Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802
Roland Flint’s Resuming Green, the poet’s first hardcover volume, is a sometimes moving, occasionally beautiful, and often exasperating book. Flint has been gathering a considerable reputation among poets and aficionados of poetry during the past decade through publication of his poems in literary journals and in two collections from Dryad Press, one of the better small presses in the country. Twenty-seven of the forty-seven poems in Resuming Green are reprinted from the two paperbound Dryad volumes, And Morning (1975) and Say It (1979). Flint writes in an unembarrassed, straightforward, homely way about emotionally charged themes: about difficult relations between fathers and their children, about the loss of two of his children (a son through death and a daughter, the dead boy’s twin, through divorce from their mother), and about the finally joyful attempt, as a person and as a poet, to rebuild a life—resuming green, so to speak—with another woman.
Flint works hard throughout Resuming Green to defuse the potential for sentimentality in his materials. He does not always succeed, but clearly the unadorned, prosy style of much of Resuming Green represents the effort to tell things truly, to head off the risk that a more tricked out, more ornate, more metaphorical rhetoric might lead to false magnifications of feeling. More than a quarter of the poems in the volume (fourteen of the forty-seven) are prose poems. These pieces recurrently sound like the prose of Ernest Hemingway, as in this paragraph from “Rosalind October”: “And now the old flower vendor calls out to me: these are nice, she says—yes, I’ll take them; and these are nice—I’ll take them too; and so are these—fine, I’ll take them.” One of the best poems in the collection, “The Green for Pamela,” is similarly Hemingwayesque. The poem begins with a matter-of-fact report of an almost unspeakably painful phase in the life of the persona’s lost family: “After she had witnessed and somehow survived her twin brother’s death, my daughter Pamela and I would lie across the bed, staring out the window. . . .” The second and third paragraphs recall the more evocative moments in A Farewell to Arms (1929) and A Moveable Feast (1964):When the streetlights came on, it was different, and beautiful still: the leaves, resuming green, were on our side of the lamp, the light lighting the tree and shining through to us, like daytime—cleaner, though, and greener.
But it was best just before the lights came on: we would be there and talk and wait for a little dark and a little wind to make the trees move and sough and whisper as they rearranged the human faces and animal shapes of night—an elephant nodding, a dog wagging or leaping, Mr. Bishop’s face in Mr. Bishop’s tree.
The same sort of plain style dominates in many of the pieces that are set up as verse on the page. For example, here is the first stanza of “Skin,” a poem prefatory to the entire volume:
If the wood is good grain,And the carpenter, the fit, the caulking,The cask will be goodAnd if the grapes are goodThe wood and the wineWill improve each other,In the dark long days of aging.
The diction, the syntax, the repetitions—all are simple and unadorned in an insistent, even a studied fashion. Although Flint has gone to school with William Blake, William Butler Yeats, and Theodore Roethke (on whom he wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1968), and although here and there in Resuming Green (in at least two poems, at any rate) he displays densely meta-morphical, rhymed poems, for the most part he writes in the flat understated mode of James Wright (who was also published by Dryad, incidentally) and many other Midwestern poets.
The one palpably poetic effect in the first stanza of “Skin” is the order of adjectives in the closing line, “dark long days” standing out as an inversion of “long dark days,” a more predictable pattern. Perhaps “long dark days” seemed to the poet to verge on cliché, but the inversion does not help much. At times, as here, one feels that Flint’s plain style is deployed to strain against the writer’s predilection for a poetic diction that is the very stuff of sentimentality insofar as it calls for stock emotional responses in the reader. Even though much of Resuming Green is intentionally prosaic, Flint too often relies on hackneyed language with an ersatz freight of poetic meaning. Consider, for example, his overuse of the words rich and opulent: “I was twenty-five, older than this opulent girl . . .” (“Visit”); “She needs to see my mix of her,/ High on a balance beam or poem/ In the rich champagne of her skin,/ Adjusting on one toe all the failures/ Of exigency and symmetry,/ A mix of durum wheat and air,/ Of opulence and hurt” (“Shim”); “How the ribbon bright and yellow/ Of women with small breasts/ In their rich inversion of what is generous . . .” (“Spring Yellows for You”). Other words similarly overused by Flint throughout the volume are perfect, dark (and darker and darkest), sweet, beautiful, dream, simple, and bright. Beyond the problem of sometimes hackneyed language, at least a few of Flint’s poems seem doomed from the start by sentimental subject matter that perhaps no treatment could redeem: Especially notable in this category are “August from My Desk” (about a boy dreaming of flying airplanes while “dying this way” as he steers a combine: “He checks his meters, checks his flaps,/ Screams contact at his dreamless father,/ He pulls back the stick,/ Engines roaring,// And hurtles into the sun”) and “His Good Time” (about a slightly touched Greek farm patriarch whose relatives seek power of attorney to get control of the purse strings he has jealously guarded), which seems to be Flint’s version of Zorba the Greek. One whole section of Resuming Green, moreover, comprising ten poems (half of the new pieces in the book) and collectively entitled “The Pigeon: Staying on Behind,” is a pale, sketchy echo of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs (1969). The poems do spell out some of the particulars of the anguish of Flint’s pigeon persona, but they are so heavily derivative in language, structure, and overall conception that their value for the disinterested reader of contemporary poetry is negligible.
