Sunday, March 26, 2017

Star Journal - Selected Poems - Christopher Buckley (Pitt Poetry Series/University of Pittsburgh Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Star Journal - Selected Poems.  Christopher Buckley.  Pitt Poetry Series.  University of Pittsburgh Press.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  2016.

Star Journal - Selected Poems  by Christopher Buckley is as straightforward as a yardstick, measuring by star-light, the weight of a butterfly heart.  In fact Star Journal is a book of poet magic, a proverbial pot of gold.  Today's book of poetry defies you to open any page of this book and not be entertained and enlightened.

I don't hear 'em but I certainly feel the ghosts of Woody Guthrie and Will Rogers in the elusive space in the English language where intellect and emotion get to tango it out in an invisible swirl of yin and yang.  Here is a poet with a giant poet clock time machine, metronomes of logic, tiny unseen hammers of reason, all of ticking away in balance inside the Buckley noggin'.

Today's book of poetry couldn't help but think cinematic when reading these expansive certainties. There were moments of complete satisfaction, just like watching a Francis Ford Coppola movie where all the details are exact, all the details make it true.  Buckley does the same thing, makes sure you are hearing the right sound, fills the mirror in the corner with the proper reflection, colours in the edges of the image until you are there breathing it in.

Why I'm in Favor of a Nuclear Freeze

Because we were 18 and still wonderful in our bodies,
because Harry's father owned a ranch and we had
nothing better to do one Saturday, we went hunting
doves among the high oaks and almost wholly quiet air....
Traipsing the hills and deer paths for an hour,
we were ready when the first ones swooped
and we took them down in smoke much like the planes
in the war films of our regimented youth.
                                                                  Some were dead
and some knocked cold, and because he knew how
and I just couldn't, Harry went to each of them and,
with thumb and forefinger, almost tenderly, squeezed
the last air out of their slight necks.
                                                         Our jackets grew
heavy with birds and for a while we sat in the shade
thinking we were someone, talking a bit of girls--
who would "go," who wouldn't, how love would probably
always be beyond our reach...We even talked of the nuns
who terrified us with God and damnation. We both recalled
that first prize in art, the one pinned to the cork board
in front of class, was a sweet blond girl's drawing
of the fires and coals, the tortured souls of Purgatory.
Harry said he feared eternity until he was 17, and,
if he ever had kids, the last place they would go would be a
parochial school.
                            On our way to the car, having forgotten
which way the safety was off or on, I accidentally discharged
my borrowed 12 gauge, twice actually -- one would have been Harry's
head if he were behind me, the other my foot, inches to the right.
We were almost back when something moved in the raw, dry grass,
and without thinking, and on the first twitch of two tall ears,
we together blew the ever-loving-Jesus out of a jack rabbit
until we couldn't tell fur from dust from blood....
                                                                               Harry has
a family, two children as lovely as any will ever be--
he hasn't hunted in years... and that once was enough for me.
Anymore, a good day offers a moment's praise for the lizards
daring the road I run along, or it offers a dusk in which
yellow meadowlarks scrounge fields in the grey autumn light.
Harry and I are friends now almost 30 years, and the last time
we had dinner, I thought about that rabbit, not the doves
which we swore we would cook and eat, but that rabbit--
why the hell had we killed it so cold-heartedly? And I saw
that it was simply because we had the guns, because we could.


Christopher Buckley's poems are small stories that spin out so large you can't help but get caught up in the vortex, they becomes proclamations without ever proselytizing.  We can almost believe that Christopher Buckley has our planet sussed out, or at least our meagre scrabbling over its surface.

But in truth Buckley is asking as many questions as your average skeptic.

Range.  Good poets have range and Buckley covers it.  We are subject to musings on Mao Tse-Tung, a beautiful blue evening in Santorini, Bertrand Russell's musings on astronomy, reading/not reading Einstein, dancing "the Stroll," and so on.  These poems swell with the lovely interconnectivity of a man full of ideas, Buckley encompasses a big universe and he does it in big, big poems of staggering beauty and subtle intellect.  When you're reading these poems you are taking in a lot of new information but it is coming through the Buckley filter.

