Christopher Buckley, Star Journal: Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Star Journal is an almost-forty year survey of Christopher Buckley’s poems, divided in three chronological parts: a section of early poems that covers twenty years, followed by two shorter intervals, 1998-2006 and 2007-2014. Though this book includes selections from a dozen of Buckley’s books, the chronological intervals are the only signposts within the book—one has to go to the acknowledgements page to discover the book in which the poems first appeared. One of the pleasures—and there are many—of the book is experiencing the thoughts of an eloquent thinker through the vicissitudes of life, across the decades (refreshing in our youth-obsessed time when twenty-somethings with one book are judging book contests), and the changes—even if they’re slight—in Buckley’s style (more on that in a minute). If the poems in the book constitute a constellation, then the stars within—his recurring themes—are longing (both physical and spiritual), landscape and description, memory, mortality, music, and God—or God’s absence—and the possibility of an afterlife. And if the book is a constellation, then the astronomers who point the way through epigraphs and quotes are a motley crew, and include Larry Levis, Nazim Hikmet, Gerald Stern, Czeslaw Milosz, Yehuda Amichai, and Philip Levine (among many others), the latter’s influence most apparent in poems that are in a loose iambic tetrameter, such as “Dust Light, Leaves.” The “I” who speaks in these poems remains remarkably consistent across the span of the book, a pilgrim who longs for a world he feels he must renounce, an idler who grasps at mindfulness while digressing through image and tangent, who achieves peace, if at all, by being content with not being at peace.
Buckley’s style is characterized by long twisting sentences that leap from observation to insight, the occasion of which often arises with a skywards glance: the sidereal is a wellspring for both thematic currents and for figurative language. In an early poem, “The Presocratic, Surfing, Breathing Cosmology Blues,” a comet tail serves as a metaphor for a notion of youth that is akin to Faulkner’s idea of the past: “our youth last all our lives, trailing us like a comet tail of ice and dust.” The metaphor is then extended once again, and compared to angels, “like knots in a rope of light…still let down to us / from the dark in Caravaggio’s first ‘St Matthew,’ the one sent up / in flames in the bombing of Berlin….” Buckley surprises again and again in this poem, using figurative language to send us into a specific painting, at a specific time—and at the end of the sentence (this is all one sentence), he circles back to the first metaphor, returning to the dust above the city that the painting became. The tie to mortality is there of course, set up in the painting’s burning and the paradox of our youth being gone and yet ongoing, yet because of the associative freight of the metaphor, ideas of theology are present as well. It’s quite a move. And yet the poem is emblematic of how Buckley’s poems tend to move—he sets up a contrapuntal structure and using images, brief digressions and narratives, facts and asides, allusions, and metaphors, pivots us through.
Buckley has a marvelous ear, though a disciplined one, so at his very best, as in “Sycamore Canyon Nocturne,” lines like these that have an amplified soundscape are balanced with plainspoken insights: “red-gold riprap of creek rock, ferns splayed in the blue / shade of oaks, the high yellow sycamores, oat straw catching / sun at my feet. Wind-switch, then the chalk-thick stillness / saying angels, who come down here to dip their wings….” As beautiful as the passage is, the poem’s comparison of birds to angels is not merely a surface effect, for the metaphor points the poem toward Buckley’s death, and the idea of God: “…someday air will be set between my shoulder blades / and arms and all my bones, and, little more than clouds….” God is a mystery, a riddle with the universe as an answer, and a paradox—“I know God, old flame wearing through the damp sponge / of the heart, that candle I cannot put out coming back / each time it seems extinguished.” And what answers Buckley’s questions? Each time, it is the world, and his longing for the world.
I mentioned earlier the evolution of his style. His complicated syntax is still the skeleton of most poems—think of Carl Phillips’ winding, elegant sentences—yet his diction becomes more precise and yet more plainspoken. There are still marvelous turns of phrase that sing, yet the effect of yoking plain speech to elaborate syntactic structures gives the poems a more authentic feel—less like the poem declaring itself a poem—and the insights feel like they’re harder won and better-earned. The tonal register of Buckley’s later poems is more expansive, and his humor is more widespread. He lays claim to a number of Stevensian titles, such as “the prince of small potatoes,” and these self-portraits, which often surface in poems as brief asides, are invariably as funny as they are self-deprecating. Sometimes the humor is structural, sometimes it’s offhand. An example of the latter might be “Photograph of Myself—Monastery of Monte Toro Menorca, elv 1,162 ft” which begins “God almighty, I’m almost halfway glorious in this / gold hounds tooth coat from the local Thrift, // all my sins left behind….” Or “Antiques Road Show,” which begins “On the advice of my urologist, I’m standing, instead of sitting, in front of my workshop…” and turns through a meditation upon the question of value, the forgetful natures of youth and pop culture. Structural humor is a rare phenomenon in poetry, but I mean humor that is baked into the very bones of the poem. “Watchful—Es Castell, Menorca” is one such example: it begins with a description of a harmless village idiot who keeps trying to feed orange peels to pigeons, and it ends with the speaker catching his own reflection as he rearranges a bowl of oranges in his apartment. The humor isn’t overwhelming, or forced, and Buckley, even when he’s being flippant, hushes the titters with brief, aching asides, such as “Poem on a Birthday,” wherein an offhand remark about geography that follows three celebrity obituaries is charged with pathos—“In the park / off Anacapa Street—where / my mother first took me for walks— / I sit at the picnic table….” Time often slips in Buckley’s poems, and these slippages are usually occasions for a detailed memory, or an insight into the nature of longing or the brevity of existence.
I found myself wishing at times that Buckley took more conceptual risks, as the poems got a little repetitive at times, especially concerning the stars—the zodiac felt like an imaginative crutch at times, rather than a wellspring. And while I admired the way music and astronomy opened windows for reflections on cosmology and theology, Buckley’s ruminations on subjects like quantum physics felt a little too easy, like I was reading the Spark Notes version of a summary. Forty years of agnosticism felt honest, if a less than varied spiritual register, though his hope-for-the-best eschatology became threadbare. His digressions, too, sometimes just didn’t pay off, and the allusions and historical jumps were such a whirlwind that it was difficult to follow along. When these digressions were political, such as swipes at oil companies or the Bush/Cheney administration, they felt half-hearted—Buckley singing to the choir—as opposed to poems such as “I’m in Favor of A Nuclear Freeze,” in which Buckley and a friend kill a rabbit for no reason, a poem of a single narrative that offers an argument that is unspoken except for the title (and therefore subtler and more effective), an argument that arises out of the singular narrative of the poem, in the fashion of a poet such as Brigit Pegeen Kelly.
Buckley is a coastal poet who lays claim to the wind and the clouds, who has an ear for music and a heart for the earth, which puts him in company with poets such as Gary Snyder and Robert Hass, if a more patient and allusive poet—the poems, because of their rich emotional landscape, precision of detail, imaginative figurative language, and complexity of structure, reward re-reading. Buckley wrestles a variety of angels in his poetry, and the fineness of his observations, his sense of humor, and his musical verve mean his poems are always moving.
Mark Wagenaar is the 2016 winner of Red Hen Press’s Benjamin Saltman Prize for his forthcoming book Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining. His first two collections of poetry are The Body Distances (A Hundred Blackbirds Rising) and Voodoo Inverso, which won the University of Massachusetts Press’s Juniper Prize and the University of Wisconsin Press’s Pollak Prize, respectively. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from The New Yorker, 32 Poems, Field, Southern Review, Image, and many others. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Valparaiso University.