Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1640
If there is a place where time stands still, where raindrops hang motionless in midair—could only a poem with meter and rhyme can evoke the dimensions of that place? Timothy Steele would answer yes.
The Color Wheel is about time: time measured by meter and rhyme, time moving within and through each poetic environment, despite the fact that these places are not temporal. The collection unfolds aware of the future, alert to the present, enduring the past. Steele is courageous in his plausible, old-fashioned, and cleansing formality. This collection will age well.
Time is never lost. The poems open and close; they do not begin and end. Time is a nonlinear engine that generates power and the meaning in each poem. These poems are sequences of spatial environments within which time beats and repeats the circular rituals of the rhyme schemes. Time also measures the intervals between the sequences. It is the sequential intervals, with the aid of rhythm and rhyme, that draw the beholder’s attention. Steele is describing a common ground, a color wheel—a collective consciousness in which time sequences are sensed. The sequences may be quick or slow, dim or intense, salty or sweet, causal or acausal, orderly or random, depending on not the poet, but the reader. Time does not exist outside human perception and is therefore not there to lose, but rather is there as a sense. In order to communicate what he knows, Steele uses sequences of words spoken in metered measures. Events in his poems are triggered by other events.
Each of the poems has four dimensions: its own, two from the author, and the reader’s. Each poem’s own dimension is its “body time,” its growth, its resonant image. One of the author’s dimensions is mechanical, usually imposed, sometimes discovered time. The other author’s dimension is the range frame of the poem. “You” is the fourth dimension, as is true in any nonlinear setting. The reader senses or receives self-serving “knowledge” from the other three dimensions of each poem.
The rhythms are sequential, subtle, the rhymes incremental, nuanced. Meter gives the rhymes texture. One poem waltzes, while another is more baroque. Rhymes give rhythms color. This one and that one are both red, but she is alluring and smoky, while the other is a rosy-cheeked little girl talking to an imaginary friend in a hallway.
Unfortunately, the subtleties, nuances, textures and colors of these poems are not often consoling. Absolutes are rare to Steele, and absolutes are consoling. Passion, too, is consoling. Steele is too smooth to be called passionate. Perhaps his one consolation is his expertise. As a poet, he is an adept. He does doubt; he broods; he rejoices; he is not erratic; he is a professorial poet. The spurs that make the poems go here (instead of there) linger as though between the lines. In some poems the spur is the ever-present soft smile of the author’s manipulations at making the poem “happen,” as in “For My Sister”:
Though time is shifting into overdrive,
And the years pass more quickly, even here,
It’s not surprising that you’ve made a harbor
In this damp chilly evening, where you harbor
The sense not to be driven or to drive.
Patience itself will make the world cohere.
In others, such as “Aurora,” a certain volatility smolders in the too-clever use of words:
Your sleep is so profound
This room seems a recess
Gauze curtains, drawn around
The postered bed, confute
Each waking attribute—
Volition, movement, sound.
To Steele’s credit, his causes and effects lie deep under waves of yearning for the synchronicity between the dharma of a moment and its rhyme scheme or synchronicity between the karma of a poem and its natural meter. The poems transmit the faint ache that what the author sees, hears, and wants to say will dance to a natural, spiritual lyric. That hope is there, but it is not often actualized, because he never speaks a prayer of gratitude for his God-given poetic talent.
Time and space integrate in a natural-law continuum well described as a woven basket, causal and acausal, equal and just, linear and nonlinear. Steele’s poems do courageously strive to achieve this kind of weave. He wants time to happen and space to pass. Certainly these poems have ambition, but sometimes it is the ambition of a porch swing. Occasionally, readers feel his suffering or his joy, but slowly. “Luck” has this kind of lazy power.
But it is hard to credit fortuity.
Whatever happens to us is, we suspect
Part of a running commentary
Upon our character. Were we rightly
Adjusted to the Cosmos, we would be spared
The mean boss, the destructive relationship,
So easy it is to imagine
God’s weighed our soul and has found it wanting.
