Study for the World’s Body

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

David St. John’s poetry is powerfully engaging without being particularly striking or strikingly particular. In this attractive volume, an interim summary of his career, St. John has selected wisely from his four earlier collections, as well as from his later, but previously uncollected, poems. St. John comes across as a peculiarly placeless poet. Whether his poems are set in the United States or in Europe, he usually minimizes the music of place names. Much of his writing, whatever the locale, conveys a stateless European ambiance, as if St. John’s imagination has taken up residency—perhaps citizenship—in a cultural and aesthetic landscape without specific, identifying icons. England and Italy color this territory, but do not dominate it. Separately, St. John’s poems can be off-putting; they can seem affectedly Old World. Taken together as a body of work and vision, they come across as more accessible and less aloof. For most readers, then, St. John requires patience at first. He is taking risks with stances that need to be respected in advance and given a chance to take hold. Later, what is gained can be deeply enjoyed and enthusiastically shared.

St. John’s characteristic tone mixes solemnity with romantic longing, and his quality of perception is one in which small but significant gradations are constantly being measured. He is a connoisseur of distinctions, and as much connects with those respected but unloved American Europhiles, Henry James and T. S. Eliot. The business of measurement drives St. John to recognize that distances are not always knowable, and resignation to the fact of not being able to pin things down is a truth of life that his art handles well. His poetic manner includes a syntactical slipperiness that results not in vagueness but in evocations of hard-won proximity to the elusive, especially to what is elusive in other people and in relationships.

“Wavelength” is an example in brief of St. John’s skill in handling such matters, as two people realize the distance that remains in their proximate unity. The woman is handed The Tao by her lover, who expects her to read it aloud as part of their mutual sharing of its truths and their intimacy. Instead, she reads it silently, “suddenly he felt clearly/ She knew the way/ Two people must come upon such an understanding/ Together of course but separately/ As the moon & the wave remain individually one.” St. John’s thirty-line poem is a single sentence of evolving perception. Here, too, he is reminiscent of James, whose winding sentences refine and qualify a thought or observation until they are finally about refinement and qualification.

Indeed, like a James character, St. John’s verse maintains a fastidious ease. This is the paradox of his style, a style represented typographically by two polar habits. Unlike most of his free-verse contemporaries, he holds onto the old convention of capitalizing the initial letter at the beginning of each line. Undercutting this formal gesture is the shorthand of the ampersand, so deliberately casual.

As a craftsman, St. John makes his sentences more interesting than his lines. If he were not working as a poet, he might have become a great prose stylist. This is not to say that his lines do not register; they do. A line break for St. John, however, is principally superpunctuation, a way of further nuancing the relationships among sentence parts and rhythms. Nowhere is St. John’s skill and interest in the sentence more apparent than in the selections from his third book, No Heaven (1985). In these poems, he eschews punctuation altogether, letting the weight of his well-turned clauses and phrases—along with the carefully chosen line breaks—guide the reader to the proper pauses and rests.

St. John is quite a master of the long poem. Once the reader falls into his sweeping cadences, it is a pleasure to continue the journey. Of special interest here is “The Swan at Sheffield Park,” with its careful modulation of image and symbol, its unexpected yoking of stateliness and tawdriness, as we move from the “perfect V” that is the swan’s wake on the lake; to the snapshot of a woman whose lips were painted the color of a swan’s and whose teased hair was feathery; to a Soho club where a stripper lies down before the narrator, “her legs held in a pale V”; to a parting vision of the bar’s “empty veiled stage/ Of wood warped gently as waves.”

These journeys of empathy and perception are among the beauties in St. John’s work. They include “Hotel Sierra,” “Until the Sea Is Dead,” “Woman and Leopard,” and “The Man in the Yellow Gloves.” The latter, a virtuoso piece worthy of Robert Browning, is a story framed in quotation marks to distinguish the narrator from the author. It tells of a man who, as a child, suffered serious burns as the result of an accident while searching for the place where his grandfather, an elegant dandy, had fallen into shallow water, but held his hands above the surface to save his fine yellow silk gloves. The burn victim, as an adult, keeps his disfigured hands hidden by similarly colored...

(The entire section is 2107 words.)