Last updated on September 6th, 2016
“WoodsWalk,” a poem in Chapbook 2011 by Gary Maxwell, typifies the poet’s voice: Question, but not too skeptically, for there is too much to love about life. In the poem, the poet advises the walker amid “oaks and maples” and “pines” and an “anchoritic birch” to “strip off every garment” and “re-acquaint your body to this tethered cosmos.” Sitting on a stump, thus, you feel “the roughness of your temporary throne” on your buttocks, your loins “trilling with the life and death surrounding you”—“you are alive and free” with yourself.
Surrounded by nature, the poet immerses himself in its physicality, a primal act that leads him to an understanding, perhaps even an epiphany, that life and death are everywhere, but you can be alive and free in any case. As a motif exemplified in “WoodsWalk,” nature is integral to the construct of Chapbook 2011: It may appear as reference, simile, metaphor, or personification. Nature, thus, provides a frame through and in which the imagery deepens the intent of the poem.
“Hymn,” the second poem in Part II of Chapbook 2011, illustrates how the poet references nature to extricate the deeper meaning of the poem. The subject of “Hymn” and the subject of “WoodsWalk” are poles apart: Whereas in “Hymn” humanity is juxtaposed with nature, in “WoodsWalk” humanity communes with nature. Nevertheless, the poems share a commonality insofar as nature is the frame through which the meaning is visible.
In “Hymn,” the scene is commonplace: Not much happens that wouldn’t happen in any other municipality. A group of unidentified persons stand in line waiting to enter court, sipping coffee, staring at the sidewalk, their eyes not meeting each other, though they steal a glance “in windows—mostly looking for ourselves.” They light cigarettes, cough, and move their lips without uttering a sound. Being an astute observer of this congregation, however, the poet posits nature as context that betrays its ordinariness, thereby altering the meaning of “commonplace.”
The poem opens with a gray expanse of sky—“that unexpected moment”—and a personified sun not yet on the horizon, still “struggling to extricate himself from last night’s lover’s oath in eastern Asia.” As the congregation waits, “concrete” becomes a mirror “of the Earth’s cold canopy.” In the first five lines, the poet transposes the ordinary scene into an extraordinary scene, not only with the reference to the gray sky and the personification of the sun, but also with “concrete” as a metaphor reflecting “the Earth’s cold canopy.”
Around the middle half of “Hymn,” the poet introduces the court as a shuttered Heaven’s court. Why? And why does he carry the religious association further in the closing lines? Notice, in particular, the image rendered: the breath of the assemblage becomes “ascending incense,/rising over rooftops of the world into the chilly dawn.” Not only does breath become “ascending incense,” but it also rises over “rooftops of the world,” thus linking the world in the last line with the chilly dawn in the first line.
“Heaven’s court” and “ascending incense” suggest an ambiguity not easily interpreted. At first, the poem seems to be about a typical court that doesn’t open until nine a.m. Why, then, is it a shuttered Heaven’s court? And why does breath ascend as incense over rooftops not in the immediate vicinity, but over the world? The ambiguity lends itself to interpretations that may not satisfy but are plausible. Does the hymn in the title, with its force of irony, imply that the assemblage waiting in line is anything but a hymn-like act? Or, does the title presume that the assemblage needs a hymn, because, after all, the court they enter is Heaven’s court? Are they in need of absolution? Or, does nature subsume the religious associations, making them merely a poetic flourish? Whatever the interpretation, nature frames the beginning and end of the poem, and humanity is no longer juxtaposed with nature. Rather, nature now encircles humanity as its breath rises across the world in the chilly dawn.
The ambiguity teases. Still, the poet sustains his voice: Question, but not too skeptically for there is much to love about life. If the skepticism begins to tread in cynical territory, the poet pulls back, balancing the skeptic with wit, charm, and a touch of irony. Just as nature proffers the frame or construct through and in which the poet makes his poetry, so does ambiguity (multiple meanings) infuse the poetry with tiered complexity.
Several poems in Chapbook 2011 illustrate at least one or all three of the characteristics identified above—quasi-skeptical voice, ambiguity, and nature as frame: “The Rising Sun,” “Beside the Burning Ghats,” “summer afternoon,” “What the Boomers Got Wrong,” “Your Power, Rising,” “Not Your Father’s Sanctus,” and “Melrose.” But “Asphalt Encounter” is as good a poem as any to show in depth how Maxwell works all three.
In “Asphalt Encounter,” the first stanza sets the scene in defiance of the title. Expecting a modern cityscape of some sort, the reader encounters words not usually associated with “asphalt”: “Burger-Meister,” “livery,” “seines,” and “lords.” Upon first reading this stanza, one might think of a feudal setting, but then the following lines disrupt that thought: “complete with hands-free headset”” and “at the drive-thru’s gate.” The ambiguity confuses: What is going on in these lines that seemingly contradict each other? The “aha” moment arrives when the reader realizes that the poet’s play on words effects intentional irony. Suppose the “drive-thru’s gate” refers to a fast food chain, like Burger King. Suppose, further, that the girl—“dressed in her all black/Burger-Meister working lady livery”—is emptying “out the night’s catch”—the cash register—that “her lords decree.” Then, standing “open-mouthed,” she is “ready/at the drive-thru’s gate.”
The second stanza furthers the irony of the first, but now nature enters and informs the stanza. A co-worker is metaphorically a “lazy seabird, dressed in white” who circles about the girl, “praying for Munificence,” and if he does not receive that, then perhaps he has “a shot at petty theft.” The poet cleverly plays with the comparison of the man circling the girl, behaving like a seabird snatching his prey, which continues the irony and ambiguity found in the first stanza. However, the girl doesn’t see what the poet sees. She’s too efficient, too down with getting her work done.
In the fourth stanza, the poet now attends to the girl in natural terms, describing her as wading “chest high/In the golden milk of morning,” a metaphor as lovely as any, and surely replete with multiple meanings. He can’t see her clearly at first and then, after he adjusts his eyes, he sees who she isn’t. But, who is she? The answer evokes both surprise and elation.
Cutting away from the preceding four stanzas, the poet in his final stanza unexpectedly introduces a different tone, an intimate tone. The girl “at the drive-thru’s gate” is nowhere to be found in this fifth stanza, as the poet summons
. . . Bianca, lovely
young Latina of the jet-black
tress who played an Oscar-winning role
two nights ago in lonely
No longer the observer, the poet turns the table and brings “Abstract Encounter” to an unexpected end. Cutting away from the girl—the subject of the first four stanzas—to Bianca, the lovely Latina and subject of the fifth stanza, the poet completes the game he has played throughout this poem and many of those mentioned above. The thrill of this poem, especially, is the game of irony and ambiguity and layers of interpretation this figurative language creates.
And nature as frame in “Asphalt Encounter?” What could be more natural than a poet’s ethereal world of dreams?