V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Two Decades of David Baker's Poetry



Few recent American poets have been so successful in openly 
embracing the Romantic tradition of their native land 
with poems that both pay homage to those poets of the past 
who have influenced the present literature and yet create 
significant new works in their own distinctive voices 
that may influence others who will follow in the future. 

The poet's purpose is to establish, represent, and articulate mystery.  The critic's purpose is to analyze and interpret ÷ and sometimes deepen ÷ such mysteries.  This is their fundamental difference and the locus of their mutually dependent natures.
             ÷ David Baker, "Still-Hildreth Sanatorium, 1936" 

With his latest book of poetry, Changeable Thunder (2001), and his recent collection of critical essays, Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry (2000), David Baker should now be recognized as being among the most promising poet-critics to watch as American literature begins another century.   These two new volumes by Baker exhibit ample evidence of his emergence as an individual who must be seen as one of the potential leading talents in contemporary poetry for decades to come, both as an accomplished practitioner of the craft and as an astute observer of others' works.  However, to those of us who have carefully followed for the last two decades the development of David Baker's lyric voice, as well as his discerning ear and eye as a literary critic and commentator on contemporary poetry, his assumption of this position as an insightful and influential figure who supplies some of our more delightful poetry and lucid prose analysis has always seemed inevitable, merely a matter of awaiting the maturation that comes with time.
     As early as the 1981 publication of  Laws of the Land, Baker's first full-length collection of poetry, his consistent command of imagery, constant use of lyrical language, and continual connection to the landscape have been present in poem after poem.  Indeed, in an introduction to this premiere edition of Baker's poetry, Dave Smith reports: "A musical, sonorous poet, Baker enters imaginatively those landscapes he praises calmly and serenely, as if to ask are they crumbling even between his words?  Yes, they are.  His question, everywhere implicit, is what is a man in his time.  Is there time enough to find the place where he exists, is himself, measured, known?"  As such questions suggest, David Baker's work often exhibits those characteristics usually associated with the rich Romantic tradition in American literature, and through its ongoing focus on the individual's relationship with one's natural surroundings, his poetry represents an extension of the legacy left to us by nineteenth-century forebearers like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Walt Whitman.  Not surprisingly, two decades after the appearance of his first book, Baker declares in his own introduction to Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry: "the heart of the lyric poem is fundamentally Romantic, as much of America's social and political heritage is Romantic."
     Baker's detailed descriptions of the world around him, plus his attention to the consequences of one's actions when traveling along the various paths across its landscape, repeatedly display an interconnection and interdependence, yet also a contrast, between the temporal condition of the self and the continuing presence of the other depicted by one's vivid physical environment.  Smith refers to this aspect in Baker's first works as poetry that "bears forward the emotional history of place and a people."   Like the great American Romantic poets from various eras before him ÷ whether Whitman or Frost or Warren ÷ who serve as some of his influences, David Baker links the abstract notions of a nation's stated ideals to the tangible landscape and ties the experiences in individuals' lives to those responses of one's senses when witnessing that real estate the speaker in each poem inhabits.  As the title of Baker's initial volume of poetry indicates, and a line from one of its pieces, "Homeland," states: "Not one thing here moves without a purpose."
     Few recent American poets have been so successful in openly embracing the Romantic tradition of their native land with poems that both pay homage to those poets of the past who have influenced the present literature and yet create significant new works in their own distinctive voices that may influence others who will follow in the future.  As Baker remarks in "Heresy and the American Ideal," his essay examining the poetry of T.R. Hummer, "To remember and to articulate the past are the first steps toward containing it and addressing the present."  Baker appears to understand how the adopted internal transcendentalist spirit often directing the content and concerns in his poetry, like his perception of the external landscape itself, is shaped by the previous existence of Emerson, Thoreau, and others.  In the title poem of a section in Laws of the Land,  Baker correctly characterizes "History as Place," as he discovers the decaying carcass of a deer while hiking hills "above the old house," and bends toward it: 

          I lean to touch its bitten side.  A piece of hide 
          crumbles off like sod in my hand.  Soon enough 
          it will drop to dust:
                                         this land itself is formed 
          by the shape of its dead.  I too have been walking 
          all day, and have yet to turn back for home.

     In the introduction to Laws of the Land, Smith refers to Baker's approach to poetry, often through his presence as the speaker in his poems: "against this everyman wandering the landscape he clusters details we have all known in our physical senses in order that we may behold, rehearse, and reenter both the hope for and the idea of home."  Indeed, either physically or spiritually in their memories, home is never very far from the speakers in Baker's poems, and in many instances the notion of what constitutes home, and its significance, is defined by the details or designed by the effects of encounters experienced amid the natural landscape.  In "Concurrent Memories: The Afternoon the Last Barge Left," another poem from Laws of the Land, Baker locates home in opposition to experience and uses a sense of place to feed his memory of a time with his father:

          He's down there now, at the barge-landing with friends. 
          He cannot see me lean and look into this water. 
          The sun is coming through low clouds, but I don't 
          want to go home yet.  I want to watch the last 
          barge leave and never come back.  I want to watch him 
          standing in the slow rain.  I want to remember everything.

     Like his poetry, home is frequently the place he returns to only after wandering, gathering observations of the natural world and absorbing experiences, carrying back with him those memories to be stored for future consideration, preserved for presentation in his poems.  From the very first poem, "Skating Pond," a memory of a childhood experience shared with a brother and father, which opens his initial collection, published now more than twenty years ago, Baker clearly established some of the primary themes that, like the repeated lines left on the ice by their skates, would recur in the lines of his work ÷ time, memory, love, loss, nature, innocence and experience, a discovery of patterns in our lives, and the need to mark one's way:

          It was time we had then, more than memory, or love, 
          or any need to mark some snowy pond with the patterns 
          of our skates.  He'd lead us finally to the fire, pink there 
          in the snow, and tell us we could do this every year. 
          We were too young to know the feel of loss.  Yet he must 
          have looked across the pond, those patterns like words, 
          and seen the story of a joy no child, no man could ever repeat.

     Later in the same section of this book, Baker recalls a shared experience with his mother as they walk through woods where they would often hunt mushrooms when he was young.  Once again, as the pattern of his poetry is still emerging, the observed details of nature and the memory of experience blend in a manner that allows the speaker to associate both ÷ to design images and define a relationship now preserved in the words of the poem, perhaps as Wordsworth or Whitman might have done:

                    The wind carried in trees above us 
          the faint brooding of a stream we would never find.

          Today we've simply come to talk.  No bag.  No hunt. 
          Yet to talk we've come back here, spring again, 
          the land the same, us the same.  We are another way 
          the earth remembers itself.  Wild flowers bloom 
          where they bloomed before, water moves slowly 

          beneath our feet: we walk where we have walked.


     Laws of the Land ends with a poem spoken by a female narrator, a woman who mourns the death of her husband, a farmer whose accidental fall to his death and the culpability of the land is replayed in her sleep: "I have dreamed of that // last breath slammed from your chest, your death / by your father's own hard land. . . ."  The closing  stanzas of this poem, like the final lines of the book's opening poem, firmly establish the pattern of themes that will be evident in Baker's poetry over the next two decades, the list of terms included reading almost as a litany ÷ "words," "love," "land," "life," "memory," "past," "story," "lives," and "lost":

                                                       These words 
          are finally not for you, love, any more 
          than is that rain, the hollow sky, 
          or land, or life.  They are for me, at last, 
          a woman and a girl grown younger 
          for a moment with a memory of her past, 

          and for all of us whose only story of our falling, 
          failing lives is you, is those we've lost.

