Oh, By the Way:
A Review of David Radavich’s
By the Way: Poems Over the Years
As a rule, I try to stay away from work that I consider Imagist in nature. This is because I find most imagist work short of the mark; four sticks and a slab of wood do not make a table, just as some so called imagist poets try to stick six words on a page and call it a poem. Coherence and cohesion are needed to form a poem, just as something must connect the legs to the board to create a table. I lament the hours of my life eternally gone from me for having pierced my eyes and beat my brain trying to glean sense from the vaster pool of slush poetasters try to pass off as imagist poetry.
But there are exceptional works, and exceptional poets, who fit into, or at least at the margins of imagism. David Radavich’s By the Way: Poems over the Years starts out with an imagist feel. If Mr. Radavich considers himself an Imagist poet, then he is certainly one whom I would categorize in the exception; that is, I find his work coherent and cohesive. If he does not particularly align himself with the imagist camp, I can hardly be blamed for thinking him at least influenced by that philosophy. Imagism holds to the idea that the subject or object of the poem should be dealt with in concrete language and with the most economical use of words. Radavich is certainly vigorous in the Strunk & White fashion. He chooses his words carefully and pulls his lines together for the utmost impact and clarity. Rarely obtuse, hardly ever abstruse, Radavich delivers his lines with the clarity of hindsight and the simple elegance of a poet given neither to the sentimentality of the confessional nor the ostentatious verbosity of the Romantics.
One measure I find myself tending toward in reviewing any book, especially of poetry, is the quotidian quality of its content. Whether right or wrong, I find the measure to be of the same importance within a collection as prosody, imagery, and meaning are in a single poem. On this measure, Radavich scores about as highly as any book I’ve reviewed to date. One particular ‘couplet’ stands out most for its resonance through so many of the poems in the collection:
To learn loneliness
is not alone,
“Reading the Poet” 93
To take this from its context seems to bring it to the level of axiom. But within its context, both on the scale of its parent poem and its extended family, the collection as a whole, its resonance is as powerful as its seeming simplicity. Nowhere could the line (despite its break, I shall consider it a line unto itself) be better illustrated than in the poem “Birthday,” from page 101 of the book:
Every year a leaf falls,
one at a time, hands,
days full of raking, scattering
and I come to see
the bare tree
against the sunlight
strewn in branches, shimmering
naked against all
you give me tumbling
a small space, a time together
walking in woods
Like so many of his poems, Radavich leaves a lot of room for contextualization in the poem itself. One could imagine that the narrator is accompanied by a person in this poem; on the other hand, it begs of absence—poignant unalone loneliness. Perhaps it is the tone of the poems throughout the book that bring me to this intuition of the poem, as section two deals with cancer and this poem falls within the eighth and final section, “Departures.” It raises the question of the nature of the departure—could be divorce, but seems more likely death than distance. Is the tree a tree? Or is it a cross in a wooded cemetery? The final line salutes Frost, and in so doing brings the snow of the allusioned poem into this remembrance as well.
Such melancholy would make for a hard read were it to remain the staple of the collection, but happily that is not the case. First of all, within the context of the collection, there is a silver thread woven into every cloud invoked by the poet’s deliberately formed images. In “Parkscape,” we get such hope from the opening “We come here to find/ what is missing.” Anyone still searching is assumed to either have a hope of finding, or an obsessive compulsion, and since there is nothing in the context to hint the latter pathology, we must assume that the “we” invoked here is a collective of persons who retain the hope in finding what is lost. Further into the poem, we find one of my favorite expressions in poetry:
before we fly
outward in our perhaps
Immediately followed by the haunting, yet mesmerizing “It is dusk; / we have fed on it.” To me, the idea is that of the soul’s flight after the flesh falls away. I assume that we do so in sparrow form, led to that conclusion by the opening of “Reading the Poet”:
I think somehow
you must be a passerine
Thanks, David, for sending me to my dictionary to find that passerine refers to the largest order of birds (I’ve since used that wonderful addition to my lexicon in a crossword that would otherwise have been quite vexing). Back to the point, hope in an afterlife, of an ongoing spirit moving free of the dead flesh, mitigates the absolute tragedy of death, silvering the cloud of mourning. Each reference to loss therefore recalls hope. In the spirit of Donne, Radavich finds a way to keep death humble—and if death be a she, then he shears her well (see “Pride,” 25).
