Book Review: The Book of What Stays by James Crews
The Book of What Stays
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press
The Book of What Stays, the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, is a slim yet intellectually weighty volume that at once makes apparent how it would claim so serious a prize as it has: from the opening poem, “Palomino”, James Crews makes his case for pithy elegance. Crews embraces and works with the architecture of poetry, the physical word by word structure, with a sense of craft and duty that is as refreshing as it is rare. Crews also understands the speed of words and, that for whatever depth of detail poetry lacks in contrast to fiction, it can make up for in its showcasing of raw speed—even in titles themselves. Take, for instance, the two poems entitled “The Farmer’s Wife Has Not Yet Left Him” and “The Arsonist’s Wife Has Not Yet Left Him”: there’s a grandness yet simplicity here, a sense of resignation even. And there’s speed, the speed Jorie Graham’s realized and applied as the secret weapon of her greatest poems, the speed that G.C. Waldrep used in his book Disclamor. It’s a quickening you don’t at first realize is even speed—or even about time—but it’s acceleration in how the words move you back and forth to other places at light-speed. Without some time machine, some sci-fi starship, only words can conjure us between memories and actual place with such mystery and haste.
In Crews’ poem “Foreshadowing” he gives us both the speed and the quiet stillness that foils it, plus the might of weather, the might of geography—those subtle but essential and sometimes sublime things which formulate our entire world:
Snow clouds fill the sky like a power
you never knew you had. The man next to you
on this rush hour bus has stuffed plastic bags
into the holes of his coat and huddles close
to look out your window as if the sunset
might burst for once with the red of alpenglow,
as if these piles of snow were only beginnings
of mountains trying to rise up.
The living, timeless, forceful environment that churns along with or without us is described perfectly here, but Crews also catches how that environment works as metaphor, how it inspires, how it demands our attention. His poems, even when personal in topic and tenor are removed from his person—and that’s not in any way a bad thing: consider T.S. Eliot, who was the very same way. He writes about nature, and broadly, but he’s not a nature poet per se, and doesn’t cast his lot with the corpus of nature writing and all that entails. Instead, he treats nature and the wild as something that’s always there and cannot be escaped, something that in mighty power invades our lives and directs them and thus writes many of our own, seemingly personal, scripts out in bold. Crew’s poem “A Beginner’s Guide to Ice Fishing” demonstrates the joy we can discover in nature and the human activities that attend it while reminding us also that our own impressions of the natural world are just that: our own. In this he also reminds me of the Swedish songstress, Sally Shapiro, a woman who records under that stage-name and stresses that her stage persona is removed from her own being, her private life—or is it, really? How much can a writer or any artist invent and how much is autobiographical? Crews, like Ms. Shapiro, seems intent on providing nuanced, complex, alluring tales of experience but ones that don’t really allow us an intimate look at the artist’s life. In each of Crews’ poems I feel I’ve been provided something very personal—almost as if it was something crafted custom for me alone—however, I also feel that however telling his words are, they leave so much a mystery. Like a pop lovesong, they must be intimate but there is nothing to make manifest an autobiographical trajectory.
None of this is to suggest Crews is less than honest or he’s sold out for the sake of prize-winning, stunning works that will produce reviews so glowing they could be seen from outer space. He’s an honest man, an adept poet who makes each word count—structure, once again. Like Jorie Graham, not a period or comma out of place, not a single word would be better served by an alternate. Yet like Michel Houellebecq, Crews is in the business of myth-making. Interestingly, on that note, I recently read an essay on the topic of myth in contemporary poetry by Crews in the journal Basalt—clearly, myth is on his mind. Perhaps not for Crews the brand of myth of Houellebecq or his idol Lovecraft—not the type of myth that looks like dime-store penny-dreadfuls dressed up in glitter by a lead graphic designer at Phaidon—but myth nonetheless. He mentions Orpheus, Bacchus, and a lute on these same pages as the ice fishing, the winter snow, and commonplace birds. Yes, Crews is in the myth business as well as the autobiography business of poetry and yet within the arena of neither. The truths he writes are written above his own head, afar from his own experience no matter how much they feed off such experience.
What hubris to believe you could save
this moment or that and tuck it away
for the day the warbler’s morning call
outside the honeymoon cabin that summer
grows finally too garbled to recall, or when
the familiar sound of her bathwater running
now flows backward into the faucet
as if neither she nor it ever even existed.
With these words Crews starts off on his poem “Revision”, and perfectly introduces our sad, incomplete, and scattered ability to capture memories. Things like bathwater, are actual only for the short period when they are there, but unlike your old Ford or a vase your aunt left you in her will, they are things that simply dissolve away. You don’t have to worry about getting rid of them really and yet when the water is in the bathtub it’s what defines the purpose of the tub and the very room around it. When someone leaves, a lover perhaps, and they take away their things it’s such memories which must endure and carry a greater weight than they really can stand. We allow memories of this nature to do so much heavy-lifting so they are the most difficult to forget, the most difficult if not impossible to revise. That same aunt’s perfume or a song your girlfriend in tenth grade loved but you couldn’t stand. You may not recall who wrote The New Organon, but that song by Green Day will forever remain and you’ll remember the maroon Abercrombie sweater she wore the first date nearly down to the thread count, too.