                           ["Her Elegy in Harvest Season"]

     Just as the woman in this poem discovers, Baker knows the words of his poems, as well as the images and memories of experiences he retains in his lines, though often spoken of others and dedicated to them (father, mother, brother, lover, friend, etc.) are finally not really for them, at least not completely, but for the speaker, the poet himself, and also for the reader as an extension of the speaker in the poem, as a way to contain one's past and control one's present, to prepare to face one's future.  As Baker states in his excellent essay recounting the creation of one of his poems, "Still-Hildreth Sanatorium, 1936": "I wrote this poem.  I planned it, thought and thought about it.  I am its author.  But who holds the responsibility for the poem's interpretation and meaning?  The 'I' is the author, but who is the authority?  Not me, I gave that to you."
     The title of Baker's second book of poems, Haunts (1985), implies a continuation of the concerns raised in Laws of the Land.  The deliberate ambiguity of the title permits a number of possible perspectives. Haunts may be a noun suggesting those places, physical or emotional, the poet and his readers return to visit persistently, or it may refer to the spirits of the past that appear frequently in our lives.  It may allude to a prolonged preoccupation with certain themes and issues, thoughts that recur in our consciousness, dwell in our contemplations, remain with us like ghosts throughout our lives.  It could be a verb that characterizes the poet's repeated trips as he haunts familiar locations, family gatherings, and favorite landscapes.  Perhaps the title points to those lingering images of people and places, visions and memories, as vivid or vague as they may be, that accompany us all our lives.  The title also connotes a sense of unease, if not a disturbed or distressed emotional state at times ÷ maybe an acknowledgment of regrets or reluctance, a sad recognition of loss, a condition of anxiety or even fear.  In any interpretation, the title proposes readers regard the ongoing impact relationships and personal or historical events exert on our entire lives or how such experiences are not always eroded by the passage of time, but are just as easily enhanced in importance, sometimes exaggerated to new proportions, by our memories of them.  In a manner T.S. Eliot might have appreciated and approved, the wise title of this book finally indicates a simple indisputable awareness of the ever-present affect of the past on the present or a cognizance of the potential influence of the present on the future. 
     This collection begins with the memory of a childhood experience that offers a portent, foreshadows the future for the characters in it.  In "Poison" a young boy narrates a summer incident when his friend "Sally Milsap fell from the graceful perch" the two shared on a fence rail into a patch of poison ivy, and she is taken home by her angry "mother saying soap, soap, saying dirty girl."  The lines of this poem are filled with phrases containing sexual double entendre, and the extended metaphor of warning given the boy by his father in this story is one that will be repeated in years to come, as "her face seemed swollen with the awful touch / our parents had told us once, / and would tell us so often after that, to avoid / no matter what it took."
     The title of another sensational poem in this book, "The Wrecker Driver Foresees Your Death," readily hints to the foreshadowing of death, using the second-person pronoun "you" to warn its readers as well as the poem's reflective speaker, reminding all of us of our mortality.  The narration takes the reader walking one summer Sunday past a lot where wrecked cars are kept, and supplies imaginitive scenarios that may have happened to the cars and their occupants the night before:

          Looking at the rows of cars wrinkled 
          like wads of paper, 
          windshields webbed with cracks, 
          oil still oozing from the fresh ones 
          hauled in the night before, you still could 
          not believe the pain.  You would try to . . . .

     That the "horror of it" is so vividly and intensely described throughout this poem in such lovely lyrical language ÷ built upon unexpected layers of alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme and richly symbolic detail ÷ appears perverse.  Initially shocking, the poem's darkly elegant lines jar one's sensibility and undeniably trouble its readers, especially as we are told:

          You might see the black well of night 
          crossed with lights flashing 
          in your mind, or imagine yourself pushing 
          a stuck door to help the dying 
          woman crying for you, holding up her damp stub, 

          the smell of singed hair thick 
          as honeysuckle, and far sweeter.

     Just as the poem's title, in its black humor, alludes to a Yeats poem ("An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"), this work also closes with a line containing the playful allusion to another modern poet whose ghostly influence haunts these poems and evokes his poetry ÷ Robert Frost and the final lines of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" ÷ when again an experience of the past remains with us, like "the cut grass, your shoes slick with it," as a haunting memory, and the poem's speaker offers advice, admonition, or an affect on actions to be pursued in the future:

          You would go on like that 
          swearing to be more careful in your life÷
          swearing never to drive again, 
          or never to be so close to people they might die 
          weeping in your arms, or you in theirs, 

          each of these a promise you could never keep.

     The final pair of poems in Haunts reinforce Baker's desire to treasure memories of personal history, saving them within his lines of lyrical language and rich imagery, especially of people and places that would otherwise be lost in the past.  In the penultimate poem of the collection, "The Anniversary of Silence," Baker's speaker planting spring bulbs in his garden marks the tenth-year anniversary of the death of a childhood friend who dove into "the green heart of water" in a quarry lake amid an unseen "ball of cottonmouths":

          She had found their black secret, so they must have been 
          on her, mouths blossoming like white flowers, 
          her mouth open as if to call or sing, yet oddly silent, 
          perhaps already choked with water.

     This poem, which had begun with a casual nod to Whitman ("Every night for weeks, from the lilac's deep heart, / a catbird has softly sung through my sleep"), closes with Baker's still developing, yet distinctive voice as he unites separate allusions to flowers or song and revisits themes of loss and preservation, time and timelessness, developed throughout the book.  The ambiguous opening line of the final stanza reads, "Every night it has sung softly through my sleep."  In this way Baker fuses the two incidents, the catbird singing and the voiceless girl who had "her mouth open as if to call or sing."
     As Laurence Lieberman explains the character of these poems, "spirits of the dead consort, easefully, with the living breathing man: lives inexplicably cut off in mid-stride twenty years ago (or two hundred years ago!) are magically resumed in the breath and being of the haunted personae.  Reincarnation, from moment to moment, in calm natural settings, erupts as spontaneously as a flower breaking into blossom."  The poem's speaker expresses his wishes to recapture time gone by and give back life to people and places in his past in ways that suggest only the preservation provided by art, particularly poetry, can achieve: 

          I do not know whether the bird has flown away or what 
          has happened.  It is too dark to see anything 
          from the window, except the late wind wasting away 
          in the nearest leaves and a few stars high, faint. 
          How strange to feel such loss at this small 
          absence.  I wish I could reach out and touch her 
          hand where she floats, and pull her from the darkness. 
          I wish I heard her singing softly, safe now, saved.

     "Call across the Years" is the final title in Haunts.  It is written in four numbered sections, and it serves as a perfect complement to the preceding poem, as well as a number of others that in their looking back do, indeed, present a call across the years.  This poem recalls the wind and rain in the middle of a summer night when the speaker was still a boy and his mother swept him and his brother through their storm-damaged house to the cellar.  Section three concludes: 

          We checked the seals of years of jars, shelves of food 
          lined in the sour dark, counted them, dusted them 
          with our breath, anything to ignore the roar
          and crash of the world above us.  Later, too tired 
          to work, we sang.  Huddled in the cellar,
          we sang together until the sun was high.

     There is a similarity of images, yet a vast contrast exists between the speaker's family sitting in the safety of the cellar singing through "the rain-driven night louder than a scream," waiting out the danger of the storm, and the visage of the doomed girl in the previous poem who is portrayed with "her mouth open as if to call or sing, yet oddly silent, / perhaps already choked with water."
     The last section of "Call across the Years" returns the reader to the present: "Tonight the rain is falling gently in the dark, as if / through the wind and dim of my past."  Appropriately, this closing section of the final poem in Haunts also serves as a metaphor for the poet's process of blending the past and present, mixing memory with desire, to borrow Eliot's phrase.  Here, Baker's lines supply subtle symbolic links to those haunts, the people and places of his personal history, in a manner that parallels associations found in much of the work Baker includes in the rest of this book, especially when the speaker asks, "Whose voice do I hear, after all these years, calling // through the roar of my memory?"
     Once again, as in "Her Elegy in Harvest Season," the last poem in Laws of the Land, the poet's words, though often spoken of others, are finally not really for them alone, but just as much for the speaker, the poet himself, as a way to contain the past and control the present, to prepare to face the future with greater hope.  Also, just as "The Anniversary of Silence" ended with a stanza expressing desires ÷ especially to reincarnate those seemingly simple and safe times of the past, as well as the lost ones (including the innocent self) who shared those treasured and now stilled moments, with the purpose of overcoming, even overturning, the various losses that the passage of time inevitably claims ÷ shaped by sentences beginning with the words "I wish," this poem closes with a series of sentences beginning with the words "I want":

                                                           I want to find 
          that child and soothe him.  I want to get up and go out 
          beneath the trees, and walk until the morning. 
          I want to come back to this house, open the door, 
          and find us all here singing in the spreading sun.

