The Collected Poems of George Garrett
George Garrett is best known as a brilliant and daring novelist; admiration has been widespread for The Succession (1983), his richly evocative novel of the transfer of the British monarchy from Elizabeth I to James of Scotland. In contrast, Garrett’s poetry has perhaps been slower to achieve the recognition it deserves. Still, the mere fact of this book’s publication places him among poets whose work is widely respected.
Garrett has been publishing poems in periodicals for more than thirty years; this is his seventh collection. His first, The Reverend Ghost, appeared in the distinguished Scribner’s Poets of Today series in 1957. Ten years later, he published For a Bitter Season, a fourth collection which selected from his earlier volumes and added new poems. In that book and in this one, he has foregone the usual practice of arranging the poems chronologically or setting out signposts to show in which earlier books the poems appeared. His tactic instead is to arrange all the poems, old and new, according to patterns which emerge from looking at the entire assortment. In this way, he finds new ways for the old poems to resonate, as he returns more than once to themes and subjects he long ago staked out as peculiarly his own.
Among these themes are the fragile durability of human love, the power of Christian myths and the hope of redemption, and the pain people will endure in the hope of eventual happiness. Stating the poet’s concerns, or some of them, in this flat way makes the poet sound as gloomy as any other poet of contemporary times, but if he is a profoundly serious poet, Garrett is wise enough not to be exclusively solemn. Something of his voice can be heard in this middle stanza of “Buzzard”:
I see this graceful bird begin to wheel,glide in God’s fingerprint, a whorlof night, in light a thing burnt black,unhurried. Somewhere something on its backhas caught his eye. Wide-winged he descendslike angels to the business of this world.
There is simply no other poet now writing who has precisely this combination of the conversational and the elevated, this ability to shift gears radically but almost inaudibly in midsentence, as he does in the last line, right after “angels.”
At other times, in either a lighthearted or satirical vein, Garrett’s playfulness ranges over an enormous variety of things—female celebrities of the 1960’s, the foolishness of much that passes for the literary life, various caricatures of the academic profession, himself—above all, Garrett has the gift of seeing himself in a humorous light. “Out on the Circuit,” first collected in Welcome to the Medicine Show (1978), begins uproariously, with a depiction of the poet waking in a Howard Johnson’s with a tremendous hangover, unable to get his brain past choruses of Lordy Lordy Lordy. As he pulls himself together, he becomes the professional again:
I raise my glass to share a toast with the stranger in themirror, to rejoice together in the inexhaustible resources of self-deception,beyond the deepest dreams of decent salesmen and cost accountants.See how my hands are steady. Now I know how it is to live forever.
The arts of deception and self-deception are closely related to the discovery of truth, as the reader is told in “Salome,” which is possibly Garrett’s finest single poem. In this monologue of some 120 lines, Salome speaks of her dreams, her lusts, and of the episode that got her name into the Bible. Of the dance, she says,
Believe what you care to.Picture it any way you want to.All the world knowstruth is best revealedby gradual deception.
The revelation that has come to her is bitter and has been slow in coming; the poem begins with her account of a dream of purity, freedom from flesh and bone. When she awakens and tells her dream, everyone laughs, and she is “on fire as before.” The end of the poem has the sound of prophecy:
A bad marriage from the beginning,you say, a complete mismatch.Flesh and spirit wrestleand we call it love. We...
(The entire section is 1,942 words.)