Today's book of poetry: Augustine's Vision. Peter Filkins. New American Press. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. 2010.
If poetry is the search for the perfect words to describe - and I think it is - I have the perfect word to describe the poetry in Augustine's Vision by Peter Filkins, sublime.
This subtle, nuanced poetry fills your head with some of the same magic as truffled chocolate. That moment of all encompassing delight because a particular need has been sated. Don't be distracted and don't be thinking I'm suggesting that his is candy, or light amusement. Filkins is, as Kelly Cherry suggests "by turns discursive, dramatic and lyrical".
If you are Jonesing for some seriously delightful and intelligent poetry - Peter Filkins is your guy.
Many years later, while contemplating beauty
as order, he would think of them: gamecocks
sharpening their claws for a scrap, and how
in the market's dusty tumult he felt compelled
to stop and watch them while on his way
to be baptized and confess himself a creature of sin.
Prisoner to his heart's regard, he courted error,
the beauty of a thing in and of itself
not always the same as God's invisible plan,
the gamecocks crowing, bodies taut with power,
soon edging the crowd towards a rippling frenzy.
"For what horizon do eyes of love not scan,
hoping for a hint of reason's beautiful scheme,"
he later wrote, thinking of savage birds
pitched in battle, pure animal action
without mind — limp wings and carriage, a croak
gone awry, all of it fitting nature's set way.
Though this was years before he lay on his deathbed,
Hippos surrounded, the Vandal hordes approaching,
himself lamenting his sins, remembering gamecocks,
their beaks and talons bloodied, no doubt convinced
a higher mind worked through them, ordering all things,
as the saint continued weeping inside his narrow cell.
Filkins has that ability to make it all real, believable, present. I think a really fine poet makes it all look simple, easy. Filkins' poems read like they are eternal common knowledge, the stuff we all need to know.
As the fastball released, spinning and spinning
to slide invincibly low and away, how could
I know (the umpire calling me out, out
went the roar of the crowd into the grassy air)
that years later, blear-eyed mad, he'd place
the gun in his mouth, maybe think twice
about the mess he'd leave behind, certainty
however triumphing over the future
blank empty of her touch, her smile
no more now than heartsick scorching flame
triggering the radical inner explosion
of a life gone to pieces, Rocky! Rocky!
his father bellowed from the backdoor steps
as we played on and on in the sandlot,
practicing the useless beautiful skills
of our Little League, pop fly and grounder,
toss and catch, there in the low red glare
of a late inning's summer sunset that,
come Saturday, would freeze my stance,
blind me to the pitch, I never saw it coming.
These are colloquial poems of a highly personal nature and they are universal. We have all been inside these narratives. Or imagined them.
When I saw The Downfall in Berlin,
the theater just around the corner
from the long-buried bunker, I couldn't believe
Frau Goebbels would sit down to a game
of solitaire after having just killed
all six of her children as they slept,
cyanide preferable to what she imagined
the Russians would do once they moved in.
Who, after all, could maintain such composure?
Especially at such a time, lamps flickering
out and then on like the Fuher's rages,
her children having expired with a shudder
echoed on screen by the bunker's quaking.
I couldn't accept it. Too ironic
a turn, too convenient a portrayal,
the director telling us this is what started it,
millions of dead and wounded the result
of repression, the will to power, a woman
snapping down cards to the rattle of gunfire.
But what if it was like that, Frau Goebbels
unable to think of anything better to do
amid such ruin, except to wait
for her beloved Reich to finally topple
and release her from her nightmare?
The next day, visiting Sachenhausen,
I learned about a group of prisoners
who at night had continued practicing
scales and arpeggios, a Dvorak quartet,
secretly in the hold of the pathology lab
where by day the bodies were dissected
in search of abnormalities, myself
transfixed while I sat there listening
to the audio guide, the prisoner's seeming
need for dignity in the teeth of death
comprised of a courage few of us know.
Or could hope to, trapped as we are
by certain limitations, no one surviving
who witnesses the woman playing solitaire,
the man inside the refurbished museum
thinking about a handful of musicians
practicing a transcription of Schubert's Eighth,
elusive and abandoned, unfinished forever.
Or, we have pondered these narratives in those quiet moments when we give thought to such things. When we think of history, life.
Augustine's Vision is so solid it could be chiseled in granite. Peter Filkins, the author of two previous collections, What She Knew and After Homer has an admirable gift.
Peter Filkins Reading