Resuming Green is nevertheless worth reading and attending to; Flint’s poetic successes in this uneven volume are powerful and memorable, including what may well be his finest poem, though it was omitted from the two Dryad collections, “Heads of the Children.” The speaker in the poem recollects the terror he suffered as a child from his father’s rages:
Father your voice was a fistTo slam my stomach shutTo start me from sleep like a rat,You were the right and righteous anger,Your voice made me believeIn God in the Devil.
Although the father at seventy is “apologetically quiet” in an embrace of greeting with his forty-year-old son, the son “can only remember/ Being held by you during beatings . . ./ And always worse, before them,/ The fanatical white in your shouting.” Worse still, the son recognizes that he is “doing the same thing/ To my small son”:
If my voice said what I meanHe could sleep all night in its branches,But I hear your outrage in me,Over nothing, a bare lie, or nothing,Just like me, his knuckles white with my yelling.Father—I love you.Jesus Christ, where does it end?
The one flaw, perhaps, in this fine, strong poem is the expletive “Jesus Christ” in the last line; it is the correct vernacular, one supposes, but it inevitably makes the situation in the poem allusive to Christ’s Passion, to God’s sacrifice of His Son, and not to a scriptural paradigm far more germane to the human drama here, the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which the son is prepared for sacrifice in service to the father’s adherence to righteousness.
What is perhaps most refreshing and encouraging about poems such as “Heads of the Children” is Flint’s compelling honesty, his dauntless strength of feeling, and his courage to write a poetry that is at least as much a language of statement as of indirection and innuendo. Aside from the specific shortcomings in Flint’s verse mentioned above, there are some general liabilities to the sort of plain style to which he is committed. One pays a price—the price, one might say, of now and then writing like Hemingway in one of his occasional unwitting self-parodies—when one eschews, for the most part, such traditional resources of poetry as metaphor, alliteration, and rhyme. When the plain style works, however, it can be as stern and beautiful and rare as any high art, and one needs only a few poems that operate on that level to justify any number of botched attempts.
Among the other strong poems in Resuming Green, two of the prose poems about Flint’s lost son stand out as exemplary. In one, “Tulip Tree,” the poet turns from an abrupt seizure of grief to the consolation he can extract from close attention to a tulip bud that has fallen “here on my table” and that “means the tulip tree will bloom when Nellie said it would, which is fine with me, because it is even sooner than I guessed.” The second, “A Poem Called George, Sometimes,” begins, “Before he died, my son made up this poem: There once was a boy/ Who went to the market/ And bought some hot chocolate/ And put it in his red pocket. I said it’s fine, Ethan . . . what do you call it? . . . And he said, ah . . . George.” At the end, the speaker confesses that “I thought I would steal the title, my lost boy, to be with you in your poem, but it’s made me see I’m going to have to write that poem I do not want to write, named Ethan.” Alas, one does not want to write that poem because a child who becomes one’s “best piece of poetry” is no longer a child but the subject of an elegy. The phrase quoted is of course from Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son,” which stands on an exclusive eminence, with room for no more than half a dozen other occupants, and with William Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy” as one of the supreme elegies poets have written for their own children. That Flint’s elegies for Ethan will bear such comparison is an achievement in itself, and Flint’s considerable strengths as a poet justify the hope that a future poem “named Ethan” will occupy the pinnacle with those other poignant artifacts of enduring grief and love.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31
Christian Science Monitor. August 12, 1983, p. B2.
The Georgia Review. XXXVII, Winter, 1983, p. 894.
Library Journal. CVIII, February 1, 1983, p. 211.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, October 9, 1983, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, January 21, 1983, p. 74.
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