Editor’s note: The 11th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival gets under way on Friday. Visit www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org, for authors, reading times and venues. The review below is part of a series of reviews of books by authors who will be attending the 2012 Brattleboro Literary Festival.
Daniel Tobin is the author of five books of poems: "Where the World is Made," "Double Life," "The Narrows," "Second Things" and "Belated Heavens." Among his awards are the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry, The Discovery/The Nation Award, The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Greensboro Review Prize, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a fellowship in poetry from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. His critical study, "Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney," came out to wide praise. His recent book of essays, "Awake in America," appeared from the University of Notre Dame Press in 2011. He is Interim Dean of the School of the Arts at Emerson College in Boston.
"Belated Heavens: Poems"
By Daniel Tobin
When a poet divides his book of poems into four sections, each with its own title, and assigns exactly a dozen poems to each, the reader suspects that the ordering means something and reads accordingly. Yet the cover of "Belated Heavens," which we can suppose the poet had a hand in choosing, bears an intriguing painting by Lori Nix, titled "Clock Tower," depicting the interior of a ruined mill attic taken over by a family of raccoons. What gives? Are we to be guided by order or by ruin and decay?
Many of Tobin’s poems are formal, that is they are cast in established styles -- sonnets, for example, and varieties of chain verse with lines or words repeating according to rules. Chalk one up for order.
Yet Tobin captures ruin in well-crafted images, like rats chewing up financial statements, or meal worms boiled with the pasta they’re hiding in: "Ša few flayed swimmers/bob lifelessly in the oil’s slick." Give ruin a checkmark.
Poems selected for Part I are about life continuing beyond its obstacles. "Westwood," for example, traces a disheartened man leaving home, but ends with the hopeful line: "Pick up the phone, your beloved is calling."
In Part II, the poet looks back over his years like a man studying the life lines in his palm: "he traces his course,/the embedded lines/ forked or flaring that elsewhere would be scars."
Part III, "Falling Upward," where most of the formal poems in the book appear, is about being at the threshold between what is past and what may be presenting itself: "[I’ll have to] Make my way like a trickle through rock/Without a notion of the world to come..."
Part IV includes some of the most lyrical of Tobin’s poems in this collection. Here we find the deep-sea diver who discovers a prize emerald and knows it is the discovering, not the emerald, that is the real gift. Here, too, we find a beautiful tribute to a familiar Brooklyn eatery that the poet likens to heaven where he finds "My parents easing into their booth,/Regular as clockwork or ritual, ... How strange to know death made them happy."
So, shall we say order trumps ruin? I think so. The poem "The Hours" describes in hymn-like cadences 15th century farmers scything hay in the fields outside the city walls and ends with, "no hint of plague or poverty,//for here is immanence and bliss/and work transfigured into dance ... ."
Not all of Tobin’s poems are easy to access, but these are poems to live with. Take time to savor the richness of his vocabulary. Take time to learn about his Medieval and Renaissance references. Take time to see how the patterns in his more formal poems work. There are many delights awaiting the serious poetry reader here.
Charles Butterfield lives in Hinsdale, N.H., and graduated from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English.
For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores. "Guidelines for Reviewers" may be requested from Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290 or brattlib@brooks. lib.vt.us.