Pastoral Habits: New and Selected Poems
Texas Review Press
Reviewer: Richard Allen Taylor
The opening poem in this collection, “The Drowning of Christopher French,” probably written in the mid-1980s, competes fiercely for the honor of best poem in the book. It sets the tone for the entire collection, and, as a masterpiece, also elevates the reader’s expectations. To put it in the lead-off position was a gutsy call.
In this narrative poem, set in winter at a frozen pond in upstate New York, the title character skates on thin ice, falls into the frigid water and calls for help. The narrator recounts his efforts to save the boy:
At ten yards I could see his face.
At five I went down on my belly.
Pushing the limb ahead, I inched
to within half a foot of the edge.
My God! As if glass-blown, he was
encased in a thin skin of ice,
his hair matted against his skull
and from his forehead tiny shards
strung like lights on a Christmas tree.
Unable to reach the limb offered, the boy sinks. The would-be rescuer, terrified, ice cracking beneath him, backs away to avoid going down with the drowning boy. The distraught narrator says “He’s gone…Nothing anyone could do,” as if to console himself, but feels shame when another character, Doyle, arrives on the scene, grabs the limb, and crawls out for a second try at rescue. Again, the ice cracks, and the second responder is forced to withdraw.
What can we say about this poem? It depicts a dramatic, life-or-death situation. Its language is plain. It can be taken literally. It may be a true story, or based on one. None of these things make the poem a masterpiece, but I argue that it is a masterpiece, based on its gut-wrenching impact and the questions that the reader is led to ask: If I had been there, what would I have done? Should I have kept trying, even at extreme risk to my own life? Should I have warned the boy about the thin ice before he strapped on his skates? Is there something I should be doing now to prevent others from meeting the same fate? In other words, am I my brother’s keeper? Slightly different versions of the same questions radiate outward from a strictly personal perspective to a societal one. What should we (collectively) be doing to prevent such senseless tragedies? These are not easy questions, and that’s what makes the poem so memorable.
I was glad to get my hands on this book. Four-fifths of its 187 pages were selected from six previous collections; the book finishes with thirty-five pages of new work. Arranged in chronological order, based on the publication dates of its constituent sections, it’s the sort of volume that allows the reader to trace a poet’s career through various stages of development as well as changes in style and interests.
This is not to say that Drew’s (or any other poet’s) later poems are necessarily “better” than his earlier poems, as outstanding examples can be found in each of the sections, beginning with poems from Toads in a Poisoned Tank, published in 1986, to The View from Jackass Hill, published in 2011, and continuing through his “New Poems.”
Death frequents many of the poems in this collection, though seldom with as much drama as “The Drowning of Christopher French.” “Either You Fall in the River of Despair (the italics are the author’s) or You Walk on the Water Like Christ” (no italics) relates the story of a student named Walker who went missing in a boating accident:
As of this class he’s not turned up,
not in the lake nor on the shore.
All we’ve left is the boat where it
was found upended near the shore,
some foodstuff, some oars, and a guitar
up to its neck in thick, green reeds.
A Frisbee floating lonely as a moon.
Now open your books. Page fifty-three.
The speaker seems almost apologetic for not feeling worse about the boy’s death: “Mostly, I mourn that I can’t mourn more.” But the relationship was distant. To the teacher, the student was “a name on a computerized sheet” who “failed the last exam he took” and “never handed in what was required.” What this poem has in common with the “Christopher French” poem is that both concern young men whose tragic deaths were caused by their own (or someone else’s) lack of caution. In addition, both poems contain stark details from their respective scenes of death. The poems differ insofar as one is narrated intimately, the other with noticeable distance. With respect to the “Walker” poem, grief is not something that can be faked. And who would want to? The author keeps faith with his own feelings by avoiding false praise for Walker, whom he hardly knew. Sometimes to honor the dead by telling a piece of their story (in this case, the final piece) is the best a writer can do.
I was particularly fascinated with the poems selected from The Horse’s Name Was Physics (2006), which contains several epistolary poems, ostensibly letters between scientists assigned to develop weapons technology from mustard gas to the atomic bomb, highlighting the ethical and psychological conflicts those scientists suffered; and the engaging section from The Hand that Rounded Peter’s Dome (2010), focused on Michelangelo and his work in the Sistine Chapel.
One of my favorites in the Michelangelo series is “Julius II,” a persona poem in which the pope who commissioned the work takes a producer’s pride in the artists he chose and directed:
My glory is that I was artist, too,
and they, especially my haunted Florentine,
the masterpiece of my studio.
With so many remarkable poems, Pastoral Habits: New and Selected Poems provides a far grander vista than this brief peek though the keyhole might offer. The collection will delight fans of George Drew and serve as a fine introduction to readers unfamiliar with his work.