By Miriam N. Kotzin, from Per Contra, summer issue, 2014.
A new book by Lewis Turco is always a welcome occasion, whether literary handbook, memoir, literary criticism, short fiction, or poetry. (His poetry was also published under the anagrammatic pen name Wesli Court.) The latest of about fifty books, The Familiar Stranger, is a volume of poetry published by Star Cloud Press on the occasion of the poet's 80th birthday. This book is a gift to readers who will find a treasure in Turco's accomplished poems, not only for the craft and genius of composition, but for the plentitude of acute observations of the natural world and human nature.
The Familiar Stranger comprises four sections: Home Tunes, Talismans, Urban Myths, and The Stranger's Songs.
The home in Home Tunes is that of place and spirit: Oswego, a college town on the shores of Lake Ontario, and its harbor and Breitbeck Park. Some poems are set in the academy, such as "The Student," "End of Term," and "Summer English." "End of Term" turns an eye to bluebooks, in which exams commonly were written, and also to truth in the classroom. The play with alliteration (batch, bees, butting; humble, hothouse, hairy) and the change from an expected "bumble bees" to "humble bees" deliver a two-for-one pay off.
petals, like monstrous lilies blossoming
in topical marshes, these bluebooks lie.
Truth was a batch of humble bees this year
butting against hothouse panes. There was no
pollen gotten upon hairy legs.
Note that the marshes are topical, not tropical. What follows is the gentleman's [now the girl's] C limned with a series of metaphors:
Your grade is nothing, sweet;
an oval with an opening, empty
within; a receptacle lying on
its side, its contents nonexistent; the
outline of a womb, a cross section of
sterility; the third letter in the
Cain’s initial, not Abel’s.
After all, in academe, the scarlet letter is not an A.
In "Oswego," the lines take the reader from the distant horizon ["the last of the sun breathes light /out of the horizon,..."] to the extreme close-up: "stones where the spiders live, where/ the gulls alight to conceive of evening." This is not only landscape, but a space in which the poem delivers life and energy.
The same sort of mix occurs here as well. This is not a silent world at the turn of day, at the turn of season. Instead,
A twist of goldenrod runs into fields,
to the apple orchard fence where ravens
give voice to the dark quality of waiting.
Waiting occurs in ten poems distributed among all four sections of The Familiar Stranger. For example, in The Stranger's Songs, "Priest of Passage." Stanzas alternate between the point of view of a mouse and that of an owl. The owl speaks about a mouse, his prey:
"He is down there, waiting. He will not hear
my wings until they are beating his sides,
until my talons have wound his life in
spools of flight and the earth diminishes
as his world grows smaller, washes at last
into the wells of his sight. Let him wait
as I circle in a white storm of stars."
And, as the mouse waited for the owl to bring him death, the protagonist of "The Guest" has also been waiting.
"Ah! There you are," he said,
turning his head as Death walked through the door,
"I've been waiting for you.
What's taken you so long?"
Attaining, and or passing, the age at which a parent died, especially the same-sex parent, is powerful. Earlier, writing as Wesli Court, Turco merges his father's and his own death in "The Obsession" (a sestina), writes variants of the poem's first line: "Last night I dreamed my father died again." (The poem ends, "I died again last night, my father dreamed.") Reaching the age at which his father died, in "Autogenethliacum" the poet writes about his father.
My father was belied by the world. I was
unable to understand how good he was
or could be in the face of hell enough
for all the world forever, hell enough
to last any man old as he was.
The poems in the second section, Talismans, present a wide range of subjects and moods. The glorious presentation of the natural world awakening in "Aubade Down East" concludes: "Long glancing rays of the eye of dawn/awaken wings, fill all earth’s small throats with praise."
Then "Sapphics for April" moves through the calendar, giving a reason for each month to be "a moon of mourning," while the poet claims that each month may present a reason for one to be depressed. For example,
Ah! July! The twittering birdies sing you
songs of desuetudinous boredom, or you’re
captive in your cubicle while the sun shines
elsewhere for others.
