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Book Review: The Iron Key by James Longenbach

May 9, 2012

This volume begins with “Knowledge” and ends with “Beauty.” Buried in knowledge as we are today, how does Longenbach come to stand on beauty? By letting memories and descriptions drift through each other until the right juxtaposition is found, as in the opening of “Mercer Street”:

Elizabeth, called Betty, took to her bed in 1952.
She had five daughters: Gale, Mary, Jean, Roberta, and Fran.
Geraniums in the window box, dahlias at the fence.
Albert lived three houses down.

Betty had a dog named Fuzzy, who roamed free.
At 5:00, when Fuzzy followed Albert home, she'd say
There goes a very smart man and a very smart dog.

Albert published the General Theory of Relativity in 1916.
After sleeping beneath the bed, refusing to eat,
Fuzzy limped in front of a moving car.
Time tells matter to move, matter tells time to curve.

Often, I feel like we are waiting with Longenbach for such opportunities, at which times the poetry is merely (but very) pleasant and relaxing. From “Archipelago”:

An elegantly dressed woman standing in two inches of water to buy a loaf of bread.

The two arched windows, slightly lower than the other four, that break the symmetry of the doge’s palace.

A garbage collector tilting his wheelbarrow up the steps of a bridge.

A man pissing against the wall of a narrow calle.

The analytic philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine wrote that physical objects are myths in his From a Logical Point of View. This classification has been criticized as insulting to physical objects – which aren’t nearly so primitive and silly as myths. But I would sooner see it as unfair to myths – which aren’t nearly so drab and superficial as physical objects. Longenbach is proving Quine right, though in a way Quine may not have appreciated or understood. Or more accurately, he’s demonstrating that physical objects serve just as well as gods for the characters in a spiritual narrative. Take this line, again from “Archipelago”: “In some places, according to the run of the currents, the land has risen into islands.” This, to me, is an irrefutable fact, but with the feel of something supernatural being reported, like “In some places, according to local legend, the land is a giant fallen into the sea.”

Science wants us to believe in as little as possible – this is one of its primary objectives, its stated aim, whether given as Occam’s razor or some more modern update. The poet who wants to eat well can respond by ignoring or scorning the sack of facts science hands her. This was William Blake’s tack. Alternatively, she might humble science with her alchemy, transforming those facts into the food she needs. Longenbach is closer to the second kind. He treats gods and things in the same way, asking gods questions – from “After Tibullus”:

Tell me, Ceres, who invented the sword?
No wars when cups of beechwood stand at the feast?
No citadels, no palisades?

And praying to physical objects – from “Snow”:

Snow that covers us from above,
Cover us more deeply.
Whiten the city with its houses and churches,
The red house and the yellow house,
The port with its ships.

These palace-like poems break the asymmetry of our assumptions about what can be had from the daily and the divine. The Iron Key is published by W. W. Norton. James Longenbach teaches English at the University of Rochester. He also writes very engaging literary criticism; I recommend The Resistance to Poetry.

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