     If David Baker's first two books resembled one straight, unwavering river of images and narratives fully flowing into another, both often designed to recapture the past or otherwise undo the effects of time, creating a continuum of thematically and stylistically similar poems, his next collection would add a few new branch tributaries that chart some innovative and adventurous directions.  Perhaps signaling Baker's own recognition of growing confidence in his writing, he seeks to be even more ambitious in the poetry of his third book, Sweet Home, Saturday Night.  This collection contains a number of longer and structurally more complex poems or poetry sequences ÷ perhaps revealing the influence of Robert Penn Warren as they sometimes resemble the extended forms he had employed ÷ that permit him the expansion required for an increased range of subject matter or enable him to give greater depth to the experiences narrated as he places layer on top of layer. 
     The title poem of this collection is centrally located in the book, occupies its own section, and extends for more than twenty pages.  With his allusion to "Sweet Home, Alabama," the classic rock song by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Baker brings his knowledge, skills, and experiences as an accomplished country/rock and jazz guitarist into the elaborate construction of the poem.  One could claim Baker's acute musical sense contributes to the masterful lyricism and accurate rhythms of the persuasive narrative voices present throughout his work. 
     Indeed, the poem itself is designed in sections ("Intro," "First Verse," "Second Verse," "Chorus and Solo," etc.) titled to closely imitate, apparently even to follow in parallel fashion, the actual structure of the rock song.  With its jagged indenting, fragmentation, experimental uses of typography, varying voices, parcels of prose or prose-poetry sections, interwoven and interlocking narratives, overlapping scenes, portions of parenthetical text, alternating lines of content and commentary (mimicking harmony), and other innovations, "Sweet Home, Saturday Night" remains Baker's most atypical and ambitious work in terms of style.  Nevertheless, at its core remain many of the same themes and concerns found elsewhere in Baker's poetry. 
     In part four ("Chorus and Solo") of "Sweet Home, Saturday Night," the poet hints at how to read the various characters and voices in the poem:

          I am, and am not, that guitar player, and these are and are not 
          my friends and partners and paying customers. 
          I am sitting here watching myself 

          finger my Gretsch's frets and stare at a blonde babe 
          (please try to remember these times) 
          who's staring back mouthing Baby baby baby! 
          This is/was my band.  I can't help what's about to happen. 
          Lord I'm coming home to you . . . .

     The sections of the poem that represent the solos are written in prose and appear to be the most personal and revelatory pieces in the poem.  In the "solo" for part four, as in so many other poems, the speaker calls across the years to times past, particularly to his childhood.  He remembers his introduction to playing guitar: "I'm nine and this lesson is only halfway over.  7:15.  My fingers have been bleeding all week."  He also recalls visiting his grandmother at her work "at the J.C. Penney fabric counter."  His memory is vivid and sensory as the images overlap or evoke others elsewhere in the poem:

          I love to watch her.  I love to run my hands along the bright materials 
          and shake the thimble drawer like her register full of money.  I love 
          to stack high the wooden spools of thread, and when I give her my 
          sore hands, she says Sore hands make a strong heart,and shows 
          me again her pin-swollen fingers and her calluses gray as nickels. 
          See, baby?

     In the next section ("Third Verse") Baker's speaker cleverly offers an explanation for the unusually free-flowing, seemingly stream of consciousness writing in "Sweet Home, Saturday Night."  He presents self-criticism, not only of his guitar playing, but apparently proffering commentary on the meaning the musical metaphor offers to poetry composition, and he casts a critical and confrontational eye toward the poet's own typically Romantic technique: 

                                                  Cut loose
          from the pattern of back-up, 
               given any freedom to play any notes, I seem drawn 

          to the ready conventions, 
                out of fear, to establish 
          some authority: my solo was all hype, stolen 

               licks, cheap fingerings÷childhood, 
          grandmother, nostalgia, you know÷
               all the usual moves 

          strung together in a dried-up stream 
                of self-consciousness, all 
          the usual moves, out of fear of sounding foolish.

     In his essay, "Heresy and the American Ideal," Baker concludes that "the Romantic text maintains within itself, through the laws of its governing body, not only the means but the imperative for its own confrontation."  "Sweet Home, Saturday Night" is a poem full of self-confrontation, not only as one poetic style is placed face-to-face with another, but also when the different personae of the self, real and unreal, come face-to-face with one another. 
     Later in a second "solo," this poet so enamored with images of the natural world in almost all of his works hears his speaker's questioning of a favorite approach to writing poetry with a confession about a possible inadequacy of nature writing, even while he cannot resist an exquisite image of nature and an observation on an indefinite sense of time: "Nature's not narrative at all, I hear my voice say, a faraway ringing in my ears.  On a flat stretch of gravel and sand, humped in the bare moonlight, a small pile of mussel shells, pried open, picked apart, cleaned out, dried.  They might have been here for a hundred years or an afternoon."  (In "Murder," a poem from his next collection, After the Reunion, the poet will report a similar confrontation ÷ "My friend, who loves poetry truly, says too much / nature taints my work" ÷ and the poet, sounding very much like Robert Frost, will wisely respond, "a poem about nature contains anything but.")
     Further in this "solo," the author's voice is injected: "The truth is, chimes the poet, there is no story, there is only the wanting to tell.  And so that's true enough."  Readers might easily find the following reflective of the poet's approach to his own craft, one in which the key elements are a sense of time ÷ real or fictional, past or present ÷ and an attention to timing, the rhythm or other lyrical devices imposed upon the telling of the stories within his poems.  The speaker in the poem reveals:

          . . . to tell a story requires two wholly unnatural impositions: time 
          (a fiction) and timing (a fictional device).  It is 1977 and it is 1988 
          and so time passes.  It is even 1999, if I say so, and so I do.  Say it 
          or not.  But the tension between the times÷the possible erosions 
          of actions and peoples, memories, eons, mistakes, the changing 
          dramatic settings÷gives us our story.  And to make a story good, 
          like every stand-up joker knows, requires a right sense of timing. 

     The various voices in the poem permit the poet an opportunity to present conflict and confrontations, to question, or to masquerade as alternative identities for the self.  The characters in this narrative are all fictional and all real, in one sense or another at times, as had occurred in Haunts, sometimes merely seen as "ghosts" or "notes," suggesting both musical notes and the notes of a narrative poem: when "the strobe light kicks on, igniting / the room, exploding / again and again, it's like we're all characters / in a slapstick newsreel, ghosts / against a wall, / notes on a burning page." 
     In the final "chorus" of the poem, one persona of the poet observes another:

          The truth: it's far too late 
          for anything else and we all know it. 
          The real lovers are long gone to their private 
          rooms and truck-beds. Oooo Oooo Oooo
          and I am looking past the pain, past the lights,

          past the writhing dancers, through the wreaking 
          contagion of the liquored-up air, 
          at the man far in the back who's been sitting alone 
          all night.  I grip a chord change.  He's trying to levitate 
          out of his chair.

     The speaker in the poem continues to play his music, especially focusing on the sense of time and timing, "for your lyrical pleasure," as well as "for the dancers, / and for the storyless (do you believe that?) man wobbling now shell- / shocked past his table and stumbling toward the opening . . . ."  Seemingly, like those figures who haunt this poet throughout his work and for whom he is inspired or encouraged to write many of his poems, the dancers are "pleading Don't / Stop  Turn it up!  The crowd urges the band to play on ÷ "They are facing us, grinning like the dead, / One more  they are chanting  TIME  Turn it up" ÷ and so they do.
     "Cardinals in Spring," another magnificent and intricately organized poem designed to imitate an experienced event appears near the end of Sweet Home, Saturday Night.  In this poem written in nine sections to parallel the nine innings of a baseball game, Baker nicely unites time, memory, loss, nature, and baseball in a clever and witty homage to American Romanticism, as this poem carries the epigraph "after Whitman" and contains subtle jabs at contemporary deconstructionist criticism.
     The action in the poem takes place in 1968, and the scene is St. Louis's Busch Stadium.  Raised in Jefferson City, Missouri, and an avid baseball fan, Baker's childhood memories of each spring are marked by the seasonal return of the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans at the beginning of another pennant drive: "Tens of thousands on the wing, perennial in April . . . ."  The names of the great Cardinal players who appeared every day in the lineups of the late sixties are intoned with alliteration and sound like song lyrics in this poem: "Brock of the basepath," "Javier of the hopping grounder," "Flood in the field," "McCarver-in-a-crouch," and "Gibby / whipping his warm-ups in from the natural dirt of the mound."  Likewise, the names of family members accompanying the speaker are remembered as if they, too, were part of the scorecard, figures filling the program in this memory and listed almost like a litany written with reverence: "Mom with her bag of fried chicken, Dad with his cooler, / Dad with his scorecard and program, my brother next to him, / Uncle Buster crowding down who yesterday flipped / a knuckler behind his back . . . ."
     Baker's self-consciously narrative voice acknowledges to his readers the parallel to an appreciation for the cyclical pattern of nature and for the ritual that is represented by any observance of the return to spring:

          I don't deny this whole thing 
          is designed to celebrate our most common desires: 
          it's spring, we want to win, things grow, we feel 
          inside ourselves the power of something so immense and primitive 
          it spreads out unchecked, ritual.  Redbirds! we sing . . . .

