The Long Way Home
Reviewer: Vivian Wagner
Leonard Gontarek’s The Long Way Home is, in fact, a long poetry collection—over 400 pages!—with a sweeping, sublime style to match its length. Perhaps that length is necessary to do what the collection seems to want and need to do: make sense of contemporary American culture, with all of its contradictory and antagonistic elements, its uncertainty about the future, and its will to survive.
The poems in this collection are haunted by early twenty-first century American politics and culture. To be clear, only a few of the poems are explicitly political, but those pieces function much like signposts, indicating themes and anxieties that underlie the entire book.
The collection’s title calls attention to the long and winding structure of the book itself. It opens with a section called “American Landscape,” made up of poems that mostly have one-word titles: “Perfume,” “Chopin,” “Coffee.” This section is meandering and random, an exploration of landscapes both urban and rural, modern and historical. The collection finishes with a much shorter section called “Samurai Ghost Looking For His Head In A Cemetery,” which serves as a kind of coda.
It’s a breathless collection clearly influenced by Walt Whitman, with elaborate catalogs of the items and moments and people and places associated with contemporary America. These catalogs attempt not just to report on what’s there but also to call it into being through words. Here’s an example from “Dogwood,” a poem that comes early in the collection:
Praise the men playing chess. Praise the man wearing the Pixies shirt.
Praise the man & woman huddled over lust or chess.
Praise the light on the leaves & blond grass.
Praise the keys & leaves dropping from the heavens. (23)
As with Whitman, the speaker in this poem has a sense of compassionate fullness, embracing the world with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, observing its intricate components with a caring and agnostic acceptance.
Another poem, “Dark,” catalogs fragments of cultural, academic, and economic detritus, trying to find some coherence in the chaos of the twenty-first century:
Hour of the bumper sticker: I Brake for Centaurs.
Hour of what it must be like to live in a great house with willowware
& the rush of the Hudson & be misunderstood.
Hour of Academics Dissecting Bob Dylan At NY Conference. (25)
One poem, “Birds,” looks directly at Whitman himself, albeit a contemporary version of the bard:
I praise Whitman, flecked with sparrow crap, in slate shade of the interstate.
A father lies in bed holding his son, afraid he will be taken.
The tighter he holds him, the more afraid he becomes. (50)
The speaker acknowledges that he’s walking in Whitman’s footsteps and using a Whitman-like lens to look at the modern world, and he’s also expressing something akin to gratitude for the power of that poetic tradition.
The reader must hang on for this wild and meandering ride of a collection. It covers considerable ground, and it doesn’t give any easy answers to questions about meaning or direction. We can only travel with the poems down this road, watching and witnessing and wondering as we go.
The collection does once in a while happen upon political references and tidbits from the news, however, and these moments offer a glimpse into what’s driving and shaping the poems. We hear in “Outside,” for instance, that wind is delivering “news of blood,” and then we get this stanza:
There’s a theory that says Republicans are dogs
and Democrats are cats.
I disagree. Democrats are birds,
cats are Independents. (179)
It’s a brief, humorous moment, but it also suggests that even when Gontarek seems apolitical, he’s keenly aware of the world in which he’s creating, and he’s grappling with how best to represent and describe that world, even as he knows he’s also inventing it.
Another poem, “Policy,” has this to say about the speaker’s identity:
I’m American – two step,
country, swampy, Delta,
ragged, mandolin-flecked American. (189)
The speaker here seems to be getting at his complexity, at the way he falls between political divides. He’s trying, perhaps, to describe that in-between space, even as he’s dreaming of the specifics of political spectacle:
I couldn’t tell if it was Karl Rove’s
or Hillary Clinton’s cologne I was intoxicated with in the dream. (189)
In a poem called “Choice,” we hear again about cats, who we’ve been told are independents: “The cat curls to my shape. / Branches crisscross, a clear mess. I understand” (200). It’s as if Gontarek, like cats in the earlier poem, understands what it means to be independent, looking for predictable shapes in the “clear mess” of the modern world.
In the last, brief section, “Samurai Ghost Looking For His Head In A Cemetery,” the poems turn more explicitly political, as in “Why Putin Hacked the Election,” which offers up a kind of answer in riddles:
All winter long I received
emails offering bulbs and seeds
from a place named Eden.
And then it happened. False spring. (459)
The poem ends with an ominous note about political corruption and control: “No matter what, we can enter your house / and do what we want” (459).
A poem entitled “Poem” has a specific reference to Trump, though his name isn’t even capitalized, as if it’s become an everyday noun in the contemporary lexicon:
When trump dies, they should
take one of those small American
flags kids put on their bicycles
and drape it on his coffin. (461)
The next poem, “Republic Of Ridiculous,” ends with an image of the president sitting in a bulletproof car, looking at people outside: “He does that chummy thing / of miming his hand as a gun and firing it” (462). This image, with its sense of danger and impending doom, captures the spirit of the collection and also embodies the sense that focusing on small moments might, in the end, be the only thing that can save us.
The glimmers of hope in this long, slow-motion apocalypse ultimately might not come in the form of grand narratives, but rather in tiny moments, as in this image in “Anthem”: “The used-car lot is filled with last year’s cars. / The field is flooded with moonlight beyond it” (466). The Long Way Home offers a wealth of such moments—pulled from the void, described, and ready to perform whatever minute magic they can.