ends: “Meantime better to be alive and foolish than bald as an apple, silent as a stone—one more hatless skull with a fixed grin.” The grammar and meter gives the lines a sharp edge of truth; the poem is slight and amusing in certain ways, but it winds up reminding itself and its readers that all humans are foolish, and lucky to be so; we all come to that spondaic fixed grin.

The arrangement of poems in Luck’s Shining Child is similarly witty and deceptive; there is a lively tension between the section titles and the poems in the sections—as well as between certain poems and their titles. The first and last of the sections are called “My Self” and “My Self (Again).” Here, then, according to the conventions of the day, one will find those poems which explore the inner life of the poet, that give voice to his joys and complaints. These poems are not confessional in the usual sense, however; though they often begin with some detail of the speaker’s life, they enlarge quickly, placing the self in perspective of the larger world.

The title poem, for example, opens the collection, and is for several stanzas a funny portrait of a man so broke he has the soles of his shoes repaired one at a time. His students try to imagine him as a symbol of various dualities, but the truth is that he is broke:

What I am trying not to do

is imagine how it will be in my coffin,

heels down, soles up,

all rouged and grinning above my polished shoes,

one or the other a respectable brother

and one or the other

that wild prodigal whom I love

as much or more than his sleek companion,

luck’s shining child.

Here again, rhythm and grammar are apparently at odds; by all rules of sentence structure, “luck’s shining child” is the newly repaired shoe, the “sleek companion”; and surely this is what is meant, primarily. The placement of the phrase at the end of the poem, however, and the careful arrangement of line-breaks in this stanza make it possible at least to wonder for a moment whether that “wild prodigal whom I love” is luck’s shining child as well. As Garrett has said in an earlier poem, good luck sometimes seems worse than any wound; this poem puts the question on the knife-edge once again.

“Main Currents of American Political Thought” is a title which at once seems, at the head of a poem, to warn the reader away from seriousness; yet five of the poem’s six stanzas offer a moving evocation of a life which has vanished—the gracious certainty of the life...

(The entire section is 2104 words.)