Crews ends “Revision” thus:
come inside and look at her as she
closes her eyes in the bath and does not
notice you, leave her alone. Let her hum
the private song whose words you’ll never know.
Say nothing to disturb this scene—never yours
to begin with—and leave the past in your mind.
Leave her heart for this moment intact
if only to prove, looking back now, you can.
“Never yours to begin with”—that’s it right there. The part of memories we are quick sometimes to overlook, especially in love, especially when the memory is bittersweet. Like the photo of the family farm the farmer moments later came out and said he didn’t want you to take—you’d not asked if you might, just stopped the car by the fence and snapped the shutter—these memories are contested property. “Revision” also makes clear, in an awkward way which would be all the more uncomfortable were it not for Crews’ delicate and exacting use of language, how little we know of even our lovers. If Crews lacked his sense of hand-crafted formal structure in his poems, his emotional knowledge would still allow for very fine poems that touch at universal experience via specific instances, however, he also has that very rare ability to build his thoughts into the most consummate of words. Again, it’s worth repeating: not a word misplaced, not a single comma seems awkward or not doing its best duty in Crews’ poetry. The entire book is of this caliber of attention to detail and it’s Crews’ sense of word-craft that really sets his work apart from other contemporary poets. In Crews’ own essay in Basalt on the concept of myth in contemporary poetry he laments the swarms of young poets with MFAs—himself included—plying their trade in a rather routine fashion yet though he would not make the claim himself, he breaks from that pack: no matter his education, he doesn’t write like your typical MFA graduate. Like Lorine Niedecker or Rebecca McClanahan, he is not afraid taking the verbal words of life and then designing his own architecture of poems, not bound to a certain trajectory or trendy sense of poetic mannerisms. This independence of mode allows for a clearly unique sense of form and word choice.
The second section of this book is devoted to a suite of poems based around installation and other visual artworks by the Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. As most of Gonzalez-Torres’ work concerns his former lover’s death from AIDS, it’s weighty stuff and the poems properly address this in a manner that never seeks to replace or simply report on Gonzalez-Torres’ own artwork but to consider the relationship between art and artist, art and viewer. The result is exacting: you feel as if you are with Crews as he visits a gallery and examines Gonzalez-Torres’ installations. The subject matter could inspire pity but Crews keeps his tone clearly above this, and the impression is mostly one of sharing Crews’ respect and awe for Gonzalez-Torres’ work instead of the tragic subject matter behind that work. Does Crews make the reader interested in seeing Gonzalez-Torres’ work? Sure, but beyond that, Crews displays how through poetry one can write about art just as one writes about life. There is no disconnect between how Crews addresses this body of artwork in contrast to how he approaches any other subject and this seamless approach is a near-perfect proof of Crews’ abilities as a poet.
The University of Nebraska Press has done a superb job of designing the layout and presentation of Crews’ book: as with their recent volume of poetry by Shane Book, Nebraska has used an economy of space in their layout and gray divider pages between major sections to create a sense of this slim book actually being larger than it is when held in hand. The choice of typography is conservative and reads well, allowing the reader to concentrate on Crews’ words. A short section of notes is provided about poems that warrant such for a quote or dedication. Is it odd I notice the graphic design in such an acute manner and comment on it? Perhaps, but I studied graphic design for a year in college and I guess it stuck with me. Moreover, as a reviewer one spends a good amount of time with a book and it is very refreshing to find one that is compact and pragmatic yet feels as expansive as its words demand, to say nothing of one that’s easy to read in dim light by a laptop on the back porch while writing a review. Plus, I would have been upset had the designers not treated Crews’ sublime words with due care.
Overall, The Book of What Stays is one of the very best original books of poetry I’ve read in the past couple of years—and I read a lot. Could there be criticisms? Well, sure, with any book there always are when we search for them: I’d have liked it to have been a little longer as Crews gets into enough topics that it felt at places compressed and not allowed to show as much depth and scope as perhaps additional poems would have provided. The poems based around the visual art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres are lush in detail, haunted with emotion and could have formulated an even more extensive suite than what Crews presents. I feel that while this book may be the one that stays, there’s a “part two” quickly on the way.
MIKE WALKER is a writer, skateboarder, surfer, and snowboarder who lives in Gainesville, Florida. His original research and other academic work has been published in: AirMed, Goldenseal, EcoFlorida, BrightLights Quarterly, the ATA Chronicle, Translation Journal, Multilingual Computing and Technology and other journals. His journalism in: The Florida Times-Union, The North Florida News Daily, Satellite Magazine, Twisted Ear, and other publications. His poetry in: Meanie, the Church Wellesley Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and other publications.