      As in the alternating lines of "Sweet Home, Saturday Night," the "harmony" between the conflicting voices of the narrator within the moment and the self-conscious literary critic ("We should not confuse poetry with rhetoric / During the last break the bouncer had to bust / the art of persuasion.  A poem may well use / up a bad fight between two bikers. .  . ."), Baker occasionally shifts between the voice of the young baseball fan ("he's giving it to me, and I hold it, a baseball / signed by the entire team!  I know it :  This is mine / to love!") and that of the sophisticated literary critic alluding to Emerson and others ("I think it is // an antique opaque eyeball, a foggy crystal ball / through which even cliché transcends itself and so signifies / our inarticulate, collective excitement . . .")  This juxtaposition of times and personae of the poet present a couple of questions similar to those that could just as likely be raised in relation to most of Baker's poems involving time and memory: 

          But how can I know that?  How can I say all that?
          How can I be 13 and 33 at once, cursed and blessed, crying 
          with all the fever and joy of the stupid 
          who know the truth and can't speak it, yet speaking . . . .

     Keeping to form, section seven, like the seventh-inning stretch, stands out in its italicized lines: "When we stand, as we must, when the silence / and fragrant calm settle over us all, as surely they must, / and the caps come off and our hands flutter up / to our felt hearts, when we begin to sing / in a voice so singular it redoubles . . . ." The lyricism of this fragment is appropriately musical, and the metaphorical connection drawn between nature and nation, in a way that may have pleased Whitman, reaches its peak in the final lines of the section: "and over the land of the free, over the vendors and hawkers, / over athletes and umps, the fireworks blossom / into smoke-puffs and thunder like the storms of creation." 
     By the time the ninth-inning section arrives, although in the poem the first pitch is only now about to be thrown, the thousands of fans have been transformed the way spring brings transition to nature, and the poet looking back with this call across the years once again acknowledges the power of memory: ". . . tens of thousands of us with our souvenirs / and our statistics committed to memory where all things / change for the better, we are the bodies of one desire."  In fact, as the poem closes, the ambiguity of phrases in the final lines ÷ "for us all," "see it still," and "never more perfect than now" ÷ suggests further the perfection achieved through preservation in memory or art: 

          the ball leaves his whipped arm, and hangs there, for us all, 
          for this moment, this beginning, where we see it still, 
          all of us, O! never more perfect than now.

     Recent American writers, especially male poets, have often turned to baseball as a rich metaphor of ritual, particularly for nature's renewal and the nation's unity, and Baker himself does it elsewhere in his works, but it is difficult to think of a better baseball poem ÷ one is even tempted to remove "baseball" as a qualifying word ÷ that is as fitting a contemporary tribute to the spirit of Whitman and unites so many various elements in the transcendental attitude of the American Romantics. 
     Considering the expansive and adventurous approaches taken by Baker in the numerous narrative works of Sweet Home, Saturday Night, many readers may have been surprised, some perhaps even disappointed, with the appearance of his follow-up volume of poems, After the Reunion, which moves back toward the shorter lyric form.  Indeed, 28 of the 34 poems in this collection are less than 25 lines long. 
     On the other hand, a number of readers might rightfully claim Baker had returned to his strength, lyric poems of memory blending then and now, connecting people, moments, and events of the past with the life he leads, maybe the lives we all lead, today.  These are poems in which "his deceptively quiet gentle rhythms lull a reader into a trance, such that poised climaxes catch us by surprise with their amazing flashes of myth and history sweeping into the present," as Laurence Lieberman described the poetry in Haunts.  David St. John regards the "mature and delicate poems" in After the Reunion as "the songs that accompany the poet's journey through elegiac landscapes," and Edward Hirsch characterizes these poems "fueled by a deep human desire to rescue the transient moment and memorialize feeling" as works "letting lyric poetry stand as a permanent witness to our passing."
     With rare exception, the poems in After the Reunion might be categorized as among those spoken in a quieter voice and with more subtle shifts in tone, even when confronting deeply emotional or momentous situations, perhaps poems able to share the title one of them bears, "The Plain Style," in which Baker writes of a wildfire consuming the narrator's home: "Sometimes disaster speaks most convincingly / in a lowered voice."  However, one should not misunderstand and conclude the language in these poems suffers from tedium or could be considered bland.  To the contrary, the compact poems in this collection are often more powerful because of their brevity, more persuasive because of their lyric intensity.  Rather than seeking the wider scope of the narrative, with the deliberate development of many pages as one might find in the accumulated frames of a film projected on a wide screen, Baker attempts to reach the reader with a fully-formed image as any artist might try in a framed painting on a museum wall. 
     A remarkable elegiac poem titled "Mercy" begins with an image that resembles an oil on canvas by earthy Romantic Ohioan Charles Burchfield, a painter favored by Baker and whose artwork would later grace Changeable Weather: "Small flames afloat in a blue duskfall, beneath trees / anonymous and hooded . . . ."  The speaker reports, "we go down to the water's level edge / with our candles cupped and melted onto little pie-tins / to set our newest loss free."  Yet, even the act or remembrance, like this poem, also preserves the lives of those lamented for all attending the gathering and for those of us reading the work.  As in viewing a striking image in a painting, we are imprinted with the force of the following lyrical lines:

          Everyone is wholly quiet in the river's hush and appropriate dark. 
          The tenuous fires slip from our palms and seem to settle 
          in the stilling water, but then float, ever so slowly, 
          in a loose string like a necklace's pearls spilled, 
          down the river as wide as a dusty road.

     In the center of the title poem of this collection Baker offers a wise observation that could apply to most of the work between the book's covers: "There is nothing / that does not connect and so sustain."  How suitable such a statement appears in a poem that seems to celebrate the strength of patience, the attachment to one another in a family's past ("Who looks like who in the crisp old albums"), yet which also hints at difficulties in the reunion hosts' own relationship: "We couldn't tell them, not the host of relatives / happy to be on each other's hands again . . . ."  In fact, it appears as if the host couple is in need of reunion, and the effort would require much more than a single day.  Apparently inspired by the example of the older folks at the reunion ("Who knows what sadnesses they have endured?"), the speaker decides, "Now I want to keep loving each other, too."  He concludes, "The strength it takes is their patience."  However, the poem closes with a sense of uncertainty, as well as a suggestion of regret and resignation, perhaps even melancholy.  Despite the speaker's new resolve, there is only an ambiguous declaration and an image that seems to imply hopelessness and impending loss:

          Let's open the door and let the bluejays and sparrows 

          attend our repair.  Let's take the whole day.
          Let's keep forever the napkin our last waving aunt 

          pressed her kiss into÷delicate red, already 
          powdered, doomed as a rose.

     Oddly enough, "Holding Katherine," the poem which folows "After the Reunion," serves as a welcome contrast with its marvelously buoyant and jubilant mood delivered in a richly heightened lyricism.  Baker holds his newborn daughter Katherine in his arms beside her window and shows her the magnificence of the world that awaits her, the beauty of the nature he loves.  "The Mimosa," a later poem which appears in The Truth about Small Towns and seems to display the influence of Charles Wright, a fellow contemporary American Romantic poet from the preceding generation, reiterates his feelings for nature and learning about the world:

          This is how we learned to love
                                                             the branching and leaf-work,
          the shapely persistence,
                                                  in the delicate fires of mimosa.
          That is how I came to stand beside windows in darkness . . . .

     Surely, as an expression of his love for his daughter, he wants to share this love of the natural world with her as well.  Indeed, her presence in his life represents the fulfillment of a dream: 

          Once in a dream you swam in a blue dress dazzled with sun 
          through a garden of flowers toward me.  I wrote your name 
          in my tablet when I woke, knowing it like the trace 
          of a habit handed back from the blood, knowing your face 
          like my own and your arms as I held you for the first time.

