Man's Best Friend
Failure by Philip Schultz
By John Freeman
Now here is a subject one doesn’t see poetry address all that often—especially with such a warm, complicated embrace. To Philip Schultz, recent co-winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, failure is not a pejorative but a state of being. Try to appreciate the bounty of the world, several of these poems suggest, and you will likely fail; try to ignore it and you will fail as well.
And then there is the plain old everyday sense of the word, which has haunted Schultz in adult life. “To pay for my father’s funeral,” begins the title poem, “I borrowed money from people/he already owed money to./One called him a nobody./No, I said, he was a failure. You can’t remember a nobody’s name, that’s why/they’re called nobodies./Failures are unforgettable.”
Schultz does not write a tremendously complex poetic line, but his lived-in ruminations and stripped-down, oracular voice give these poems the feel of something hard-won. Several poems refer to stints in the St. Vincent’s psychiatric ward in New York, or in a San Francisco hospital 30 years ago. “What was I doing here,/in this public pain?” the poet asks. “Was this what failure was—/endless fear?” Another section puts madness even more succinctly: “Sometimes/in order/to feel superior/to its failures,/my brain lies to me.”
The slippage from daily life is one of Schultz’ great topics, and he can wind up there even with a pastoral first line. “It’s Sunday Morning in Early November” begins like a litany of things to do—rake leaves, fix a broken storm window, take his kid fishing. But gradually these mundane tasks shade into big ones, which dissolve into darkness. “I could sit by the window watching the leaves,” he writes, “which know exactly how to fall from one moment to the next. Or I could lose/everything and have to begin over again."
There are, of course, cheerier poems, poems of tribute and homage. But behind Schultz’ sunny self-admonitions, his anxious appreciations of the East Hampton coastline, one senses an enormous darkness fighting to get in. “We’re all afraid/of being swallowed,” he writes in “The Wandering Wingless,” a long poem that comprises half of this book. For Schultz, the darkness doesn’t just emerge from his mind, but also from his past, coalescing in memories he compresses into beautiful, terribly mournful poetry:
When Dad’s heart
he stopped slamming doors
and shouting every thought.
He stopped slapping backs,
joking all the time,
and pissing into coffee cups
because he was running late.
He stopped crying
in the toilet
when he thought everyone
Schultz uses reversals like this—one typically cries into a cup, not a toilet—brilliantly throughout Failure. Many poems feature dogs doing things more common to people—caring, giving empathy—and people doing dog things—sleeping in parks, visiting dog runs, sticking their nose into the weather.
Cutesy as some of these inversions can seem at first, it’s hard to blame Schultz for making them: “We all like a little self-rhapsody,” he writes, speaking for us and the four-legged. Also: “No one wants to live/in the dark wood,/outside himself,/alone at night.” It's a fact these poems attest to with great power.
Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 by Robert Hass
Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005
Carved out of the sturdiest observations, sanded to clarity, molded to the contours of lives less harried than most of us enjoy, the new collection of poetry by Robert Hass feels like a Southern solstice at the end of a long summer. Here are poems about pears and glittering aspens, about hours spent deliberately. And then Hass has had enough of this autumnal pageantry.
"It is good, sometimes, for poetry to disenchant us," he writes in "The Problem of Describing Trees" as if sick of it all.
But then what? Time and Materials, which co-won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, seems to ask itself that question over and again: If not lovemaking, or the amber shiver of trees losing leaves, what are our elemental things? Is war the seasonal ritual to which we should become accustomed as our planet's seasons merge?
"Someone will always want to mobilize/Death on a massive scale for economic/Domination or revenge," Hass writes in "Bush's War," an astounding poem that begins with bald political particulars and then crabwalks toward the spectacle of what wars actually do.
"Sweet death, the scourer/The heaped bodies into summer fruit," he writes.
During the years he composed these poems, Hass served as U.S. Poet Laureate and wrote the Poet's Choice column for the Washington Post. This volume doesn't have the willed cohesion so common among today's poets. And that's a good thing.
Dickensian microportraits and minor pleasures abound: A man with "an Adam's apple/So protuberant it's conducting a flirtation/with deformity" appears in one poem. Another has a "mouth formed by private ironies/As if he'd sat silent in too many meetings with people/He thought more powerful and less intelligent than he." These gently rewarding verses help us seek out such moments, containing all that beauty, strapping it to a form and then reminding us of our darker tendencies.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.
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