canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Well: New and Selected Poems

by Kenneth Sherman 
Wolsak and Wynn, 2000

Orpheus at the Well

by Geoffrey Cook

For someone discovering Kenneth Sherman belatedly, like me, this book is a strong introduction to a talented poet, as sure in his technique and in his vision as any poet writing. The general title for his New and Selected Poems, Sherman’s ninth collection, is well-chosen. “The Well” evokes numerous images and ideas ranging from the beneficent -- the well as a life source -- to the malevolent -- "that dark urge that grows in each one of us". In the title poem of the collection, this specific dark urge is an almost suicidal, daring curiosity, but the image of a hole descending deeply, darkly into the earth encompasses numerous other relevant themes in this book -- despair, fear, doubt, loss, grief, death, the haunting past, the horrors of the twentieth century. As much as we would like to explain all these darknesses away, to dissect and disown them, there nonetheless remains "the inexplicable well" "waiting to happen" -- not maybe, but inevitably. In the title poem Sherman recollects his childhood experience of a local tragedy of a boy, who, having falling down a well, dies before he is rescued. Taking into account the evidence of his other poetry, the story seems 'primal' in the sense of Sherman's recognition of his fundamental motif and implicit mythology. As much as the boy-Sherman is imaginatively gripped by the tragedy, however, "I realized then that you could be with someone / and imagine his fear without having to endure it / to the end": a realization not only of the usual apologia for literature - its often-argued ability to teach us empathy - but, simultaneously, the opposite: a suspicion that writing can distance one from the Other and his/her awful fate. This weird reflection, this characteristically subtle yet unflinching look down into the essential anxieties of life and art is what makes Sherman’s work exceptional and important.

The Well represents over twenty years of work (1978 - 2000): a total of eighty-six poems are included, sixty-two from eight previous books published between 1978 and 1997. Twenty-four new poems begin the collection, the first of which, "A View" is also an overture. I quote the poem in full:

I sit on the ancient pier
watching patches of mist
lift from the lake
like ghosts reluctant to go.
Down below -- the mysterious stirrings
amidst rocks and old bottles,
abandoned anchors that once held fast,
lost goggles that helped someone see.
In a short while the ghosts will have
disappeared and I'll make out the distant
opalescent island -- a place I dreamt of
paddling to when I was a boy
and did once but found nothing
spectacular, except a view
of where I'd come from which was
unexpected and worth the time
it had taken. But the deep --
that's different. I've been there
with my mask, tube, rubber fins --
the ridiculous non-fish --
but no matter how much I've taken in
there's something that I've missed.
It's not only the unpredictable schools
passing through but the landscape itself:
murky, mossy, both growing and decomposing --
a silent richness we're meant to visit,
not inhabit. This pier
juts to where the water
would be over my head,
to where I can see the flags of the distant
marina, clearly. I should be content
with the sun and breeze.
I should wave to those boats
setting off in different directions.

Sherman’s language and metaphors are quiet and assured, enabling, paradoxically, both transparency and mystery. The pier represents the poem (and poetry generally); it provides a view not only of the superficial setting (boats on a lake), but of “ghosts” and what's "down below -- the mysterious stirrings... a silent richness we're meant to visit / not inhabit". If on the one hand, the poem seems a psychological exploration, it is also a decidedly public accounting. The poem opens with the image of the poet in an archetypal pose (aesthetic, philosophical and ethical) which echoes the opening of W. H. Auden’s "September 1st, 1939" ("I sit in one of the dives / on forty-second street, / uncertain and afraid / as the clever hopes expire / of a low dishonest decade." - ), and, much earlier, a poem by Walter von der Vogelweide ("Ich saz uf eime steine / und dahte bein mit beine... do dahte ich mir vil ange, / wie man zer welte solte leben." [“I sat on a stone / and crossed my legs/... Thus I thought hard about / how man should live in the world.”] (Not that Sherman is intentionally referring to a relatively obscure Mittelhochdeutsche Minnesanger, but the image is). Offshore, the poet sees a “dreamt of”, “distant, opalescent island”, suggesting an apparent ideal refuge or perspective. Having been there, though, the poet found on the island,

... nothing
spectacular, except a view
of where I’d come from which wasunexpected and worth the time...