Watchful--Es Castell, Menorca

     But the truth is what we are always
      watchful, lying in wait for ourselves.

I remember the idiot in the town square
of Es Castell, trying each day to entice
the resident pigeons to eat the orange peels
he threw blissfully, and with hope,
on to the grass and walks.
                                                         But, after so much time,
they were on to him, and the worthless peels,
and waddled away in a mumbling cloud
of feathers....And each day he'd finally tire
of their truculence and unzip the jacket
of his purple warm-up suit, spread it wide
as a red kite's wings, and run
into their grey midst, scattering them
a few feet beyond the fountains, but never out
above the sky-colored water,
or into the water-colored sky....

Like the old men already sitting there
in the wet shadows on the benches,
we soon tolerated him--like the pigeons
who came back in a minute or two
and who seemed to forget,
as he did, such purposeless and 
momentary confrontations--days
like lost clouds.
                          I soon realized
that I was blessed simply
to walk out each morning
around the square and hear
the clock tower above the post office
strike the hour two times,
a few minutes apart, and not care
which could be correct; blessed
to sit next to the public phones,
which occasionally rang for no one,
and watch the bees dissolve into the sun,
knowing someone else had done the math of light--
the stars never showing any sign
of distress.
                  Yet, if there is some truth
about us, it's not in the stars,
or in the cluster of orange peels
almost as brilliant on the mid-morning walk--
but perhaps in the fact that we can tolerate
one among us to whom they are of equal
                      I no longer need to look
to stars, the poorly punctuated dark,
for no matter what I tap out on the Olivetti,
the earth still looks inescapable from here.
But if some innocence remains,
a little of it might be here
on this small island
deserted in winter by tourists,
foreign commerce, and even the attention
of the more fashionable birds.
The green finch and the swifts are
content and have their say.
The boats are in each afternoon,
gulls climbing the air after them,
praising the fruits of the sea.

And if now we are not sure
what is of value--looking out
at the fig trees thin as refugees
along the cliff--we at least understand
what is worthless before our eyes
morning after morning, as the steam
and fog of industry lift off
beyond the port and to the west
without us.
                   I sit above the harbor,
happily on the benches provided
by the ayuntamiento for just this purpose,
beneath the orderly palms,
freighters and cruise ships slipping
in and out, going somewhere...
and make do with the intuition of wind,
the pines with their impromptu rhythms,
my hands and feet free
to defeat the intricate purposes of air,
to do nothing more than claim
the prosperity of light.
                                    Late afternoon,
I like the white tables fronting
the bars in the square, relaxing
with a small Estrella--a beer
named for a star--knowing that,
soon enough, around the corner,
I'll be on my way back
from the market and bakery
with a heart as full as the summer
5:00 sun, with a yellow grocery bag
in each hand as I ascend the steps
to our flat over the cove, where
I'll look out, and see in the reflection
of the glass doors, a happy man
arranging oranges in a bowl.


Buckley's Star Journal made for a great morning read in the office today.  His poems read like tidy little novels so the reader has time to sink their teeth in.

Christopher Buckley keeps a narrative line strong enough to climb up the side of a mountain with, or pull shipwrecked survivors from the sea.  He keeps it taut.  Buckley's narrative line is strong enough to be a lifeline, you could hang your hat on it.


           for Phil

    la colera de pobre
     tiene dos rios contra muchos mares.

