Tiger Bark Press
Reviewer: David E. Poston
George Drew’s Fancy’s Orphan is a fascinating mix of voices presented in fluid and supple lines. These poems are Frost-haunted, with echoes of Keats, Wordsworth, Yeats, and Rilke. Their penetrating descriptions present what Hopkins called the inscape of both the natural world and of human nature.
The opening poem, “Metaphysics in the White Mountains,” is dedicated to long-time director of The Frost Place, George Sheehan. The natural descriptions, conversational familiarity with Heidegger and Hardy, and emotional openness establish key features of the collection. In its three sections, it explores Martin Heidegger’s conception of poetry as both playful and dangerous; the antinomies of the ephemeral and the eternal; and disjunction in the poetry of Thomas Hardy.
This is heavy stuff. But it is presented through red berries and a great blue heron, through an ancient face etched in “the deep unmitigated grace of simple rock” surrounded by flowing water. In its third section, as the speaker stands on a bridge over a creek, “its current slow and muscular, / swirling around the ledges and rocks / in a display of deference,” he recalls Hardy’s “melodiously irrelevant” thrush singing in the face of a storm. The scene inspires a reflection on the disjunction of the human heart and head being tugged in opposite directions, which ends with
Just then, announcing night, a bat
flew over and I pulled back,
my dark weight too much for
something so simple as a thrush’s wing.
Drew does not pull back in these poems, though; he trusts his vision and uses vivid natural description to share it.
That vivid description is employed in unsettling ways in the surreal “The Red Spider” and the dream poem “What Mountains Do.” While the former is a Poe-esque horror tale, the latter stirs feelings that are both deeper and deeply ambiguous. The speaker wakes from a dream of Christ, Joseph, and his own dead father; and after a morning walk, speaks of
…the ghostly conjuring that rose
out of the darkness in me like the birches
from the green gloom of the balsam
that clogged the forest on every side.
“This is what mountains do to you,” the poem concludes, leaving it to the reader to ponder just what that is.
Drew’s character-driven narrative poems employ a variety of speakers and points of view. “Matthew Brady Speaks” provides a vivid lesson on the cost of war and our country’s ambivalent attitude toward it. There is clearly a poet narrator in poems such as “Male Figure Draped in Toga,” which provides the collection’s title, and the curmudgeonly “Losing Myself at Mount Saint Mary College.” In “About Connecticut,” recollections of a late friend, Al Fedorowicz, trigger whimsical musings on sounds and spelling. Homage is paid to Robert Frost both directly, in poems such as “The Old Boy,” and indirectly through Frostian characters and narrators in poems such as “Elegy for Jared” and “Royal’s God.” The speakers in “The Men” and “The Women” are drawn from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I was not won over by these Prufrock poems, skillfully rendered though they are, but by poems such as “Medicine,” “Thief of Autumn,” and “Directions for Obtaining All the Light That Is,” which ends with a father urging his daughter to
…Open yourself to all
the light that is—the sun, moon, stars;
the incandescence of your mother’s love
flooding the room. Leave quietly, take it with you.
Don’t worry about getting caught. This jewel is yours.
The finest poems here employ a narrator who presents the range of human relationships and activities. He may be a traveler to Jerusalem or a Greek isle, a runner tackling hills in upstate New York, or a father urging his son to “call recess” from homework, take his telescope, and go look at the “Red Moon over Poestenkill.”
It is refreshing to see how Drew’s experience and craft allow him to sustain several longer poems and poem sequences. “Medicine,” for example, deals with the aging, death, and burial of the speaker’s father. The second section, which opens with “Today I learned / they killed my father,” expresses envy for the Anglo-Saxon wergild, a blood-price that could be demanded for a death caused by “the wrong dose of the wrong / medicine wrongly given.” In the final section, as the chaplain mangles a reading of the 23rd psalm at the funeral, Drew skillfully and ironically employs its phrases to express the desolation of grief:
Here, where the ashes rest,
he knows there is neither
rod nor staff to comfort them;
knows there is neither
valley nor green pastures;
only one of the California hills,
its grass withered and brown,
at the base of which the ashes
of his father will dwell forever.
“The Thief of Autumn” is a bittersweet elegy for an ex-wife, with beautiful spooling lines using the natural world to illustrate a welter of conflicting emotions. It expands in section 2 from the sound of acorns on a cabin roof to
their vowels opening like black holes,
their consonants celestial bodies streaking
briefly across the night sky and lighting it
to the munificence of the moon squared…
Then the poem contracts in section 3 to a single perfect image:
I woke to darkness and in the darkness
you spinning from the twig of your last breath.
You have stolen autumn but I forgive you.
That last line claims closure, but at a cost only those who have been through such a two-fold grief can understand.
The last section is a series of poems collectively titled “Ten” that brings to mind Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets. Loosely correlated to the Ten Commandments, it begins with the epigraph “Thou shalt not.” Despite that forbidding phrase, these poems do not proscribe. Rather, with sympathy and an undercurrent of wry humor, they describe the urges and behaviors we are all prone to, no matter the prohibitions: anger, grief, violence, lust, regret, love, and longing.
The most beautiful is the fourth poem in the sequence, perhaps drawn from Drew’s Mississippi childhood, with
…the moon all spooky-like
and strung from one magnolia to
another strands of spider artistry…
and the speaker a “halo-headed” child in his Granny’s lap listening to her “low half-sung half-chanted warbly harmony” accompanying Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” on the radio and “losing all of me I could.”
In the tenth poem, at the book’s close, the speaker is looking at a forty-year old picture of a woman who, “in cahoots with lust,” once offered him “what her lover has left in his wake.”
I know what she means. So I play dumb,
I want to want her, not sweet Jesus
have her. That would ruin everything.
Is this the young man from the earlier poem “Agia Anna,” whose speaker—also looking back— describes as “…just / nineteen and as addled as they come, in love / with the thought of being in love”? Yes, of course it is, and it invites all of us to look back on our own lives.
In many of the poems here, Drew clearly touches on the same darkness found in Frost, but ultimately these poems are not dark – instead are poignant and uplifting, both melodious and relevant.