Stanley Plumly’s reputation as a fine poet was long ago established. This is his fifth book, and the publisher’s dust-jacket note reminds readers that Plumly’s In the Outer Dark (1970) won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award and that Out-of-the-Body Travel (1977) was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
The twenty-nine poems collected here are divided into three sections, not separately titled. With a few exceptions, these are first-rate poems by a first-rate poet.
Plumly quotes these lines from John Keats as a preface: “It is a flaw/ In happiness to see beyond our bourn—/ It forces us in Summer skies to mourn.” The fact that Keats would surely not have chosen these lines on which to rest his reputation is irrelevant; the fact that only a third of the poems have anything whatsoever to do with summer is irrelevant too. One can forgive a poet of Plumly’s competence for assembling a collection of previously published poems, whether all the poems share a central subject or not. These do not. Even though the title suggests the subject of these poems to be summer, memory is a more frequent subject here—memory and the power of memory to reshape one kind of reality into another. A line from “Two Moments, for My Mother” is an appropriate metaphor for the subject of the majority of these poems: “a small fire in the memory.” Sometimes, memory reshapes: “I think of him large in his dark house,/ hard in thought, taking his time.// But in fact he is sitting on the edge of the bed,/ and it is morning, my mother’s arms around him” (“Sonnet”). Sometimes memory distorts: “It rises in snow, white on white, the way/ in memory one thing is confused with another” (“Waders and Swimmers”).
There is a tendency among some contemporary reviewers of poetry to compose eloquent-sounding but meaningless lines about a poet’s vision or lack of vision. To invent an example: “His oak trees and axe handles and cesspools reveal the poet standing firmly in the physical world but reaching out intuitively and inventively for those elusive but real borders that enclose and frame the outer reaches of human intellect.” To quote an example from critic David Bromwich: “But his [Plumly’s] ideal is an incantatory eloquence too decorous to reveal its motive; he has none of the turns or sudden emphases that can surprise a poet who is possessed by his subject.” This isolated sentence does not do justice to Bromwich’s otherwise fine review, but it does help to make the point that reviewers sometimes look so hard for the forest that they fail to distinguish the individual trees. Trees are important in Plumly’s collection. They are important literally because they are a frequent subject and because the opening poem, “Tree Ferns,” is one of the best poems in the book. It has appealing combinations of end and internal rhyme, effective combinations of spondees and trochees. It rolls rightly along to its satisfying conclusion. It opens Plumly’s world of summer flora and fauna: a world that is witnessed, touched, cherished, and held in memory in varied shapes, colors, textures, and meanings....
(The entire section is 1293 words.)