In his poem “Thin Man: Bosnia, 1993,” it is rather difficult to determine whose is the voice admonishing the reader from the only indented lines in the poem, “whosoever does not / believe / must cry out.” This is a powerful call to action, civically, socially, politically, artistically, and humanly. It is a mantra for every revolution, every civil disobedience, every town meeting, etc. It is not so much a stance as it is another axiom for humanity. It stands up for standing up, but calls to no particular polemical stance other than that claimed as inalienable rights by the framers of the Constitution.
Ever a sucker for poems on the theme of writing, I have to express how wonderful I find “Serenade,” a poem in which Radavich reverses the object/subject relationship of poet to writing technology. What writer doesn’t identify with the opening stanza? “My typewriter has / latent / tendencies.” Notice the deliberate loneliness (but never aloneness) of the word latent—a line unto itself because it cannot quite articulate what is now but mere potential. Again, in this poem, Radavich ends with hope, his typewriter serenading him and holding his hands.
A few pages back is a poem I find rather enigmatic. “Firefly” (page 48) eludes me for the most part intellectually. However, there is something here that touches my intuition and sensibility deeply while continuing to elude my intellect. The images are concrete, but the figures are challenging. Perhaps my mind twists among puerile puns in the lines:
side a bush,
came chasing, daunting
It plays in my mind precisely like a firefly in a dusky meadow, hinting of spring’s seduction and the lover of my youth. It’s elusiveness teases me to go back and read it time and again. Though I thoroughly enjoy the poem, I am lost to the reason of it and content myself to appreciate it presently as a wonderfully distracting enigma.
Perhaps it is the volumes of white space Radavich so generously leaves on so many pages that brighten the shadows of verse that might otherwise seem melancholy. This white space seems to somehow echo the spare words of transcendent hope, such as in “Prayer for My Mother.” In this poem, the early line “I’ve known you could die” is counter-balanced in the later lines “Even now / you are luminous.” The word luminous is immediately succeeded by two blank lines, which seems to emphasize its brightness in the most subtle way. Add to this the optimistic blessing of the next stanza:
I wish you a rise into the morning,
with your crisp brightness
The wonderful surprise here is that the narrator expresses a wish where one might otherwise expect a bidding, a command of sorts. The syntax somehow makes the wish more generous than the expected “arise into the morning” would suggest; “a rise” becomes a thing that the narrator desires to bestow on the subject instead of wishing action from her. In other words, the objectifying of “a rise” makes the wish more genuinely generous of the narrator.
What influences can we find in By the Way? The form of Radavich’s poems often hints of influence by Williams, Simic, and others whose fame is the sparse line of free verse characteristic of imagists and those who came after. But Radavich offers several poems with a more narrative bent, as well as ones that perhaps recall to the reader poems by others. Just to clarify up front, it is a time-honored tradition and an admirable skill for any poet to emulate another poet well; to state these similarities is intended as observation and never castigation, as it is done well and with admirable skill.
My favorite poem from this collection with the more narrative tone is “In Memoriam.” In this poem, the author makes a poem of 1974 Dodge Dart and then relegates it, with tender ceremony, to the salvage yard. From this poem, the memorable line “It’s only life. We all die and go” (no end punctuation, which forms a beautiful enjambment while enacting the word go—into the white space).
“Man with the Snow-Blower” fairly reeks of Billy Collins’ influence, recalls immediately “Shoveling Snow with Buddha.” Of course, his approach, theme, and message are dissimilar enough to make this poem as fresh as Collins’. Like Collins, Radavich has a wonderful way, here as in several other poems, of bringing the writing process into the poem itself. Here, he is somewhat more subtle than Collins. It works very well in the context as he writes:
It’s harder than it used to be
by hand, getting the margins right.