     Ever since Adam, the need for humans to name, to distinguish and give separate identities has been established.  As if to confirm her importance to him, Baker has already written her name in his tablet, and as a poet he can offer no greater tribute than honoring her in the lush lyrics of his poem.  He tells his daughter: "Soon we will sit back to rock a little longer through / the hungry night always within us.  I will sing you your name."  This lovely poem is written in four stanzas, each with a last line that alludes to "time"; however, Baker's references to time are no longer to look back and with hope of preserving what has passed.  Instead, the optimistic poet holding his daughter here holds forth the magnificence of nature ÷ "the tentative call of night birds spinning their place through the tremulous dark," symbols of the world he treasures and that has always mattered so much, or "the spinning stars," images "from a lifetime to come," but now compared to this new life he holds, obviously lesser lights in his life. 
     In "Murder," a powerful poem about love, loss, and language, Baker again addresses the need to express oneself with words of consternation and consolation, to examine our past experiences and understand our emotional condition, (". . . it's all I recall, or now need").  For him, this occurs in the form of poetry.  As he has done throughout the years, Baker writes with quiet eloquence in this poem of anguish, grieving, and recovery, reviewing his memories as a way of explaining his present state of mind.  When confronted by such sad or painful circumstances as all humans face, as in many of his poems, one response is to use language that elicits answers for our emotional traumas.  Baker determines: "Language must suffice. / First, it doesn't.  Then, of course, / it does."  In this manner, the speaker hopes to recover what he can "before it is too late, / before they have killed me, / before they have killed you, too," before he also becomes another one of those only remembered through words of reminiscence, perhaps even in poems, as part of the past:

          or before we have all become something else entirely, 

          which is to say 
          before we are 
          only language.

     After the Reunion closes with a poem titled "Contract" that is directed by its epigraph, a quote by the noted physicist Stephen Hawking: "People in the contracting phase [of the universe] . . . would remember events in the future."  Throughout this poem, the reader is reminded of the ambiguity of its title, the double meaning that allows us to interpret it as relating to the contraction mentioned in the Hawking quote, but also to view the title as indicating the contract we are offered as humans in this life and the terms of living we all accept (". . . let's promise our children the world") or the pacts we make to one another, as in a marriage ("Won't our lives be joyful together and often sad?").  The speaker is amazed by the world Hawking describes in his quote, one in which the events of the future would already be known and imbedded in our memories.   For a poet whose works are constantly looking back in time to what has happened in the past to understand or cope with the mysteries of the present or future, this must seem revolutionary indeed:

          Won't the thousands more evident days and nights 
          burn with a future to lend us, like prophets 
          peeling backward, a vision so true we complete it 
          by walking into each moment already resolved?

     However, in his final stanza, the speaker proposes that he and his spouse perceive their lives in a similar fashion due to their contract with one another: "Let's ease our lives with the certitude of lovers whose futures are fact . . . ."  One of the terms of this contract is to "promise our children the world."  Once more, the poet regards the past as something that may be relegated to memory as a source for art when he recommends the lovers' "pasts tighten deep into the dim, thrilling regions of art."  The poem ÷ which begins with a statement, "It's the singular grace of gravity holding things up" ÷ and the book conclude with a declaration praising the world of the present, that world which had been held forth for the daughter in "Holding Katherine," with all the ambiguity of interpretation "present" lends to the line: "It's the singular gift of the present binding us now."
     With its dedication to "Katherine Gerard Baker," The Truth about Small Towns, David Baker's next collection of poems, seems a natural extension of the tone established in the poetry of After the Reunion.  Wonderful poems of love for spouse and daughter bridge the two collections.  In fact, in 1996 some poems from each of these two books were collected in a chapbook, Holding Katherine, which alternates works written by Baker and his wife, poet Ann Townsend, about the birth and early life of their daughter.  Also, like its predecessor, The Truth about Small Towns contains shorter lyric poems almost exclusively.  The title of this new book, too, calls to mind the epigraph to "Sweet Home, Saturday Night": "Does your conscience bother you?  Tell the truth." 
     In this book the themes remain the same as well.  "Top of the Stove" offers a description of a childhood memory that is relived, and the family members returned to life, each time it is recalled in the present and then written into this poem, in the language he has learned a second time, now as a poet, to use "to say so."  Just as Baker had mentioned in After the Reunion that "language must suffice," here again he emphasizes how for him language is sometimes all he has left:

          Our faces pinked over to watch coal 
          chunks churn and fizz.  This was before 
          I had language to say so, the flatiron 
          hot all day by the kettle, fragrance 

          of coffee and coal smoke over 
          the kitchen in a mist.  What did I know?
          Now they've gone.  Language remains.

     On the back cover of this collection, Eavan Boland observes that Baker's lyrical poems contained within attempt "to measure the distance between memory and reality, between the living and the dead."  For years now, Baker's use of language  appears to have been able to limit the separation between the past and the present, the lost and the living.  Boland concludes Baker's "real achievement is that we are invited to stand on the boundary between the lived world and the lost one and, as we read on, it is hard to distinguish between them."
     Such a difficulty to distinguish between the past and the present, the living and the dead, appears at the crux of "Still-Hildreth Sanatorium, 1936," a riveting poem that maintains its intensity and mystery throughout.  This poem is the subject of the most personal and most moving essay in Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry, where Baker discusses the circumstances surrounding the poem's inspiration and inception, as well as the goals in his approach to writing it: "In my poem I have wanted, variously, to fuse and diffuse the elements of story, location, emotion, and thought.  The details of any one part become the details of any other."  Ironically, considering the title of the book in which this poem is published, Baker confesses: "Some of it is true to the facts of my life, and some is imagined.  I hope you can't tell which is which.  I want this to be a real experience rather than a true account."  In this statement the reader may be forewarned that The Truth about Small Towns is not an attempt at a documentary gathering of facts, but the seeking of a more substantial truth that full or partly fictional poetry and prose often provide.
     "Still-Hildreth Sanatorium, 1936" is a compelling poem with two narratives told in separate voices, that of the poet and that of his now-deceased grandmother whose figure visits his bedside during a prolonged illness.  The poet has been suffering multiple serious symptoms of a disease we learn, from the piece in Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry, after months of negative tests is eventually diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition extensively explained in the essay, that keeps him incapacitated, unable really to even read or write for more than a year.  In the poem he describes his state:

          And this was my illness, constant, insomnalent, 
          a burning of nerve hairs just under the eyelids, 
          corneal, limbic, under the skin, arterial, 

          osteal, scrotal, until each node of the four hundred 
          was a pinpoint of lymphatic fire and anguish 
          as she rocked beside me in the family dark.

     He would sometimes wake late, "shaking, exhausted, soaked cold // in soiled bedclothes or draft."  During those moments in the middle of the night, he "would waken and find her there, waiting."  She would help him "get through the bad nights."  In his essay, Baker explains: "One night I woke up, in pitch dark, and spoke a long and lovely while with my grandmother, who sat beside me in my high fever.  It was a late spring night.  I was very happy.  To this day I swear it was her."
     His grandmother tells how she had once worked among the infirm and insane at a state sanatorium:

          The first time I saw them strapped in those beds 
          caked with sores, some of them crying 
          or coughing up coal, some held in place 

          with cast-iron weights . . . .

     The poet is advised by his mother, who had cared for the grandmother in her dying days, that she did not even recognize her own daughter during a "weeks-long marathon of great pain, dementia, the body's relinquishment of all its habits," as Baker details in his essay.  In this remarkable poem, Baker repeats themes his readers have seen many times before when he deftly brings together three generations of family, the living and the dead, the past and the present.  Memories become sources for current experiences as the grandmother's narrative joins with the poet's. There are parallels of illness and delusion reported by the grandmother from her encounters with the mentally unbalanced at the sanatorium, by the mother who witnessed the grandmother's slide from reality, and by the poet whose fevered hallucinations surprisingly may have served to comfort him when he most needed it.  He asks: "What more can we know in our madness than this? / Someone slipped through my door to be there / ÷ though I knew she was a decade gone ÷ // whispering stories and cooling my forehead . . . ."
     In his essay, Baker offers this as part of his summary of the poem:

          If I can tell you anything useful, and critical, and explanatory about 
          the poem, I can tell you that it takes place in several locations and in 
          a single place, at several times but in just one instant, that it is about 
          memory as well as the imagined.  It is about strength and sheer 
          helplessness, the support of others but the isolation, the absolute 
          loneliness, of us all.

          It is a love poem.

