Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420
The collection opens with a series of poems about loss. In the opening poem, “Winter Fires,” the speaker evokes a tableau in which he stands “like a flame in the flame,” while the absence of someone he has loved turns his mind to distant and seemingly insignificant objects: reeds, a television relay, a cedar clock. The speaker’s remark, “I will stand very still in your absence,” is characteristic of many of the utterances in this book. The poet makes not forgetting in the face of absence an act of faith. This act attains the level of faith when the poet realizes that nothing comes back from these absences. They are real. Thus, remembering ennobles all events by turning them into symbolic presences.
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In “Woman and Leopard,” the speaker follows a French woman because she wears an old, scarred leather jacket such as he remembers student protesters wearing during the May, 1968, uprisings in Paris. He follows the woman to the zoo, where a leopard is the only animal to capture her interest. Her wildness, like the leopard’s, has been caged, but while the leopard remains trapped against its will, she can easily shed her constraints.
The middle poems in the collection are anchored by a long poem, “The Swan at Sheffield Park” (the book’s original title). Here the poet visits a park south of London whose manor house, significantly, was the location where Edward Gibbon finished his THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1776-1788). The poet watches a swan, its neck “in a classical question mark,” gliding toward him on a lake. Observing the spreading “V” of its wake and the dignity it brings to its begging, the poet quickly cuts to the recollection of a Soho stripper whose sequined legs also produced a “V.” Despite the unsavory atmosphere, the poet imagines that the stripper too has the swan’s dignity and that she “swims” on the wooden table-top “warped gently as waves.”
The title poem, is again, a poem of remembrance in which the poet stresses the “this-ness” of life and warns against any hope in transcendence beyond remembering. The last line sums up the poet’s stance throughout the book: “No heaven . . . but this.”
NO HEAVEN is sure to solidify David St. John’s reputation as one of America’s finest younger poets. The poet sustains a mature, knowing, and graceful voice throughout, the result of which is a series of beautiful, if melancholy, meditations on the moral imperative to remember.