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,
not the actual pelt or sift toward earth,
but the gathering there in puddle or drift;
Ah, those Ss and Fs! The wonderful friction of fricatives and plosives, the common lyric, if you will, of American verse. F’s blow long notes, as do Ss. The undercutting sharpness of Ds, Ts, and a K! How nature is chopped up; the hollowness and absence of life in the nest, the absence of life in the pelt.
As the book progresses, the emotional tone lightens up. At times, Call it Sleep is also full of wonder, a kind of joy in play, if you will. In “At San Felipe” Maxson describes seeing a street performer, trinket salesman, who peddles much more than music, and whistles. He peddles art, and promise, and hope, the hope carried home by our imagination:
Then he takes up a local pennywhistle
and plays a few notes. Many stop,
so does he.
Now, back home,
I think of him, the plaintive notes.
If only he had just sat down,
played a simple folk tune through.
We tourists would have flocked to him
waving pesos and convinced
that we could play it too.
This kind of joy is wonderfully echoed in “A Limb,” which like say Wallace Stevens’ “Snowman” is structured to snake back onto itself, and with repetition:
A limb, long as a boat,
lies in the yard after storm.
There is a boat-shaped hole
in the tree above it.
There’s a boat full of blue
floating through the green of pine
where the boat-limb cracked
and fell, last night, during the storm.
And these poems are also about the artistic process as well, the rhythm of it, the trick of it. How the process of imagination is sometimes an act of faith, or re-examination.
The ending of the collection sings with nature lyrics, and garden imagery, and are strung with tension by the contrasting image of fire. Highlights include the sonorous “Fire-Song between Equinox and Solstice,” a delicious nonce lyric form, that showcases Maxson’s skill with rhyme, and “Laying a Fire” which showcases Maxson’s mnemonic line breaks, and build up to the final section which is emotionally centered around Maxson’s father.
Call it Sleep faces aging, death, and time but not without winking at us, and poking fun at our own morbid emotional twists, our own tendencies to inflate our sense of worth. For it is not just his family Maxson elegizes; he is writing about the state of dying and rebirth surrounding us, as steady as falling rain “that wakes you, four a.m., like a knock at the door.” Maxson reminds us that we are likely not to go out with a bang, but rather needing a final haircut, and a final pair of new shoes, our fate left to shoeboxes full of stuff, old photos, and mementos.