The love of language that would combine "twittering birdies" and "desuetudinous boredom" is also responsible for "unending carols / dunning our eardrums." Not drumming, but dunning—making persistent demands. The death we meet in this poem comes when "we're flung off / into the silence."
The tone is far different in "Words for White Weather," dedicated to d. a. levy, the Cleveland poet and publisher who died at 26.
him this too: a grassblade made
the frost's sickle, lush love
turned root rape, the maggot's
carnal slither. No matter. Her
kiss was decay. Still, his songs
weather the winter.
The last poem in the second section, Talismans, is "The Rider," a poem of four stanzas describing a mysterious rider on a stallion, with a "hand of bone, white bone" and a "brow of bone, white bone."
Lost is the name of his stallion,
And the name of his blade is Hours.
His pace is the gait of bone, white bone.
He hums like the wind as he wanders,
And he rides alone.
Turco's narrative skills are evident in many poems in the third section, Urban Myths: in "Terminal," a father says good-bye to his family at a bus terminal; in "Night Song," a man wakes in a hotel to hear the sounds of fighting down the hallway, and when the poem closes, "The sounds / of the dark city crawl in through the mirror." The setting of "Black Coffee" is bleak as Hopper's Nighthawks, the action spare.
Two poems take off after their epigraphs. "The Silence" uses a quotation from Milton – not John, that's Milton Berle, " "The joke fell so flat, you could have driven a truck through the silence." The first three stanzas plus one word:
You could have driven a truck
through the silence. You might have felt
the miles peeling off the road
under the raddled moon —
you could have cared less,
maybe, but then again, you
might have stopped at nothing. Instead,
the neon light might have buzzed
in the dark sizzling as
you stepped down from the
cab. Then you may have gone in,
sat down at the counter.
have been bending down over
the juke box, the record
blue in the heav
It's possible to read the poem and only revel in its B-movie details, including the lush description of what's in the woman's eyes: "the quiet/miles of summer, the dust/of darkness, the moons/turning among the clouds like/rags over the road." To do so would be to ignore the humor of the words, which play with stock phrases through exaggeration, the poem's "sizzling," to borrow a word from "The Silence." For an example of the humor, ask yourself the question, "How quiet was it?" Here the answer in the poem is, "You/could have heard a cup drop." The dropped pin transmogrifies to a dropped cup, unexpected and yet appropriate to a diner. Later, the poet says,
could have cut the silence with
like kicking yourself
to keep awake as you drove.
The offered stock phrase "you could have cut the silence with" calls for a physical object, such as a samurai sword, which would follow the example of the epigraph. Instead, the means to cut the silence is a radio. The line break is a stand-in for the comedian's timing. The line continues, but on another level (literally). And a new stanza switches the scene. Instead of kicking yourself because you left the (perhaps) blonde in the diner, it's to keep awake in the cab of the rig.
The other running joke is in the poem's use of the conditional: could have, might have, may have, maybe, with the final line delivered with a wink, "but then/again you may not."
The second poem that takes an epigraph as its starting point is "Driving"—a quotation from Emily Dickinson's letters, "Dying is a wild night and a new road." While "Silence" is humorous, this is dead serious, with the tense details of, for example, "thorny" static and rain like "rods of glass."
The final section is "Songs of the Stranger." Discussed above in the context of poems that include images of waiting, "Priest of Passage" and "The Guest" are both here, as is "The Stranger," one long sentence of fourteen lines that moves from the natural world to that which cannot be explained.
This is a satisfying volume for a number of reasons. Many of the poems rival Yeats' for musicality. The poems have a wide range of subjects. The poet does not flinch from the subjects of death and decay, nor does he shy away from the beauty and mysteries of the natural world. Moreover, a goodly number of poems are witty; "Mon Coeur" is a Confutatione, a form in which the first word of each line, reading downward from first line to last, presents a statement that is in contrast to the poem as a whole, when the poem is read in a normal manner. In the following quotation of each line's first words in "Mon Coeur," for the sake of comprehension I have omitted indication of the line breaks and have regularized the punctuation and capitalization: "He is a fool who has no sense of humor. That poet is an ass who thinks himself a priest." The same might be said of the critic.