Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Mystic Made Ashes

The Last Nostalgia: Poems 1982-1990 by Joe Bolton

My first reaction to reading these poems was that I was reading my own—scribblings, musings, conceived in some fatal rush of feeling in the days when I was young and reckless and living on my own in New York. Not that I could have written this well. I couldn’t have. Rather, it was the particular loneliness and longing in the poems, their high romantic spirit, that I recognized as my own—that vain, if exquisite grief that can only be courted when young, that can only be courted with words. Reading these poems was like stumbling upon an older, younger self.

Autumn Fugue

I remember how the silver leaves fell down,
Extravagantly, as if in prefigured spirals,
From the fig tree you couldn't keep alive,
And how, when you’d sat watching for a while
That lovely dying, then turned your face to me,
Your face seemed the same silver of the leaves.

It had to do partially, I suppose,
With the light—how the brief and intense dusk
Along 14th street gathered in the canopy
Of chestnuts choked with vine, filtering
In through the three windows of your white room
To make a luminous lake in which we swam.

Looking all that autumn for a holier way
Of talking about things, you found yourself
Hardly able, at last, to speak at all;
And so, for long moments, no word would pass
Between us, when we had only to listen
To the quarter-hourly noise form a nearby church.

There was something greater t the sadness
Than simply the going away of your lover,
Or even our past failures at love.
What sadness there was carried with it the weight
Of something intensely formal, and which would not
Be overcome by anything so commonplace

As a gesture shred between the two of us.
And so, as the light faltered and the leaves fell down,
I’d light a cigarette and sip my drink,
And you’d arrange your body at the window
Like some unfinished portrait if yourself…
If there is nothing between a man and a woman

Except the light by which thy see each other,
And a past in which they appear continually smaller,
And a future that seems already to have acquired
The irrevocability of the past,
It seems important, nevertheless to acknowledge
Their brief victory: the surviving it. 

This past summer I visited NYU in Greenwich Village with my wife and sons. It felt strange to be back there again, after so many years—on University Place, at St. Mark’s Bookshop, in Washington Square Park, where I’d spent so many hours as a student, book in hand, sitting on a bench or wandering the paths, so lonely, so wretched some days I was sure that I would choke. For I remember feeling much like the speaker in these poems, much like Bolton himself, who wrote his heart out in poem after poem, then promptly blew out his brains. He was just 28.

For the modern consciousness,” writes Susan Sontag in her well-known essay on Cesare Pavese, “the artist (replacing the saint) is the exemplary sufferer. And among artists, the writer, the man of words, is the person to whom we look to be able to best express his suffering.” Steeped in Faulkner and Vallejo, drinking heavily, and reeling from a string of failed relationships, Bolton suffered greatly, it is clear, wandering here and there, in the years these poems were written, from Kentucky to Florida, from Texas to Arizona, always restless, never easy, at peace.  All told, he expressed himself well. 

The Return

And when,  finally, you found your way back,
It seemed you barely recognized the place—
Or rather, the place barely recognized you.

The great rivers (Cumberland, Tennessee)
Rolled on as always; cardinals and jays
Skirmished among the crosses of dogwood.

But visiting friends, their faces both the same
And not the same, you realized how the loss
Of a common language could undo the world:

How the sky over each landscape contained
The blueprints of a city that might rise
When all your generation has gone away,

And how lovers were, in the end, reduced
To the sounds of names, the flesh utterly forgotten.
And it seemed then that you’d come  all this way

Only to pass unnoticed through the place.
Driving fast down dangerous, familiar roads
Like a shadow you had cast years before. 

While I would never wish to be young again, there are times when I miss the painful splendor of my days as a student in New York—the righteous alienation, the restless yearning, the heady, desperate belief in words that made me feel at once so powerful and helpless and free.

It is impossible to say what kind of poet Bolton would have become had he not committed suicide, yet the power of these poems lies not in their intimation of greater things, of genius snuffed out young, but in what the poet Donald Justice, the editor of this collection, calls “a certain blazing youthful freshness”—enough to give any writer pause. 

Fathers and Sons

“But the sultriness of noonday passes, and evening comes, and
night, and then, too, the return to a calm haven, where sleep is
sweet for the tortured and the weary…”

In my father’s recurring dream,
His life’s humiliations take on the form
Of a procession of slow-drawn, open boxcars.
A hideous old man hangs out by one arm
From each of them, his blackened face leering.

It’s late winter as he tells me this.
We’re sitting on the back porch, sipping beers,
Watching the dusk play itself out
In a lightshow through the woods,
Shocked yellows and reds blazing the leaf rot

Where the neighbor’s son lay down and
Shot himself last October, the note stuffed
In his shirt pocket: Pretty place
To die. They’ve moved away now,
Their house empty and up for sale.

A train sounds in the distance, pure sound,
Its fading whines and shudders dragging off
What’s left of the light, while my breath
And the stars my breath rises to meet
Become visible against the dark.

And this evening I understand
What little consolation stars are—
How their shimmering is out of reach
As the smooth stones or the small fish flashing
In a frozen-over stream, and how my father,

Staring up at them, can only think
How alone he is out here, among these wasted
Fields the woods are reclaiming year by year.
“It’s terrible, just terrible,” he says,
Meaning his dream.  “It goes on forever,

And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”
And we can’t help each other, he and I.
We’ve perfected our obsessions and traveled
Too far into ourselves, like the mystic
Made ashes by his own imploding light.

John Bolton (1961-1990) was born in Cadiz, Kentucky, the son of schoolteachers. The Last Nostalgia is published by The University of Arkansas Press.

Peter Adam Nash

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