Trust Rust: Poems

Trust Rust: Poems,
by Will Lane, Middle Street Bindery, 2016,
40 pages, trade paperback, $10, ISBN# 9780692030820

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Awhile back, I was ruminating in emails with a Café Review editor about the phrase “great poetry,” whose use has, well, expanded in the last fifty years.  Over that span an enormous amount of technically competent poetry has
been written (we agreed) that is nonetheless not distinguishable as “great,” or “great-great” in the editor’s pinpoint honing of the idea.  To quietly accommodate this situation, we’ve long since dropped comparisons of our verse to Shakespeare or Wordsworth, and seem to be relinquishing mentions of debt to Dickinson, Whitman or even masters within living memory like Elizabeth Bishop.

Arguing out this viewpoint would require evidence from a detailed study of postwar American prosody that no one, I believe, has yet troubled to make.  But I will say that competence and incompetence with the language are detectable by well-read eyes; after that, judgments about great or great-great poetry start receding into the mists of subjective experience.  Like, for example, the preference for sociopolitical topics conveying certain moral dispositions — aka “activism” — that are currently in high vogue.  Or a preference for particular subject matter, such as nature, or painful personal pasts, or meaninglessness. Etc.

So to disclose pieces of my own matrix, Will Lane’s collection Trust Rust  was steered my way by a friend who thought I would appreciate his observations on the natural world and find his skill with the language a bit sharper than competent.  My friend was right.  This is a collection of poems that are not great, but are well-made and well worth attention.

Lane’s world comprises rural Pennsylvania and a wide-ranging knowledge of Western literature.  The book’s opening poems cover wood-splitting, a library, a huge snapping turtle, “Owls in Winter,” and a cat’s unseen night work, concluding: “Can you smell that cool light? / Can you smell the tiny souls hardly worth eating?”

Further on, we’re plunged into playful allusions and observations on our literary predecessors: “Visiting Emily: a review of a book cover,” “The Death of an English Major: for Doug, lost on 9/11/01,” and “Myth of the Orchids” whose phrasing and “larger mind” point strongly toward Wallace Stevens.  “For Anne at the Winter Solstice” appears to be a playful inside-outing of Robert Graves’s iconic White Goddess poem “For Juan at the Winter Solstice.”  And there’s a quite beautiful evocation of Thoreau’s relation to the natural world and our relation to him, in “Thoreau” (the last five stanzas here):

Walking the ice,
axe in hand, at ease
with the depths
of Walden mapped, and twice

alive now
with tumbling clown clouds
scribbled down
in a notebook, rich

in loons learned,
in citizens sized,
in farmers and farms,

thought through, sparkling
now on the lean ripples
of the well-written pond.

Sharp imagery, wry summation of Thoreau and his discontents, and a nice enveloping allusion to the ecology of words.

And on the language, note the subtle but quirky diction where only a stanza break gets us from “in farmers and farms” to “thought through, sparkling” — what it is that’s sparkling is hypnotically uncertain.  These quirky twists of syntax show up here and there, unobtrusive until you look more closely at the sentence than you might normally think to do; these licks of natural unnatural language reflect, apparently, exactly what he means.

This is not great-great poetry, but it’s well-made and projects a certain spirit that is agreeable and livable, glinting when you settle into it, puzzling but not inscrutable.  Worth attention.

Dana Wilde