Reviewer: David E. Poston
In “Almost Autumn and Time to Go,” from his new collection Leftover Distances, Mike James writes,
Everything goes back to travel. Get to heaven or just over there.
Some of us stay ready.
We live by love or fear. Maybe adventures are one street over.
Maybe streets are empty.
The answer to travel is always not here. Grace might be in the very next town.
There might be room to spare. Sift along long enough, a few things get clear.
James has been sifting along now through seventeen collections of poetry, and his latest covers quite a bit of territory. These poems begin travelling with the first poem, “Drunk Butterflies near the Missouri River,” which concludes with “I keep going. I go.” The speaker in “So This Happens” says, “I look over every fence, make up stories as I pass. / After all these years we ask the same questions again and, yes, again.”
Poems in the first two sections search rivers, travel through small towns and across deserts, and reach toward the unreachable moon and stars. In the second section, images of erasure abound. “Our First Annual Cross-Country Road Trip” ends with the lines, “In one valley, we put Just Married on the back windshield. / Down the road, the rain took care of the marriage.”
“Leaving the Parking Lot of the Comfort Food Diner, West of Vegas” concludes:
Most of what we see is meant to be erased.
The desert is good at that.
Wait long enough, sand erases every page.
Drive far enough, nobody knows your name.
The poem “Edward Hopper Country” ends with “Sunlight bleaches out every second chance.” The astronomers, bankers, and astronauts in these poems share a sense of longing, an unsatisfied wonder.
The poems in Section III turn darker, with biting commentary about the state of society and politics. In earlier sections, James uses the ghazal and loose stanzaic forms, but here he turns to sharply imagistic pieces and prose poems the density of which reinforces the intensity of the tone reflected in titles such as “Flags Forever at Half-Mast” and “After the Deluge.” “The Refugees” presents stark and haunting grief in three lines:
Each carries two suitcases:
One for belongings,
One for ghosts.
“A History of Capitalism” is a vividly rendered indictment of economic inequality, concluding with:
The cafeteria is closed and otherwise empty. The white tile floor mopped to a best left whiteness. Outside, two beggars stand at the window. They call to others on the street to come bet on the action. Soon, they will sell tickets.
The title of the last poem in the section, “Self-Crucifixion,” pretty much says it all, but the assertion that “there’s always someone willing to step right up” marks the bleakest and most cynical moment in the collection.
But this is not a cynical collection, and for all the poems about searching and questioning, it is not an outpouring of dissatisfaction either. Section IV offers an upswing into a series of warm and buoyant poems about a variety of characters, beginning with the list poem “People, I Know People.” In “Leigh,” we meet a woman who kept secrets in summer dress pockets and a glittery flapper hat. We meet “Tommy E,” who was “Poor enough to live off duct tape and hand-me-down dreams.” Another list poem, “13 Things Liz Knows Better Than Most,” captures the essence of James’s warmth and wit. Its opening lines illustrate why the poem, like so many here, captures a reader’s imagination:
1. How to enjoy papier-mâché dance shoes
2. Cloud-squaring mathematics
3. The proper way to wear 3 am sunglasses
4. When to blitzkrieg a paradox
5. Favorite dessert servings at the county jail
“Acceptance Jubilee,” which opens the last section, ends with the following lines:
The moon nothing other than far away. So, I measured it with my eyes, fingers, and hands. The measurements varied. Each is private to me. I couldn’t settle on any one song to sing to myself. My memory a kaleidoscope of love and grief. The wind stayed gone the whole night. We all know how that is.
These lines capture the beautiful paradoxes that arc through this collection: objects both reachable and unreachable, evocations of love and grief, private feelings that we all share and understand. Section V returns to the poet’s own backyard, the garden described in “Household,” from Section II. When the image of sand reappears in “The Butterfly Mirror I Play Peek-a-Boo With,” the speaker now wishes to live in the sand of an hourglass rather than travel through the desert.
The list of tasks in “All the Things I’ve Got to Do” starts with the mundane, calling a plumber, but moves on to painting one’s toenails different colors. The list poem “Some Fairies” includes fairies of typos, abandonment, and old hubcaps, but also the fairy of “O, the world it opens.” There are moments of pure whimsy, such as in “Summer Grammar,” where an ampersand and a semicolon cruise in a yellow convertible, with the semicolon’s long hair catching the wind and sunlight. In other poems, one encounters speakers with bedazzle kits and glittery mouse collections, wearing purple kimonos and faux pearl necklaces.
In “A Slow, Secret Life,” James writes
My heart is large, but irregular. Every friend knows when
I miss a beat. So I press leaves in pages of books,
Not yet read, as a reminder that right words are living things.
This collection reminds us that all living things can be approached analytically and with a sense of awe. These poems are fluent and relaxed, accessible yet replete with idiosyncratic connections and imaginative leaps. “Nights & Days” begins,
You look all around for a miracle
Just a small one
Something that could break your heart
Then put it together in a different way
With the closing poem, “It’s Lovely, At Last,” the collection comes full circle:
There’s enough salt in a teacup of tears
To suit me, anyway.
If I need more there’s the ocean.
Farther away than recent tears.
The ocean is on the other side of the closest mountain.
The mountain is far away but close to the sky.
I often walk toward the mountain
With my fistful of feathers
Looking for a blue bird
In a December 2018 interview with Chase Dimock in As It Ought to Be, James says that, “The biggest difference between the work I’m doing now and the work I did ten years ago is that I’m much more willing to embrace failure and to follow any squirrel up any tree …. I’m certainly much more relaxed about the wrong turns I take. I hope that joy transfers to the reader.” Readers who sift through these poems will find gems, small miracles, and small moments of joy.