The horse(neck) whisperer

It wasn’t that long ago that the great debate in poetry was between the proponents of formal and free verse (the cooked and the raw, as it came to be known). While there were, of course, extremists on both sides, most of us felt that great writing could be found in either camp. Unfortunately, the debate also was framed as a struggle between the patrician, white men (you can’t say straight white men because so many were not straight) and the demotic multicultural masses. I say “unfortunately” because it unfairly tarnished a whole school of writers, most of whom were anything but provincial and reactionary in their worldview.

Some of them, however, were definitely not writing for the popcorn-munching crowds, but pursued an aesthetic that rewards a discerning palate and a contemplative atmosphere. William Logan is just such a poet. I’ve recently been reading The Whispering Gallery, a book that unabashedly seeks to realize the full potential of poetic form and language. This poetry is not just cooked, it is haute cuisine.

Logan’s poetry can be both lush and pointed at the same time. I am awed by his ability to craft the perfect phrase or select the perfect word (I’m sure he would prefer “le mot juste”), describing scenes and actions in ways that are at once surprising and obvious. Among my favorites: “Sand crabs scrabbled from our tightened palms” (from “Horseneck Beach Odalisque”) and “In an hour, the bats would batter through darkness” (from “In the Swamp”). Those verbs—scrabble and batter—not only conjure the action, but evoke the sensation in a visceral way. I can practically feel the little critters burrowing through my fingers trying to get back into the wet sand. And it’s wonderful how the name of the actor is framed in the name for the action—crab and bat. Imagine how different those lines would read if he’d instead said “scrambled” and “blustered.” Logan, at his best, embodies Pope’s admonition about sound and sense.

Though not, in any sense, a Nature Poet, Logan is an astute observer of the natural world. He apparently makes his home, at least part of the time, in Florida, and the local denizens—manatee, alligator, anhinga, coral snake, etc.—all make an appearance. Still, he saves his most piercing gaze for his most intimate associates—his parents, or grandparents, his wife and lover. These are often viewed with a nostalgic exasperation, or tragic poignancy.

Logan can render some rapturous descriptions, but sometimes, he’s most moving when he’s most pared down. Consider these lines from “After Easter”:

I saw the faintest passion in your eyes.
The doctors found new cancer in your blood.

Even here, though, it might be noted, he does not abandon the formal structure—the iambic pentameter that frequently supports his poems. A poet like Logan needs to keep his mooring.

I know that Logan has a reputation for being “difficult,” but I really don’t find that to be true. I suppose that’s because I am familiar with many of the references, even those that border on the obscure. For example, I have fond memories of Ostia Antica, the subject of one poem, and have always been a great admirer of LaRochefoucauld—not a name you encounter everyday.

That being said, there is a long sequence in the middle of the book entitled “Penitence.” Although the components are all intriguing in their own right, I can’t quite figure out what ties them all together. Sure, they all share a common structure—sort of an extended sonnet—but there must be more that I’m just not getting. Penitence implies an introspective examination of past sins, mixed with a genuine remorse, hopefully leading to redemption. There are 24 sections, which naturally invokes the 24 hours in a day. Is it, then, a book of hours? A day in thew life, in the mode of Joyce? The references are all over the map—from Coleridge to Garbo to Pol Pot to Austen to Fermat to Shackleton….

Well, this is definitely poetry for the well-read and well-traveled (which perhaps amounts to well-heeled?) References to the classics are sprinkled liberally throughout, with Dante’s Inferno well represented, and Shakespeare of course, along with the Greeks and Romans. Biblical references also abound. And yet, you’ll also find an occasional dab of the pedestrian, a spattering of brand names reminiscent of Lowell (e.g., “immortal as Saran Wrap” in “Adultery,” or “a foamy SOS-pad blue” in “Under the Palms”). Poetic language knows no bounds.

Logan’s is ultimately a grim vision—a philosophy pulled in two directions. On the one hand, an epicurean sense: enjoy the pleasures of life while you may, because they and you will soon enough be gone; and on the other, a nihilism: don’t bother trying to enjoy yourself, for even the stately pleasures are always tinged with the specter of death. The first poem in the collection, “The Rotting Stars,” ends with the line, “I could see everything that was to come,” a sentiment laden with foreboding and inevitability, as nothing good can be expected. The final poem, “The Old Burying Ground,” includes the stanza,

the mourners each spring resurrected
to words no longer said
but memory of the dead will never
resurrect the dead.

A devastating admission for a poet, who uses words, in part, to keep the past from disappearing entirely.

I mentioned that Logan is a keen observer, and the notion of “the gaze” recurs throughout the book—sometimes introspectively, as in a mirror, but often more ominously, as in the “odalisque,” a trope that appears more than once. The odalisque, in European art, typically depicts a recumbent, half (or wholly) nude woman of the seraglio. Deeply steeped in the orientalist tradition, it places the observer in the position of the sultan, with ultimate power over the observed. In a sense, every memory is an odalisque, enticing the rememberer, who chooses what to see and what to ignore, positioning everything to his satisfaction—perhaps a little petulantly, imperiously. My favorite poem in the collection, “Horseneck Beach Odalisque” (already mentioned) encapsulates all of this, particularly in its description of the sand castles we all have built at some time:

Our castles rose, dark and raggedly Gothic.
The dribbled turrets capped a moated wall,
and then the Muslim tide came roiling in
and took the holy cities one by one.
By August, we were Moor-wasps,
each boy a white-toweled sultan of the waves.

Logan is clearly writing for an audience that shares his desultory interests, his erudition, and maybe even his particular life trajectory. If you don’t get the references, you might feel a bit left out—like being at a party where everyone but you shares the same inside joke. But if you can get beyond that, the work is truly engaging and rewarding.