Do you know the method actor who believed not in his role even as he acted it most excellently probably because of his disbelief? And the set-designer, challenged, amused, reading over his task list: “trees nevertheless on their whisper campaign,” “the moon in that way aspirant,” “the dark with its innumerable buzzing”?
Jack Christian’s poem If You Love It… begins with such a wandering and metaphorical self-consciousness reserved for the quickness, pitch, and frequency of lyricism, which is a fine and theoretically grand opening gesture. It readies for the daunting task of a doctrine on love, one that is defined—as the best doctrines are—not by headiness but by atmosphere.
The stage, the artifice, if you will, lingers. It is not merely setting or decorative. It imbues pleasure.
Underneath, there is a sustained campaign being introduced at home, “in our duplex by the power lines.” Christian has retained some sieved lived domestic and writes it with aphorism, aftermath, and vision: “(a)s a thing that happens enough may cease to exist.”
Characteristic of the lengthening lyric, concepts frequently come to life. Let’s call the speaker close in spirit to a documentarian, at once quieted and discomforted: “And strangely, sadly, I start to find things provincial and quaint / when I venture out from My New England.”
To maintain a sense of self, ordinary people play occasional games. This is the writing toward aphorism (i.e. an assumed pleasure for the poet, a presumed wisdom for the reader), sometimes shot past it, perhaps never fully calibrated. A call to muss things up (“If you love it so much why won’t you fuck it up?”) leads into a call to relish in literary ecstasy (“Why not make abode in the one cascading blip / referenced generally in literature as the orgasm?”). In If You Love It… the lyric recalculates until the lyric-maker pretty much has to acknowledge how baffling it is to be in ever-near proximity to love, searching but not ruined.
We are constantly astonished by a line of questioning and observation that is used to capture the voice of an ordinary man, whose answers flow through all the next most expected straits. He cries after all, with millions of us, to the tune of March Madness, for chrissake! The combination of genius and normality may affect one’s attitude toward all of life, even love.
Somewhere—I’m having trouble locating it; I thought it was in The Clouds of Magellan—Norman Dubie writes about how every poem is a half-joke. (Or is it half a joke?) For example, “I could praise a blender! // or a breakfast nook…,” Christian writes. There’s no question there’s a better way. But who could answer it!
What that other half is then is at the heart of Christian’s address. And in If You Love It… it is embedded somewhere among suburban décor—“a potted palm thrived all January in the south-facing window,” “the granite countertop,” and the “table lamp how many shells piled within it”—suggesting a sharp rejection of the move to cast the poet’s life as singular and extraordinary, though the poetry may be. There is a let’s-be-honest appeal at the level of description.
And there are palpable sweetnesses—“when a little love sneaks up / and pinches from the passenger seat”—that lead to the thinking self, “not really very seriously and not particularly meditatively,” etc. Instructive not to the size of feeling but to the origin of Christian’s attention is the word little. “(A) little love” reappears in the poem (and “a little blasphemy carouses around…”), and the biggest sentiments also occur: “I can’t even get into how in love I was with my child.”
We are not being guided, you see, down some class four rapids necessarily; there is no massive event of love lost or gained. It might be more like Hawthorne’s Concord River—in Mosses from an Old Manse he records what it was like: “Positively, I had lived three weeks beside it, before it grew quite clear to my perception which way the current flowed.” Yet in Christianian lyricism, “(o)ne is whitewater rafting,” even in these waters. Can you picture the rapids guide chugging a beer as he senses a waterfall you don’t? It is “one technique for handling persistence.”
On the seat of exciting turns and phrases, the ambit of the poetry here doesn’t draw too much attention to itself—it is a sharp, casual voice—though it deserves a lengthy and mighty volume. What should be the definition I’m getting to: One can’t rewrite Christian’s mouth, and what my summary fails is the basic, excellent purpose of poetry. And then the rightness of the ending to If You Love It…, a pleasurable idea uncoiled in a stilling image:
from my solace space on the three-season porch,
If art is saying a thing the weird way
then love is never shirking from it—
David Bartone’s book, Practice on Mountains, was selected for the 2013 Sawtooth Poetry Prize (Ahsahta Press) by Dan Beachy-Quick. He is also the author of Spring Logic, a chapbook with H_NGM_N. His poems and translations have appeared at Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, The Laurel Review, Mountain Gazette, Pleiades, Volt, and others. He lives in Easthampton, Massachusetts.