Order is an impulse of nature—thus the trends and directions of the poet. Without order there is no meaning, no reason to capture the moment or sequence of moments. Without order the poet’s story would be indistinct. There is nothing indistinct about The Color Wheel.
The poetry of The Color Wheel has as its goal to contribute to the collective intellectual and artistic dialogue that is vital to the life of a culture. If Steele were guilty of ineptness of style, incoherence, or unplumbed structures, then criticism would be justified. He is not. He is an adept—not a master, but able to recover, able to finish, and well versed in the standards. Although the absolutes are missing, Steele is not such a cultural relativist that he has no standards. He is an artist; his artistry lies in his fairness, his allegiance to accurate truth. There are three kinds of truth: cultural, logical, and accurate. Accurate truth is nonlinear, honest about associations, and imagistic, and it dances to an inner drum—the heart.
At the center of time, there are only images. The poet reels them in and weaves or spins or pulses them out in concentric circles in both directions from that center. The order, the spin, of Steele in a world of images is to use the tactics of rhythm and rhyme to convey the strategy of accurate truth. The most organic poem in the collection, “California Sea Lion,” reveals his order:
The waves wash in, old prankster, and they strand
Your carcass on the gentle slope of sand
Till other waves, out-draining, drag you back,
The great trunk of your body sleek and black.
Snout skyward and chest swelled and flippers out,
You doubtless honked the rival bulls to rout
Or flop-slid to the water from the rocks,
Inured to the cold rains of the equinox.
In frolic or some deadlier pursuit,
You’d porpoise through the swells and, diving, shoot
With tail-whipping fluidity and speed
Down chasms with their current-waving weed.
Now those same waters surge around your form;
They slick and shine the coat that kept you warm;
they roll and tug you as they slide away,
As if to try to coax you back to play.
This stark scene resonates beauty, an internal beat, and sequences of past, present, and future.
Poets are pilgrims to the center of time, passing the moment to the next in line, the next memory. Steele’s craft and accomplishments, images and structures have the precision of a threaded needle. Why does a rhyme scheme of abccba work best for “For My Sister” and abaccbbetter for “On Wheeler Mountain”? The reason is that wholeness has a temperature. Each of the poems in this collection has a temperature, because each is complete. Some are considerably warmer than others. Some reflect the red at sunset, others the trees in moon shadow. Temperature can be gauged by wavelength, meter, and beat, and it accounts for intervals or sequence in rhyme.
Steele is a poet who (re)members time from memories, fills in the book of his life with the art or craft of poetic self-examination, assigns to the childhood memories meter and rhyme, versifies the past to serve as a mnemonic—to order it, perhaps to make it a better memory. Studied, storied, sanguine memories serve Steele’s poetry. In “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Child,” Steele uses color to open and close a range of frames rather than begin and end a recollection: “Long may you study color, pore/ Over Maroon, Peach, Pine, Green, Teal./ I think of my astonishment/ When I first saw the spectrum bent/ Around into a color wheel.” He concludes the poem as follows:
You’re off and traveling through the wheel
Of contrasts and complements,
Where every shade divides and blends,
Where you find those that you prefer,
Where being is not linear,
But bright and deep and never ends.
Steele senses time as a quality, dependent upon backgrounds, contrasts, light and shadow, and the point of view of the participants. Taking responsibility for the results of these qualifying measurements is the future imagined for Steele.
Purpose is very different from reason for being. Purpose has to do with personality, while reason for being is about soul, as in “Youth”:
Downstream a railway bridge extends
Across the estuary’s mouth;
And, while the sliding water blends
Mercurial, flashing, glob-like fires,
Above the bridge a lineman sits
High in his seat sling, working wires.
Smooth as he is, passionless as he often reads, Steele has soul. There is within him and these poems all the qualities of the human soul—love, faith, knowledge, wisdom, and the ability to grow. Does Steele articulate his vision, his reason for being, his personality? In “Youth” the bridge is the reason, and the lineman working wires his purpose.
Sources for Further Study
Poetry. CLXVI, May, 1995, p. 112.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, November 28, 1994, p. 55.
The Southern Review. XXXI, Spring, 1995, p. 381.