     "Still-Hildreth Sanatorium, 1936" is just the second poem in The Truth about Small Towns, and another incredible work much later in the book, "Treatise on Touch," is a poignant poem that could easily serve as its companion piece.  In this poem the poet-speaker ÷ who in his essay on "Still-Hildreth Sanatorium, 1936" credits his wife as heroic ("doing virtually everything to keep me alive, protected, safe, as comfortable as possible") ÷ finds himself in the position of caring for her as she too is struck by a long, painful, and undiagnosed illness: 

          They don't really know what is wrong.  The weeks 
          have brought only pain, how the slightest touch 

          burns from the fingertips upward, wrists, fore- 
          arms, elbows, until even the muscle 
          mass, the tissue, atrophies.  She cannot 
          hold a spoon or brush our child's hair to sleep.

          She cannot hold her body still to sleep.

     This wonderfully constructed poem twines itself around its core composed of a systematic exposition on the sense of touch and the principle of faith ("Whom to believe?  This is our central task.").  Throughout the poem the reader is asked to consider the ways we may trust in others, as the poet must choose to trust in his love, in the doctors, in life, in death, in God, in the human condition that allows such pain, or even in himself.  When the speaker's love is examined by doctors with differing opinions on the causes or forms of care to follow, the couple are confronted by the question again, "Whom to believe?"  For the doctors "it is a matter of training, of touch," "the nurse holds her hand steady to clear / the path the medicine takes through the tube," the woman bleeds "as if pregnant by a lover's touch"; however, for the patient the needles, just the slightest touch, bring pain. 
     Outside, the grounds are described as "green, medieval yards" with pathways lined by witnesses ÷ "gargoyles in stoneworks, stations of the cross, // the melancholy watchers of the faith, and the Sisters of Divine Providence / laid to rest in the nunnery graveyard," this place of the dead "the parochial children dread."  This is where the children "learn to love or fear their / own lives better, blessing the mouth of the dead."  The love, herself, apparently had been a student there two decades earlier, and the speaker, possibly viewing all through his own fear, pain, and anger, observes her reactions: "I feel the remnant fear / in the way she holds herself, and anger, / the way the woman I love is a child / again watched by the watchers from above."  The grounds, the landscape, present a meaningful metaphor for the poet:

          . . .  Whom to believe?  To the touch the grounds 

          are fertile, fruitful with pain, the needling 
          undergrowth, dense pollen brushed at the nose,
          the figure of the martyr hung and pierced,
          a hand struck in punishment from pure air . . . .

     The speaker's struggle to discover what or whom to believe is resolved in a litany that suggests his faith in those principles reflecting the poet's Romantic notions of the natural and the spiritual: love, innocence, nature, human life evidenced by pain, and of course, for this lover of lyrical language, song:

                                . . . I believe my love, who 
          lies as still as stone below her good nurse. 
          I believe the children walking the path, 
          watching the bees, and the bells which call them 

          to music or mass, immaculate song,
          I believe this pain, which makes us all sing . . . .

     Just as he has since his first book, Baker continues to attach history to place, especially home, and a number of poems in The Truth about Small Towns concern the return, physically or emotionally, to home, to family, to the familiar and secure, to where one began his journey, although at times the separation seems too long: "Who would guess it takes this long to come home?" ["Dust to Dust"].  Indeed, one of the most intricate and most interesting poems in this collection is a short lyrical work, a different sort of sonnet simply titled "Home." 
     In this poem whose vocabulary, actions, and atmosphere one might link to Robert Frost, though with greater tenderness and optimism than may be expected from the old master, a father takes his daughter for their daily morning walk in the woods, where they find deer prints in the sand along a creek ("Their hooves / have left some telltale moons and hearts").  The poet, who appreciates the significance of naming and who had written his daughter's name on his tablet in "Holding Katherine," now tells his daughter the sounds of creatures nearby warn and "call our human name."  Likewise, at that moment their names also are being called out by the mother seeking her husband and daughter, "not knowing we'd be gone."  The speaker comments that the calls "sing us back / because they fear our straying out too far, / farther than the deep woods reach."  But the mother's "sweet voice" rises "above the others come back in."  In the closing line the father confides in the daughter something he seems to share with readers often in his poems.  Despite all the travels and events this poet experiences, like Frost he realizes that after getting away for awhile, it is always better, as Frost notes, "to come back" because even in good times and bad times "it would be good both going and coming back."  Therefore, the speaker's final comment about the calls that sing them back is consistent with the thoughts he's shared with readers elsewhere in his poetry through the lyrics that time after time repeatedly sing and lead his readers back: "In time we'll let it lead us home again."  In fact, "The Second Person," the last poem in The Truth about Small Towns, ends the book with the following lines:

          . . . We must go back 
          where the world is still washed in the worries 
          of sorrow and self.  I want to keep shining 
          these words for him, who carried me so far÷ 
          water like a light in the vanishing 
          night.  And for you who have carried me back.

     Although a deceptively simple and brief poem, "Home" is actually more complex than first meets the eye, its lines carefully and craftily designed so that the last word of each line contains a rhyme, half rhyme, near rhyme, or alliterative sound to allow an echoing in the first word of its following line: walk/look, dear/deer. hooves/have, in/innocent, creek/creatures, near/hear, mother/her, air/where, back/because, far/farther, we/went, hear/her, in/in.  Additionally, the first and final words of the entire poem are the same, again, lending a sense of repetition and ritual to the walks and a cyclical pattern resembling that of life and nature's seasonal order.  Considering the many similar experiences shared with his parents and related in this poet's works, one might readily relate this to the father's generational repeating or reliving with his daughter the kind of shared experiences readers have seen he'd enjoyed with his own mother or father and preserved in his poetry as well.
     David Baker, predominantly a poet of free verse or syllabic verse ÷ although thoroughly infused with the subtleties of internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and discernible rhythms designed to heighten the lyricism of his poetry ÷ has also always been a poet with great respect for form and a critic continually curious about poets' choices and uses of rhyme, meter, and specific traditional or innovative forms of poetry.  This ongoing concern led him in 1996 to edit Meter in English: A Critical Engagement, a collection of essays on the practice and the prosody of meter in English poetry.  The book is constructed as a dialogue in which more than a dozen highly regarded poets and critics write commentary as a way to engage in a dialogue responding to "Meter in English," an essay by Robert Wallace.
     In the introduction to this volume, Baker states: "All poetry is formal poetry.  It has shape, and meaning, and nuance, and layers of technique."  In a manner resembling the reasonable and readable prose one finds in almost all of his criticism, perhaps Baker indirectly offers advice to his own readers about how to approach the poems he has presented to them over the years.  Baker begins the introduction by commenting: 

          Poetry is an art of repetitions.  Images and ideas repeat and combine 
          into patterns of conceit, into symbols, into epic similes.  A poet's
          rehearsal of ideas may become his or her theme, and the recurrence 
          of themes, or of a theme's tropes, may develop into a convention.

     Indeed, the act of repetition in the form and content of a single poem ÷ or for that matter, as a primary characteristic in a poet's compilation of works ÷ seems paramount in this poet-critic's evaluations to creating a multitude of effects:

          The results of poetic repetitions are manifold: a returning phrase may 
          enchant, a repeated line may emphasize, a pattern of rhymes or repetitions 
          of poetry may hold itself longer in the memory.  The recurrent sounds 
          of poetry embody the music of the language itself.

     Baker's care and attention to form, especially syllabic patterns, is never more apparent than in The Truth about Small Towns and never more appropriate than in his most recent book of poems, Changeable Thunder, a collection continuing many of the poetic patterns and repeated themes of the earlier volumes, but containing a number of poems which move farther along a less traveled path.  The book jacket copy of Changeable Thunder declares, with enough legitimate evidence inside the book's covers, that this volume marks his "emergence as a major contemporary poet.  To his abiding sense of the Midwest ÷ its politics, people, and landscapes ÷ Baker adds a powerful historical dimension . . . ."  For twenty years readers have become accustomed to finding accurate and insightful examinations of the contemporary American Midwest, its natural and cultural environment, in David Baker's poetry.  As Marilyn Hacker has correctly pointed out, Baker "is the most expansive and moving poet to come out of the American Midwest since James Wright."  Nevertheless, most close readers of Baker's poetry and criticism have detected works addressing other subject matter, differing regions, and even earlier eras.  Baker is clearly a devoted and diligent student of the American history or literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.  His essays in Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry lean heavily on the examples of the American Romantics and allusions to their works.   In its introduction Baker admits: "Much of my graduate schooling, and subsequently much of my teaching, has been in American and Romantic literature. Heresy and the Ideal finds its critical center ÷ its theory ÷ based on my sense of Romantic poetics, especially on how contemporary poets have applied, altered, or rejected certain Romantic principles.  The heart of the lyric poem is fundamentally, as much of America's social and political heritage is Romantic." In fact, as noted previously, one of the most substantial and satisfying essays in the collection is titled "Heresy and the American Ideal."  It is this essay, with its addition of "American," from which the central tenets of Baker's thesis are borrowed.  In his commentary on the poetry of T.R Hummer, clearly a kindred spirit, Baker summarizes:

          Throughout his work he contends that his evolving poetic is driven
          by "heresy," by his rebellion against the fundamental Romantic 
          paradigms.  His earlier work employs and his later work provides 
          a severe critique of that ideal.  But the central paradox remains. 
          Overseen, it continues to oversee.  After all, the Romantic text 
          maintains within itself, through the laws of its governing body, not 
          only the means but the imperative for its own confrontation.