It is not so easy to attribute the first line of “Charleston, Illinois: Summer ‘94” as a tribute to Vachel Lindsay. “Lincoln stalks here almost every day” definitely echoes the title of Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” but the similarities are muddled beyond that. One might make a case for the line “students clumped in bored disobedience” as an antithetical echo of the lines from Lindsay’s “On the Building of Springfield” in which Lindsay states:
We should build parks that students from afar
Would choose to starve in, rather than go home.
Though the seventh section, “Egyptian Days,” seems to me the weakest, there are highlights within the poems that make the reading worthwhile. Radavich seems within these poems bent upon making Egypt more familiar and generic, which is why I find my enthusiasm for the poems somewhat dampened. This is a matter of preference, not objective criticism, but I think that I am not alone in wishing poems with exotic titles like “Monastery at Wadi Natrun” to be a bit more spicy and exotic than they are. My opinion is that these poems more than the others type Radavich, in Jungian terms, as an intuitive introvert; he is more in tune with the subject and his immediate speculation on the subject than on the object.
Intuitive introversion notwithstanding, the Egyptian Days poems offer, like so many of Radavich’s poems, a generosity of insight and a pearl strand of quotidian lines:
Our pain has flown,
let it stay on the wing
“Swimming Near El-Alamein”, 78
This is the desert
“Monastery at Wadi Natrun”, 79
one must be safe
about the underworld,
respect all gods
“Catacombs at Kom el Shogafa”, 81
We know in a wind
where we are.
“Along the Nile”, 87
It is always fascinating to speculate on the process of building a manuscript from a collection of poems that may or may not have common threads or styles or themes. By the Way seems to have the same informative pattern as most of Radavich’s poems—we begin at the unfamiliar, find an anchor of comparison, follow it to death and then rob death of its sting. The opening poem, “Refugee” seems, in the context of the collection, to be an allegory for birth. “He arrives . . . without a passport,” alludes, with a slight stretch of imagination, to both the nativity of a man and, more obviously, to the arrival of the immigrant.
The penultimate poem of the collection is entitled “Burying the Dead.” And yet the collection could not end there. The reader must not be left with a pall over his day, punished for having spent an afternoon with the poet. The poet must reveal to the reader that elusive silver thread, which is not merely hope beyond the dark oppression of Death’s majesty, but life itself. Radavich offers this in his final inclusion, “Sea-Canticle.” Here, he assures the reader of perpetuity—of life and the world if not of self—via the cycle of nature as demonstrated by the sea in its place, and in relation to its higher power, the moon.
“Sea-Canticle” is a powerful ending poem, as well as a poem with a powerful ending. What is man next to the sea? “Looking out, you and I see scarcely / a ripple—artificial calm”; if we see this, then how little the sea must see when looking at me and you. Of the several notable lines in this poem, one I find most intriguing is:
This is a life
red when it awakens.
Having been humbled already by the vastness of the sea, I find it somewhat overwhelming to have a life that is “red when it awakens,” and yet somehow that feeling is mitigated by the fact that it is shared by all creatures. And the sea itself is full of life, like the prairie grasses in the previous poem that “remind us of fecundity.” Life perpetuates.
Overall, By the Way has a feel similar to Simic’s Pulitzer Prize winning Walking the Black Cat, somehow concrete in the abstract, building clear images from wind and fog to illuminate parts of the world accessible only through poetry. By Billy Collins’ standard of “if you can write it any other way, then don’t write it as a poem,” Radavich scores a perfect score (whatever that is in poetry—perhaps the laurel wreath?). By Lisel Mueller’s standard:
Poets and storytellers
move into the vacancies
Edward Hopper left them.
“American Literature” Alive Together, 31
By the Way is certainly a solid winner. The tone and imagery captured between its covers certainly put me into places I would expect to find in a Hopper painting. Clear, concise, deliberate verse makes By the Way one of stars in the constellation of my heaven of poesy. I eagerly anticipate seeing more of Mr. Radavich’s work in future issues of Prism Quarterly as well as the many other fine journals with the sense to publish fine poetry.