Then the brilliantly understated, “But the deep - / that’s different.” Opalescent islands are seductive and deceptive; as an “elsewhere” they at least provide a necessarily humbling, even disillusioning perspective. (The insight here recalls Auden’s Prospero admitting that Ariel has taught him “what magic [art] is: - the power to enchant / That comes from disillusion.”). But the vital preoccupations are with those “mysterious stirrings” which the ironic ending of the poem forces us back on:

I should be content
with the sun and breeze.
I should wave to those boats
setting off in different directions.

He “should”, but he doesn't. What holds him back? That “silent richness”: “no matter how much I've taken in / there's something that I've missed.”

Approximately one third of the poems in The Well (about 40 poems) deal more or less explicitly with this image of 'the well' or 'the dark urges'. For a poet as conscious of his fundamental motif and the echo chamber of imagery, the step to deliberate mythopoesis is natural. The most explicit examination of myth and religion is found in The Book of Salt (1987), Sherman's fifth book. The poems selected from this collection focus on the tragic figure of Adam and the ambiguous roles of creation and imagination. In "Adam Names the Beast", God is first cause and authority, while Adam is a mere latecomer: "He is a doer. I / come after." God is the maker, Adam the made. Adam realizes "I was made in such a way / as to question / reality", which sounds like rebellious Prometheus, but in the context of the poem, suggests people are naughty children; and confused or naive ones: "I dream / and therefore I can be / deceived." We are the ones who seem to so need the dream (the opalescent island); yet we must remain skeptical of its allure lest we are deceived.

In this sequence of poems Sherman exceptionally turns away from his dominant focus on darkness to exhort "a striving / to turn the blight / into mercy”:

The world is not a poem, I reminded
myself, it is not an exercise
in perfection.
Create, I said, be
joyous against the blare, the wholesale
make what light you can
from the chaos. (“Over”)Or as "Messiah" puts it:
Despite the heaps of bodies
that we photograph daily
and under whose weight we feel powerless
it is not too late to love, to practise
to speak beyond the darkness,
to fill the void
with our voice.

(The subtle rhyming here of “powerless”, “gentleness” and “darkness”, and more clearly of “void” and “voice” implies, however, a more complex relationship between darkness and light.) This buoyant impulse to transcendence recurs in some of Sherman's later poems in Jackson's Point (1989) and Open to Currents (1992), where the function of the imagination is to struggle against darkness: putting "pen to white paper" is a way of "Carry[ing] me, tenuous sail, / to that community / of splashers..." (an idealized community in the poem "Jackson's Point", like that opalescent island in “The View”). In "Seminal Cloth", the poet recalls playing among the scraps of "sharkskin, hounds-tooth, herringbone tweed" cloth in his father's tailor shop and finds himself in the same position as "Adam Nam[ing] the Beasts":

As a child, I buried myself in that darkness
beneath the marvelous patterns
and practices the animal names
until the box became a boat,
the darkness, a sea.

But as this stanza shows, it is the dark which usually preoccupies Sherman. Before the ship of art rescues him from the depths, the poet must first bury himself in darkness; transcendence is only possible if the true extent of darkness has been plumbed. Thus the significance of the sequence of poems (rare dramatic monologues for Sherman), "Words for the Elephant Man". The tragic story of the Elephant Man is Sherman's "Book of Job":

A Psalm for the Elephant Man
What protrudes from my upper jaw
what makes of my mouth a shattered clam
a tortured vent.
My speech is indistinct,
my vowels rise
like wild birds,
my consonants grind
and splutter
like an engine's damaged
my peculiar limp
beats time.
This is the song of thy suffering servant.
This is the articulation of the New Age.
This is God's hobbling little poem.
I drone on in His image.
Or as "The Word" puts it:
Those few words that escaped
were thin wind
down a stinking mineshaft.
The word tried new exits,
blasting bone,
pushing out those pendulous folds
till I became the abc of pain
till I became the sound
skewered through flesh
with the terror of an epic.