     Much of Changeable Thunder represents a new call across the years for David Baker, one in which he speaks not only to and for those of his personal past, but one in which he engages some of the influential voices of his philosophical, literary, and poetic heredity ÷ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Edward Taylor, Samuel Sewall, Cotton Mather, and others.  Introducing the extended notes at the back of the book that offer readers additional insights, assistance, and documentation on the sources for many of the poems in the collection, Baker even echoes the "haunts" of his first book as he explains: "I have aspired in this book to the ventriloquist's art ÷ borrowings, hauntings, quotations, and citations throughout."  The manner in which Baker adopts these voices of the past and incorporates their materials of lives lived long ago into a collection of works which often maintain a feeling of immediacy and urgency demonstrates an outstanding skillful performance by this poet.  Even the descriptions of nature the speaker witnesses during a storm that appear to resemble a Thomas Hart Benton painting, especially the ever-present clouds, seem to imitate the style of that artist whose masterpiece murals, Social History of Missouri, fill the Member's Lounge of the Missouri House of Representatives in Baker's childhood home of Jefferson City.
     In "Benton's Clouds," the opening poem of Changeable Thunder, Baker displays the strength and magnitude of nature in its power to enliven great art with its beauty and to instill great fear with its destructive ability.  The speaker and his family are caught in the force of a coastal storm and, as in previous poems, due to the likeness the scenes drawn here have with the images in Benton's paintings, time seems to collapse: "It is eighteen seventy in nineteen / twenty-seven in nineteen ninety-eight."  When the family members flee from the shoreline for safety, repeating the fleeing from a storm scene from "Call across the Years" in Haunts, the reader is informed "it was only accident the baby's / carriage was not crushed by the linden bough."  Once again in Baker's poetry, nature which must be admired for its capacity to inspire as well as to intimidate also serves as a conduit for emotional and spiritual understanding, while images of the present and the past blend, influencing and offering a foreshadowing of the future:

          It was too soon to tell what damages 
          there would be, though we knew, as in his art,
          as though before the last skier had tipped 

          into the lake, there was peril ahead. 
          We could see it all in an instant's clear
          likeness, where the future is not coming 
          but is already part of the story.

     "Romanticism" is a poem again written with a look toward the past as Baker adopts an experience from the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson ("It is to Emerson I have turned now"), but it also tenders another, more literal way in which one may revisit the past, in this case a wife lost to illness and death.  As the notes in the book indicate, Baker extracts the circumstances in the poem from "Emerson's account of his first wife Ellen's illness . . . taken from a letter on the day of her death, February 9, 1832" and from his journal entries, including a "solitary sentence in his journal: 'I have visited Ellen's tomb and opened the coffin.'"  The poet juxtaposes Emerson's accounts with a familiar activity to Baker's readers, a walk in nature with his daughter Kate.  Connecting to his own recent experiences of illness narrated in The Truth about Small Towns, the speaker is still sick himself, "still full of fever, insomnia-fogged."  Through metaphor Baker's thoughts once more reflect on the ways in which one of those like-minded literary forebearers of Romanticism shaped his present: "Emerson, gentle mourner, would be pleased / by the physical crunch of the ground, damp / from the melt, shaped by the shape of his boot . . . ."  However, once more another side of nature is shown through the discovery Kate makes of "a deer carcass tunneled / by slugs, drilled, and abandoned, a bundle / of bone shards, hoof and hide . . . ."  The presence of such beauty and horror, life and death, health and illness, is made more personal in the intimate contemplation of the poet on the relationship between himself and his daughter as well as his mind's association with Emerson:

          What does she see when she looks at such things?
          I do not know what is so wrong with me 
          that my body has erupted, system 
          by system, sick unto itself.  I do 

          not know what I have done, nor what she thinks 
          when she turns toward her ill father.  How did 
          Emerson behold of his Ellen, un- 
          embalmed face fallen in, of her white hands?

     Likely, much of Baker's kinship with Emerson also comes from their common concerns with nature and language.  In the middle of the poem Baker characterizes Emerson, "that half of him for whom nature was thought," and in the closing lines of the poem the reader is advised: "Perhaps it is the world that is the matter . . . / ÷ His other half worried by the wording."
     Similar issues are exquisitely evident in "The Puritan Way of Death," a poem that displays Baker's lyrical talent at its finest and evokes emotions that easily elicit empathy from its readers.  This poem, again based upon details and passages borrowed from past lives and passages in the writings of Cotton Mather as well as other seventeenth-century publications, concerns the deaths of children, specifically a young girl victimized by smallpox.  The repetitions of sound and the rhythm in the lines opening the poem perfectly create an atmosphere for what will follow:

          How hard this life is hallowed by the body.
          How burdened the ground where they have hollowed it,
                    where they have gathered to set the body back,

          handful by handful, the broken earth of her. 
          They have gathered to sift back the broken clod 
                    of her body, to settle her, now, back down.

     Reading the poem we become aware how commonplace was the pain felt by parents losing their children to illness and disease.  Cotton Mather was the father to fifteen children, yet only two outlived him as he loved them, "suffering their afflictions."  Although the poem also pertains to more philosophical points of interest, including views on nature and God, on the corruption of the innocent ("They go astray as soon as they are born.  They / no sooner step than they stray, they no sooner // lisp than they ly, mourns Cotton Mather . . .), or the destruction of man, the state of illness and the sorrowful loss of a child seem to strike the speaker with a special impact, and it allows him to arrive at a conclusion to the poem very familiar to readers of his previous works ÷ uniting the past and the present, placing the dead beside the living through the preservation of his poetry, and addressing those for whom he knows these thoughts will matter.  It is an ending every bit as forceful as its beginning:

          She goes beside us, even so, even as 
                    I write this to you, neighbor, friend, daughter, 

          my reader, this day, in nineteen ninety-nine. 
          She reminds us always of this death, this life, 
                    which is redundant, awful, endless, and ours.

     "Mr. Whitman's Book" takes the reader to another era and another place again, this time to "autumn, eighteen forty-two" in New York City.  If any poem is meant to be an homage by Baker to one of his literary forefathers, this one serves the purpose perfectly.  In addition to Whitman the free verse poet, so well known by readers nowadays, Baker borrows from Whitman the fiction writer.  As he notes, "Whitman wrote and published a considerable body of fiction (as well as traditional verse) in the 1840s.  His longest work of fiction is a temperence novel . . . ."  Thus, the poem starts with allusions to that novel and its characters ÷ Franklin, the orphan and thief; Margaret, his mulatto wife "who murders / a rival and then kills herself in prison. / The story is so good it tells itself."
     However, through the course of the poem the focus shifts from the popular novel to his less popular, but more important poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, as "Mr. Whitman's Book."  Reviewing the acceptance of his novel by Whitman's contemporary readers ("his life's best-seller"), the speaker in the poem reacts as any reader today ÷ especially the author of this poem ÷ might who now recognizes the excellence and the significant influence of Whitman's poetry: the poem's speaker is saddened when considering the lack of readership for the great Leaves of Grass by Whitman's fellow citizens.  Baker intersperses action from the novel and its main character, Franklin, with brief but absolutely stunning portraits of Whitman:

          He writes without stopping, stopping only 
          to stroll the Bowery running with dock boys 
          and street-whores, or take his cup with the wags 

          of Tammany, basking in the rank yarns. 
          In three days he will finish÷as he claims
          for decades÷three days without sleep, three days 
          and help of a bottle of port . . . .

