Dr. Sleep, a review of fiction editor HA Maxson's new collection of poetry


When you hear HA Maxson read live, his steady command of the breath pulls the subtle music of his often quotidian poetry; he is like a sly clarinet player taking it easy on a Sunday morning. Maxson’s work often borrows from the journaling tradition that is to say his poems are not afraid of the everyday music of chores, daily rituals, and things. Grasmere, published in 2015, was a collaboration with excerpts and fragments of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, written deep in the Romantic period, and like Grasmere, Call it Sleep, at times evokes the feeling of being present in the now, among nature, witnessing time slipping away.

The opening section of Call it Sleep is a sad movement, loaded with elegies for Maxson’s brother. Many of the poems are tense, and the lies are pulled tight in the anxious hoping for longevity, hoping for an extension on life, in any way possible, and knowing that most of us will be forgotten within a generation. The poems reverberate with the strange loneliness of grief, that weird twinge of survivor guilt that emanates from the simple fact that a loved one is no longer here, but you are witnessing every moment that your loved one is not, a kind of haunting in reverse. In the poem “Windows” the speaker imagines his brother’s renovation handiwork lasting forever, a kind of handy-man neanderthal artist, “I hope someday an “X” or “IV/might shimmer up in someone’s Spring cleaning/clear and meaningful as a handprint blown/onto a cave wall at Lascaux or Chauvet.” This wanting of permanence, a kind of validation of the heart or ego, if you will, is an emotional motif throughout the collection, as is his brothers carpentry work, which appears again in the elegy “Upon this House”:

All through your dying

I kept watch as best I could

because upon this house

your hand is everywhere.

At times, Maxson also turns that eye inward about writing, and the motif shifts from nails and hammers to the “braille” and “morse code” of mourning.

The shape of Maxson’s music comes from Maxson’s education with classical forms. Lyric drives his compositions, relying on subtle music rather than bold rhyme. Consider these lines from the opening elegy,“Fall”:

say the dead fall of leaves catching

nestlike in the crook of oak or maple,

no longer leaves or nesting stuff;

say snow fall or rain fall in their time,