This is as extravagant as Sherman’s language gets; which is to say that restrained, unpretentious, discrete, ‘plain-speaking’ is characteristic of Sherman’s work. His is a sure and varied voice, trusting in the precision of language, not the passion of rhetoric. Yet this necessarily shocking articulation of the inarticulate in the Elephant Man poems (“God’s hobbling little poem[s]”) evidences Sherman’s determination not to back down from the unnerving extremes of experience. We cannot otherwise know how great the need is for a spiritually adequate language.

While there are a few examples of quatrains, of sonnet-based structures and of rhyme, Sherman mostly writes free verse, but with rare rhythmic control, conviction and sensitivity. These virtues are well-exemplified in Sherman's major poem in the book, an eight-page, twenty-four part, heart-breaking elegy for his father called "Clusters":

Flowers return here or to some other garden
with the tedium of the eternal
but what was said between us,
distinct, particular,
binds us to passing flesh.

Employing the dominant conceit of a garden (tediously eternal nature) abandoned by its gardener (tragically mortal), "Clusters" explores that old conflict between father and son, all the more poignant in this case because unresolved at the father's death. Poem #12 reveals the irreconcilable differences between son and father, "My attraction to what is lost, broken, / yours to what is starting up, settling in... While you were arriving, I was leaving". But poem #13 suggests a shared ground:

Difficult to know where things end, begin,
and even these words, perhaps an evasion.
But once you said you heard whispering
beneath the level of your deepest digging.
Out of the fragrant darkness,
the hyacinth, with its blood droplets,
ghost breath calling out
from the quietude of your life
to the stirred region, imploring you
to make up for what you had not lived.

That shared ground is loss: “even [the poet’s] words, perhaps an evasion”, and [G]host breath implor[es] [the father] / to make up for what [he] had not lived.” Poem #21 in the sequence reads:

All of this, a backward glance.
Have I lost you then, to the darkness of separation?
Those gnawing beasts -- regret and self-accusation --
(not having said enough, or too much)
calmed for a time by language.
At night they start up
with narrowing eyes
as if deaf to the songs tossed down
to quell their hunger.
In an engraving
one might see them stupefied
with poetry, peering from behind
the trees of an earlier century.

The imagery of “Clusters” - that “backward glance”; “beasts ... stupefied / with poetry”; the underground stirred or appeased by song - clearly identifies the poet with Orpheus, specifically his tragic attempt to resurrect his wife, Eurydice, through his art. “Huckleberry”, a poem which sums up a number of Sherman’s themes (travel, freedom, death, nature), also ends on an Orphean note:

My life of longings, escapes.
The continents I've covered,
the million-odd eyes
that have brushed against mine.
Now I know:
that slave I worked to set free
is me -- my raft
this tenuous craft
carrying me through currents of darkness
to where the ghosts grieve
because they are misunderstood.
There I see myself,
a runaway boy in the narrow ravine,
walking by the creek
that is forever too shallow,
making my impossible plans.
Attentive to the shrieking birds,
the flying shadows,
I have already entered
into my deep exile
where the trees seem to breathe
and bend
toward a word.

The final poem in “Clusters” also evokes the image of Orpheus:

And things feel incomplete.
It is like a late conversation
broken off in mid-sentence
while some winged thing insists
against the midnight screen.
I keep expecting you to call to me
from our kitchen window but when I turn
there is only the shade of the tree,
a vacant picnic table, July’sheartless doldrums. And now
we have all this finishing to begin.

Eurydice - desire, love, the world - is always already dying, un-completing us. Art is always a re-beginning; an attempt to re-create Eurydice, without shirking the cost. Tragically, inevitably denied his love, Orpheus mourned his loss so long that Maenads ripped him to pieces. But his disembodied head kept singing. “[T]he ghosts grieve / because they are misunderstood”; there is always “all this finishing to begin” because “things feel incomplete”; because “no matter how much I’ve taken in / there’s something that I’ve missed” (“The View”). We are grateful to Sherman for his relentless courage in looking - back, down, close and long - for what is so missed.

Geoff Cook is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.







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