     Later, Baker presents the portrait of an older Whitman who has already experienced the publication and strong denunciations to sections of Leaves of Grass,the horrors of the Civil War with its "legions dead, wounded / wondering what happened to the promise / of perfection," the death of his hero Abraham Lincoln, the onset of age and illness.  This image of Whitman is tinged with pity and yet reverent:

          . . . Soon now the sweet old man 
          of Mickle Street, the strokes and lectures, wrapped 
          in a shawl, hardly stirring for the pain 

          of tubercules, awash with Visions 
          from his improvised waterbed.  The street 
          clamors÷his readers now coming to call÷

     Whitman's devoted followers and readers still come to call ÷ just as Whitman had predicted his readers may hear from him again, just as his latter-day disciple David Baker with his readers today continue to come to call on Whitman, referred to by Baker as "the hero" in this poem's closing line.
    "Midwest: Georgics," a poem in six sections, offers an appropriate contrast to "Mr. Whitman's Book."  At first glance, as the speaker relates attending an auction where criers are calling for bids, selling the possessions of a family farm foreclosed by the bank, this may seem to be a poem typical of David Baker's works about the Midwest, a region with which, like his Ohio predecessor James Wright, he is closely associated.  (Indeed, there are a number of poems in this collection, such as "Midwest: Ode" and "Ohio Fields after Rain," that also bring the writings of James Wright to mind.  Yet, other twentieth-century poets are also brought to mind in parts of these poems or other poems elsewhere in this collection, and he is in good company: for example, Richard Hugo in "Midwest: Ode," C.K Williams in "Pulp Fiction," Linda Bierds in "Dejection," and Wallace Stevens in "After Rain.") 
     However, the initial lines of section two introduce a surprising element: "I wish I were like the famous poet / ÷ disembodied, a voice out of nowhere ÷ / postmodern and uninvolved."  From this point on in the poem the words of "the famous poet" are woven into the narrative of the poem with those of the narrator and the auctioneers.  This is a technique readers have seen Baker use frequently, especially since "Sweet Home, Saturday Night," and the effect of ridiculing the attitudes or positions of some postmodern poets and critics is not new either, as was witnessed in "Cardinals in Spring."  Although some readers and critics may seem less sympathetic to Baker as a contemporary writer because of his insistence on adhering to Romantic notions or sentiment, and his use of the personal pleasures and pain of autobiography in readily accessible poetry might appear old fashioned in the postmodern world, Baker sometimes comes to support his own Romantic literary positions both in his poems and in his criticism. 
     In the introduction to Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry, Baker sets forth his principles as a practitioner of "practical criticism" and speaks against "criticism of exclusionary jargon," as well as that criticism often found in academia: "At its worst its fascination with theory ÷ and with theory's technically bland language ÷ has blinded its ability to appreciate, to evaluate, and to savor."  Speaking of his mixed feelings when evaluating poets in his essay "Smarts" ÷ examining the poetry of Susan Howe, Andrew Hudgins, Mark Doty, Lynda Hull, and Billy Collins ÷ Baker states:

          Perhaps, in widening the scope of poetry from the personal to the historical, 
          political, scientific, or more broadly cultural, poets are struggling to find 
          appropriate voices and forms to bear such heavy weight.  Indeed, it's finally 
          not a bad development.  Poetry had better be able to think hard.  But our best 
          poets are careful also not to destroy the passions, humilities, and mysteries 
          that make poetry ÷ not merely to talk so smart that only a few other poets 
          (or critics) will care or pretend to understand them.

     In "Midwest: Georgics" the famous postmodern poet brags his work is unattached to actual lives and "sounds like / nobody's story in particular."  But Baker refutes this poetic philosophy with the particulars of a scene he describes, the lives of those neighbors he names for the reader, and the reality of the emotional cost he is chronicling:

                                        . . . It's worse than 
          a wake.  The ones being mourned attend their 
          own ceremony, selling-off of goods 
          and souls, and three mouths to feed.  Such pain is 
          serious, tangible, unironic . . . .

     Later, the postmodern poet and "his sales rep" reveal his feelings, or perhaps more accurately lack of feelings, about the importance of details or specifics of events and experiences in his own life: "My autobiography has never / interested me very much.  Whenever / I try to think about it, I seem to / draw a complete blank."  Baker's critical and slyly humorous response is to offer the following description:

          There floats a reek of cattle on a breeze 
          from the gone barn÷lilac and acid, sharp 
          as a pinch to the nose÷and a shift in 
          the cheap wind twists the voices about, out 
          of their heads, meaningless as merchandise.

     In the final section of "Midwest: Georgics" Baker gives a brief glimpse into his attitude toward "the famous poet" and as well, one would assume, toward the distanced and bland language of much postmodern poetry and theoretical criticism, perhaps summing up his own philosophy in the magnificent last line of the following excerpt:

          I wish we could all be like the poet, 
          out-of-body, misrepresentative 
          of our bad luck and lot, no one's story. 
          But this is what it means to have our life.

     Elsewhere, "The Rainbow" is a moving meditation in which Baker interlaces his love for his daughter and their relationship, as well as his concerns for his own father who has suffered a stroke, with the father-daughter relationship displayed in the diary writings kept in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries by Samuel Sewall, the American Puritan minister: "It's here we connect.  It's how / we join each thing with care."
     Baker characterizes in his notes the nightly diary entries of Sewall as often "tender, confessional, even self-doubting" in contrast to the "fury and indictments in his public tracts and sermons."  Like Baker, Sewall even writes with care and detail about nature, especially the weather, which he seems to regard as "a holy language to be read by devout souls."
     In the poem, Baker reports to his readers how he has been constructing a swing-set, the craft of woodwork and the care to be exact so that brackets hold perfectly and swivels align ÷ "because my father / passed / a memory of such things to me."  This poet and teacher muses, "now I only work to make a toy," and slips in another dig at academic language or theoretical thought that may make abstract too much of life: "My colleagues call that irony. / (Our meager making wants to / theorize each life we touch to death.)"  Soon we see the metaphor of the swing-set applies to life when the speaker confides:

          . . . I think we wish too hard 
          for sense when what we want 
          is wonder, swinging on a toy.
          I love the life we've made despite 
          our carelessness.  I love the care.

     The following lines from the closing stanza in this poem serve as a deserving summary of some of the themes Baker has consistently addressed in his poetry since his first collection two decades earlier: 

          The mind is faithful in its 
          memory÷connecting signs,
          it makes a memory 
          to connect to what it needs.
          The body will forget us all 
          anyway, in time, as it forgets 
          its breath, and how to live,
          how to forgive.  I keep this 
          story close whenever I grieve 
          or fear, growing cold.  A father 
          and his child wait through a storm. 
          Great rain with Thunder.  Fear has 
          drenched the child.  (Is this my father, 
          or me, my girl, or someone 
          in a book?  I don't remember.
          Forgetfulness has taken part
          of me already÷besides, 
          it doesn't matter).  The child cries, 
          I'm scared, to which the father 
          whispers, holding on, Don't worry . . . .

     Once more in this latest collection of poems, Baker speaks to the importance of memory even when selective or ambiguous, the value of life and the language to describe or explain it, the need to know how to connect the past with the present, to blend memories with continuing events in a way that seems to keep all alive simultaneously in our minds, to mourn but also to learn from the past and the people who still reside there for us in order to direct the present wisely or to turn with optimism toward the future.
     With an assured attitude and an even more mature vision, David Baker has again proven he is one of our finest poets, as he has produced another original, ambitious, and powerful collection of poems in Changeable Thunder that somehow manages to seem familiar, yet fascinatingly new.  Baker speaks with a private and passionate voice, whether in a lyric or narrative form, which almost always expresses empathy through splendid imagery and brilliant commentary.  Like the essays in Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry, the language in this book is at times intimate and at all times intelligent, its personal observations are well-informed, sympathetic, and significant.  His strong poetry, as well as his insightful literary criticism, is an important contribution to contemporary poetry and a gift for its readers.  As David Baker writes in "Mr. Whitman's Book," anyone "who touches this book touches a man."

Baker, David. Changeable Thunder. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2001.  ISBN: 1-55728-715-5  $16.00

Baker, David. Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.  ISBN: 1-55728-603-5 $20.00 paperback, $40.00 hardcover

© by Edward Byrne


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