In Sapphics Against Anger: And Other Poems, Timothy Steele modifies, in a sense, the idea in the title of Robert Frost’s poem, “Neither Out Far nor in Deep,” to “out far but not in deep.” To Steele, the lengthening of our lives teaches us to reduce our expectations and, much like a well-trimmed boat, to sail upon rather than to plunge into the blinding and killing depths of existence. As he considers reduction in the various forms through which his experience has led him to perceive it, he reminds one that moderation is the requirement of a graceful survival and the tutor of hope.
Steele frames his book with settings that establish the range of his subjects. The first two poems in the book, “From a Rooftop” and “The Sheets,” focus on the world of man, with its crowding, its reach, and its common acts, and the last poem in the book, “Toward Calgary,” focuses on the world of nature, with its silence, its distance, and its common life.
The first two poems aim to show a balance between what we dream and what we are; through a union of the two, a proper reduction is effected, by which survival and grace become possible, In a similar vein, the last poem in the book shows that ultimate meaning is ineffable, a kind of nothingness; we may flourish in the climate of this truth, for it humbles us, inclining us to overdo neither our imagination nor our prudence.
Separation, like union, argues against excess. To regard the past from the perspective of the present is to understand the vanity of youth, Steele points out in “Snapshots for Posterity” and “Old Letters.” Youth is small in time and experience and, thus, is unable to see the foolishness of its dreams. Yet the small sometimes contains a useful largess. In “Small Lives,” Steele observes in insects the same kind of energy that impels human life and realizes that his fascination with this is an important element in his own life. In “Mockingbird,” moreover, he concludes that a small life form may seem large by reflecting the life embodied in the forms around it. Indeed, the artist, like the mockingbird, depends on more than himself to function usefully.
The small may also have a melancholy side. The boy in “Janet” cannot capture the meaning of the budding girl, his companion, and so loses her, as does David Copperfield the girl in “Life Portrait,” for he is young and his greed for the perfect female is boundless, and he does not see the value of the friendship once offered to him until he is older and it is too late.
As a lack of experience restricts perception and causes pain, so an accumulation of painful experience leads to reduced expectations, which in themselves reveal the virtue of a hopeful moderation. Marriage and parenthood have limited the young couple in “Near Olympic” too soon, perhaps, but the experience has matured them and given them the roots upon which survival depends for its future. There is no denying that the ambition of the powerful and the self-interest of their followers bring disillusionment and sorrow to the idealist, and there is no denying that misfortune and poverty constrain mankind, but it is also true that human creativity and compassion modify this sad and overwhelming state of affairs. Despite his blindness to the signs of the cruelty and murder in our own age implicit in his own, Martin Luther detects clues to the divine in his environment in “The Wartburg, 1521-22.” That corruption and death are the human lot does not mean, however, that a glimmer of fulfillment (“Shucking Corn”), a mite of hope (“On...