Today's book of poetry: Waking In The Tree House. Michael Lithgow. Cormorant Books. Markham, Ontario. 2012.
Michael Lithgow's Waking In The Tree House is a startling good first book. It's just damned good poetry period. And it reads like Lithgow is an old pro. These poems are written in a very conversational and accessible style and they all have the feel of having arrived fully formed.
The desire of everything
What was the fascination with fire telling us?
A crackling in the heads of eleven-year-olds,
stuffing ping-pong balls with matches,
igniting words written with butane in mud,
on sidewalks, in sandboxes –– watching something alive
burn from dead grass. There was a recipe
for gunpowder –– kitchen alchemy –– with sulfur scraped
from match-tips, burnt wood, sugar and saltpeter
in a bowl; moving the metal spoons slowly.
I loved that my fingers could snap ghosts
from almost anything, that liquids burned,
that we could burn and watch our fingers in flames
like Johnny Torch –– flame on!
before burying our hands in the sand.
I loved that we could reach past ourselves
with gestures as sublime and ridiculous
as we were, that we held a key to a beautiful secret.
I liked it more than smallness and boredom,
more than my room, more than my paper route.
A lot more than my paper route.
More than discovering a world of exhaustion,
of people who spelled magic wrong ––
I mean, who spelled it in a way that didn't spell
the desire of everything (almost everything)
to burn, burn, burn
A conversational tone while easy to mimic is very hard to master. Lithgow excels. Again and again, by the end of a poem –– I was remembering the experience as my own.
There's a very humanistic appeal in these Lithgow poems, there are moments of real tenderness that do not descend into trite nothings. Instead, you feel Lithgow really does have a finger on a hidden pulse we all move to.
An old man drags a net across the beach,
something from the Old World, his feet
making unstable shadows bend in the sand
among them the shape of a Portuguese dory
upending in the tide. He moves his feet
through the waves to stretch the net over stones
trapping smelts. A woman in bright pants,
her hair piled high, watches from a log
eating sandwiches as the foam and water
plash up the bank of mud and sand. Herons
stand in the low waves with their bodies
cocked. When they move a flash of silver
comes into the dying light and is swallowed;
they never miss. Haze smears the old men,
onlookers, heron, and the hills around the
harbour. Each of us is waiting. Whatever
we've come for feeds us.
The poems in Waking In The Tree House cover a wide gamut of subject matter ranging from the Old Jewish Quarter in Kracow and the rotting tooth of God to hiding one's own despair among the forgotten and unwanted relics of a dilapidated second hand store.
But Lithgows' steady voice is constant.
If you want
It's not so hard to walk away from love, a breath or two
and it's done. You can fuck, if you want to, to mark the end
like a delicate wax seal; or take it slowly to the street
then cycle away as if a fiend was giving chase. After,
if you want, you can take a long walk and feel
the cool wind blow on the wound, as if you'd sawed
something off. You can count the dead birds you find
and trace lines of exhaustion on other people's faces,
your reassurance that it is hard for everyone. You can
even whistle if you want. Not that you're alone.
Michael Lithgow gives us his first book, and it is clear, he really does have his finger on some sort of collective emotional pulse, these poems often feel familiar on first reading, a deju-vu to the familiar.
The spiders come in the late summer heat.
Eight legs like tiny needles sewing silk
pendants in the air; they make their webs
in the windows of the store where I buy
my evening paper and imagine I charm
the pretty cashier –– dozens it seems,
waiting to capture what comes to the light.
They strew their work across the narrow steps
to my home, across thresholds where once,
I confess, I brought love then later threw it out.
They appear in windows in patterns of trapped
dust like cosmic plumes. These opposites
of satellites! placing themselves in their centres
waiting for what keeps them alive. I, too, must
wait for things, and I do it badly.
Their strange inscriptions enmesh so many
points in this city, a million million little signs
of patience, patterns braided from belief.
That the elusive things we need will come.
And patience. Michael Lithgow is a patient poet, he never rushes anything, it is all build, build, build to the killer ending. Lithgows' very sure voice sets its' own pace.