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Carol Muske-Dukes

Carol Muske-Dukes

Posted: December 21, 2009 10:58 AM

Two Books

What's Your Reaction:

Never-Ending Birds, David Baker

Apocalyptic Swing, Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Never-Ending Birds is David Baker's ninth book of poems and Apocalyptic Swing is Gabrielle Calvocoressi's second. Yet each of these poets, at such different moments in their literary lives, manages to connect personal history to a broader canvas -- American history, literary history, history of sport, natural history -- the understanding of the personal as historical is what animates each of these unforgettable voices.

There is an "us" implicit and explicit in each poet's voice. As personal as the poems get, they are meant to be understood within a dramatic collective vision.

... You
small-town. Italian
ice shop next to brothels

-from Calvocoressi's "A Love Supreme"


When bomb makers
Hit the right
Proportions of
Uranium to a-
Mass, fabricating
the first
nuclear blast,
did they know

-from Baker's "Bright Pitch"


Neither poet claims the authority of history as final judge -- yet a shared authoritative past is an assumption, always. This is, of course, what lifts personal narrative out of the memoir implosion -- and it is what resists sentimentality, though there are close calls -- Calvocoressi:

"You could have seen battlefields:
Gettysburg, Fredericksburg even Chicago
if you waded deep enough into summer...
You could have said, 'Fuck the Beatles'
and left them behind, shooting the lights out
of every stadium, every coliseum."

That passage just escapes self-indulgence -- because the American romance upon which it draws always makes room for the maverick traveler, lone gunman, barbarian yawper and, here, a fighter, a boxer, a drifter, a lover of women. We listen eagerly to this voice because it both participates in and disrupts a familiar tradition.

David Baker's voice is steadier -- he is a reliably illuminating presence in American poetry -- a profound poet who inhabits the natural world and the realm of the arcane with equal ease. This is not a book of ease, however. In Never-Ending Birds, he swerves close to despair -- it is no accident that one of the first poems in the book is "Posthumous Man" which, of course, summons John Keats' famous assessment of his own dying, his leading of a "posthumous existence". The poem, like others in the book, is tightly-controlled, but aching with loss. The tension created by "Behind me, winter wind" is a bittersweet, seasoned reckoning. He draws on many sources -- from Maurice Blanchot to Cabeza de Vaca to the jeremiads of the puritan Michael Wigglesworth -- to re-examine the map of emotional history. The "never-ending birds" are a child's observation that becomes a traditional family "endearment." Though the family itself "ends" -- the birds and the sky go on, never-ending. All histories, even the personal, are taken up, finally, into natural history -- the "digital whorls" of fingers pointing to heaven become the galaxies. If the biding place of intimacy and love is broken -- there is the consolation of the larger shapes that we make as an "us" -- in poetry, in science, in translation and typology -- and David Baker is eloquently at home in the protean shapes.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi is making a "younger" and perhaps more intuitive version of the same argument: that as notions of home are broken, one after the other -- emotional radar re-invents itself. Churches bombed by the Ku Klux Klan, elegies for boxers who died on the ropes are not just historical reasons to shout the blues -- because "Country is country/wherever you go./Though you tried to sing/it different for some/time, you know the truth."

She is a daring act as a poet/athlete ("Sitting in a barn while a man/wraps your hands so you don't break your bones/when you punch him in the face") -- but she can also travel the backwoods, pointing out herons, ivy vines and creek water with a kind of divining rod rightness -- till she slips up and becomes "blood" on a clean blade. Her wild lyrics shudder and shine, jubilant and threatening, exuberant.

Two poets -- singing the same song in different keys, time signatures. What might (historically) occasion despair or self-pity instead elicits inventiveness and a version of wisdom: new maps of poetic consciousness.