                                          --Cesar Vallejo

Vallejo wrote that with God we are all orphans.
I send $22 a month to a kid in Ecuador
so starvation keeps moving on its bony burro
past his door--no cars, computers,
basketball shoes--not a bottle cap
of hope for the life ahead...just enough
to keep hunger shuffling by in a low cloud
of flies. It's the least I can do,
and so I do it.
                      I have followed the dry length
of Mission Creek to the sea and forgotten to pray
for the creosote, the blue saliva, let alone
for pork bellies, soy bean futures.
There are 900 thousand Avon Ladies in Brazil.
Billions are spent each year on beauty products
world-wide--28 billion on hair care, 14 on skin
conditioners, despite children digging on the dumps,
selling their kidneys, anything that is briefly theirs.
9 billion a month for war in Iraq, a chicken bone
for foreign aid.
                        I am the prince of small potatoes,
I deny them nothing who come to me beseeching
the crusts I have to give. I have no ground for complaint,
though deep down, where it's anyone's guess,
I covet everything that goes along with the illustrious--
creased pants as I stroll down the glittering boulevard,
a little aperitif beneath Italian pines. But who cares
what I wear, or drink? The rain? No, the rain is something
we share--it devours the beginning and the end.

The old stars tumble out of their bleak rooms like dice--
Box Cars, Snake Eyes, And-The-Horse-You-Rode-In-On...
not one metaphorical bread crumb in tow.
Not a single Saludo! from the patronizers
of the working class--Pharaoh Oil, Congress,
or The Commissioner of Baseball--all who will eventually
take the same trolley car to hell, or a slag heap
on the outskirts of Cleveland.
                                                I have an ATM card,
AAA Plus card. I can get cash from machines, be towed
20 miles to a service station. Where do I get off penciling in
disillusionment? My bones are as worthless as the next guy's
against the stars, against the time it takes light to expend
its currency across the cosmic vault. I have what everyone has--
the over-drawn statement of the air, my blood newly rich
with oxygen before the inescapable proscenium of the dark,
my breath going out equally with any atom of weariness
or joy, each one of which is closer to God than I.


Star Journal - Selected Poems is a big book full of big ideas and Today's book of poetry loved it.  The personal and political merge as Buckley storms over the horizon.  Today's book of poetry will be down for anything Christopher Buckley wants to cook from now till the end.  Buckley burns with the best.

Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley has published twenty books of poetry, several chapbooks and limited editions, and three memoirs. He is the editor of six poetry anthologies as well as critical books on the poets Philip Levine, Larry Levis, and Luis Omar Salinas. Buckley is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, two National Endowment for the Arts Grants, a Fulbright Award, four Pushcart prizes, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America, among other awards. Buckley has taught writing and creative writing at several universities, and is emeritus professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.

“The poems are modest, straight forward, intensely lyrical and totally accessible. . . . This is a humble poetry of great truths and profound emotions that never overstates its concerns for the events both in and above the world. It rewards countless readings and never betrays itself.”
  —Philip Levine on Sky in Ploughshares

“Time and the shifts of time are the burden: not simply time as recollection or loss, but also and everywhere the persistent loneliness of star time, mastodon time, so that finally these are poems in which reflection takes on uncommon amplitude and presence. And all this would be nothing, of course, without the language, which is the glory of these poems.”
     —Peter Everwine on Dark Matter

“Christopher Buckley’s gift for wide-ranging thinking meshes so gracefully with lovingly tender details, he feels like a companion voice for all time—a Hikmet, a Neruda, yes.”
      —Naomi Shihab Nye on Back Room at the Philosopher’s Club

“There is a deep nostalgia here, but also wisdom and common sense, and beautiful writing. I welcome him at his maturist, poet of stardust.”
    —Gerald Stern on And the Sea

“The poems are verbally so rich, generous, out-loud (I can't not intone the rhetorical flourishes), inclusive, wry. I like especially the orientation to the large-picture physics/cosmology at the same time that (Buckley) relates his own past. . . . I like the tone—how else to address one's mortality & mixed luck except with irony & affection stirred with gratitude?”
     —Dennis Schmitz

“Some poets like only celestial music, other the grit of the streets, but Buckley engages winningly with both.”
      —David Kirby in San Francisco Chronicle

“Prize-winning poet Buckley has a unique poetic voice, a sort of breathless, long-sentenced style that is gripping and captivating . . . . These are poems of immortality and extinction that can still make you smile. He has an exquisite ear for language and a gutsy way of blending bravado with humility.”
     —Judy Clarence in Library Journal

"There is a quietness to these poems and breakouts of lyrical intensity that define Buckley as a master of the art."
     —North of Oxford


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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