» Book Review
Don’t Muddy the Waters, Do Rock the Boat
Everything That Rises by Joseph Stroud
Copper Canyon Press, 2019
Paperback. 159 pages. $14.00
Stroud is remarkable, having both lyric and prose gifts, a reverence for nature, and a willingness to face up to hard truths. His craft allows him to write necessary poems with immediacy, yet maintain a certain distance in a plain, powerful voice. W. S. Merwin said, “The authority of Joseph Stroud’s poetry is startling . . . it is the recurring revelations that poetry brings to us, the crystal of our ordinary days. Stroud’s poetry comes from the clear source.”
Everything That Rises is an ambitious collection with seven sections, including masterful translations of Tu Fu, Catullus, Neruda, and others. Stroud moves back and forth between lyricism and his more classical distance with ease.
In “The Perfection of Craft,” Stroud gives us a sample of what he does best. The speaker takes us on the hunt with a great blue heron who “stalks among the reeds,” halting to snare his meal. The bird “stabs its beak, flings, into the air a roiling snake, and catches it / tosses it again, . . . / still alive, slithering down the heron’s throat.” He treats his meal as if it’s a game. While the imagery stands out, this poem is really about craft. Is the poet like the heron, and the poem is the snake? The ideas and point of view are complex, the images vivid—a signature Stroud six-liner.
His previous book, Of This World: New and Selected Poems, contained many brilliant poems like this one in the book’s opening section, “Suite For The Common.” And again, in this new collection, with “The Tarantula,” he takes us to a place “below Solomon Ridge,” where this arachnid “the size of my hand” rears up, “feels the air with its front legs / its body covered in silky hair.” The speaker kneels down, and it follows the shadow of his hand, “a little dance before pouncing on the twig I hold before it.” The Theraphosidae is curious, intelligent; then “its fangs click open,” and the speaker stands, takes a step back.
It watches, unmoving,
waiting inside its own arachnid time,
before continuing on,
touching the ground delicately
with each tip of its eight legs,
heading out into the Mojave,
A powerful nature poem, like D.H Lawrence’s snake poem, this tarantula, “walking like a hand,” seems like one of the lords of life, “disappearing into a world where we cannot go.”
Mortality is the undertone and undertow in this book. At the end of Stroud’s first section, we get “Remember This, Sappho Said,” where a nameless shade from the underworld tells the speaker, “remember that / among the living you were once offered love— / you, with your great pride and haughty disdain, / remember, love was once offered, and you refrained,” setting the tone for the scenes of death that follow.
In “Heart Attack in An Oregon Forest,” an anonymous “you” directs a sheriff by cell phone to a remote river where the speaker waits, hearing this stranger on the phone, “his voice calling your name, / asking directions from the dead.”
In “Homage to the Water Ouzel,” Stroud begins, “Times you get so down into pain . . .” but then the speaker thinks of the water ouzel, “into / this aching cold water the little bird plunges / and walks the bottom just trying to stay alive. Imagine that. Jesus Christ. Try to imagine that.” What’s striking is the speaker’s detachment at first, and then the immediacy.
This dark undertone continues in the next section of the book. In “The End of Romanticism,” Stroud gives us a college teacher’s talk to his students at the end of a course on Romanticism. In this powerful prose poem, the teacher talks about Charles Lamb, whom they have not studied, who took care of his mentally ill sister after she had to be confined in Bedlam, “a hospital worse than prison,” for stabbing their mother to death. Later released into Lamb’s care, she and Lamb wrote Tales from Shakespeare. When her illness recurred—and they had learned the signs— “they knew she had no defense.” “All semester,” says the speaker, “we’ve been discussing Romanticism, The Sublime, the articulation of Personal Emotion, and the power of Imagination. Now imagine this. Holding each other, carrying the restraining straps with them, Mary and Lamb, sobbing, walked the long road back to Bedlam.”
In “The Bridge of Change,” the suicide of Stroud’s teacher and mentor, John Logan, is the subject. We see Logan at the No Name Bar in Sausalito in the 1960s, drinking and holding forth about a boy who witnessed his mother’s death—jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge—as he and his father watched, helpless. Logan offers insight by telling his own theory of poetry,
the poem as a bridge
connecting me to you,
you to me, poetry
in whose healing music we might trace
how to forgive, how to cross over,
making our long difficult way
Stroud renders the death of his own parents with restraint in “Campfire.” The speaker remembers a night with his father in the Tehachapis, “How ghostlike his image / appears to me now, how he seems almost a stranger, / and the boy sitting next to him, staring / into the flame, unable to make anything of it, / what do I make of him, / what would I tell him that he should know, / comforted as he is by the warmth of the fire / and the presence of his father sitting next to him / within the deep fatherless night surrounding him.” The speaker’s distance makes this moment universal.
A lot can be learned from Stroud regarding craft. He builds vivid imagery, much like with the blue heron, in “Imagining (Poetry).” Young Stroud and his twin brother hook up a walkie-talkie with tin cans and tell each other secrets, intimate words connected by a string, “hearing at each end only what we might imagine.” And in “Oppen / Praxis” Stroud instructs, “Say what happened in a way that makes it happen again . . . Clarity and accuracy honor the reader. / Don’t muddy the waters. Do rock the boat.”
Stroud has traveled the world searching for poems, novelty—and possibly grace. He’s looked in dangerous places— “somewhere out past Swat, near the Korkorams, no road into it, Westerners forbidden. It was important to me that it be secluded, that to get to it I would have to leave my whole life behind. What was it I so yearned to find?” In the section, “Convergence,” we get a persona poem of a young Incan girl chosen to be sacrificed to the god. In his notes, Stroud says he was haunted by this image for years. He continues this section with omens and religious touchstones, as if the poet is “shoring fragments against his ruins.”
Everything That Rises has no simple arc from grief to redemption. The deaths of family, friends, the coming extinctions in nature, his own mortality, his pain due to the nature of this violent world are all real, but he asks, “Who was it that said / in some long-ago poem / this world is all we have / of Paradise?” Stroud’s instinct is praise.
Winner of many awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lamont Foundation, Stroud gives us poems of nature’s abundance with craft folded around absence. In “My Diamond Sutra,” Stroud mentions “dragon boats of poems, set on fire, pushed into the stream.” In this way, he balances light and dark, showing one man’s search for transcendence. His work deserves a wider audience—not only poetry readers. Stroud’s poems do rock the boat.