Christopher Buckley’s “Cloud Memoir” — Thirty Years of Longer Poems

Saturday, March 9, 2019

“CLOUD MEMOIR: Selected Longer Poems 1987-20176” — Christopher Buckley
(Nacogdoches, TX: SFA Press; 2018)

Of the several hundred (probably more than a thousand, in fact) poems Christopher Buckley has written in the past half-century. I was fortunate enough to publish some of his early work in my magazine, MOMENTUM, back in the mid-1970s. Even then, my hunch was that his poetic maturation would be much like Philip Levine’s, in that Buckley was not going to achieve distinction as a young poet, but would methodically assemble a body of work featuring some of the most memorable poems of his generation. “Memorable,” however is not recuperative category, but one always already in the future tense; it is unlikely that Buckley’s full measure of accomplishment as a poet will be appreciated until his “Collected Poems” arrives on library shelves, an event that is all but certain to be forestalled by the current tsunami of ambitious young poets, too many of whom seem determined not to acknowledge anyone born between 1946 and 1960.

In contrast, Buckley has long labored to affirm the poets who guided and mentored him. In Buckley’s preface to this volume, he recollects how someone tried to deflate his expectations: “Don’t get any big ideas, kid.” It wasn’t bad advice, as such, since it’s all too easy to pretend that talent suffices to endure the contingencies of a poet’s “career.” One sees the debacles of such outcomes in the books of all too many poets: Philip Schultz, for instance, whose poems are predictably featured in anthologies of academic poets, but whose work lags far, far behind the most accomplished work of Christopher Buckley. That Schultz is an East Coast poet, and Buckley on this side of the country, is not just coincidence. Schultz could only have succeeded to the degree he has on the East Coast.

Given the disparities in the remuneration of close reading, as played out in anthologies, let’s be blunt: two of the poems in CLOUD MEMOIR that should be “automatic locks” in any anthology of contemporary poets are “October Visiting” and “Via Dolorosa: Santa Barbara, California.” I read both of these poems, on separate occasions, after opening the book at random to the pages they were on. Both poems were instances of not being able to stop reading until three pages later, nor could I find the energy to move on and read another poem, after finishing both of them. I realize it is unfashionable these days to begin commentary by admiring technique, unless you are trying to promote formalist poetics, but Buckley’s handling of enjambment is far beyond the happenstance of most working poets. In fact, Buckley is far more lyrical than Levine, especially contrasted with his final years of work. Buckley would probably demur if I were to say this in conversation with him. Nevertheless, when it comes to blending images of plants and the daily machinations of weather in a rhythm worthy of Shapiro’s definition, Buckley is the superior poet.

For those unfamiliar with Shapiro’s definition, I will reiterate: “Rhythm is the total sound of the line’s movement.” The total sound of the entire poem, of all the lines in unison, requires that the poet be attentive to the intermingling of vowels and consonants. This vigilance might be mistaken for the emotional contribution the poets makes to the lyrical impetus of the poem, but it is equally an intellectual operation. Just as the image, in Pound’s terms, must be “an intellectual and emotional complex,” rhythm must call upon a thoughtful encapsulation of the sounds being summoned from our shared vocabularies for things and ideas. In Buckley’s case, I would urge future commentators on his poetry to pay close attention to how images of walking contribute to the groundswell of images. If Buckley is able to reconcile fearlessness and vulnerability in the turbulent restraint that envelopes his poems and lures us into their secret solace as if there were always meant to be our abode as readers, it is in large part because he takes the time to let words walk, too. In the hastiness of post-modernity, such walking is most welcome. In his own way, Buckley has exemplified what it means to “learn by going where one has to go.”

The explicit existential stance in Roethke’s field guide to his psychic landscape, as well as the actual riparian one, differs in one major way from Buckley’s: Roethke is typical of too many “modern” poets in that this planet is still for all intents and purposes the center of the universe. Buckley’s poems defy this putative assumption, which lingers like an enveloping hallucination in an enormous amount of contemporary poetry. In providing personal memories of his childhood and adolescence in Santa Barbara, he is far from celebrating himself in a narcissistic manner, but rather offering us a reminder of the scale of each of our journeys within the unfathomable dimensions of this universe. It is this particular argument, and the skill with with he conducts its orchestra of images, in the recapitulation phase of his “longer” poems that distinguishes Buckley’s writing from the self-regarding, earth-bound poses of all too much contemporary poetry. These longer poems by Buckley never push themselves on the reader as didactic, and yet there is much to learn from them. The classroom you deserved to inhabit while getting educated has plenty of seats in this book. Take one.

Should you have any ability to help your local library add to its two or three shelves of contemporary poetry, here is the address you should give the librarian:
Stephen F. Austin State University Press
P.O. Box 13007 SFA Station
Nacogdoches, Texas 75962
Distributed by Texas A&M Consortium\
ISBN: 9781622882120

Other books of poetry by Christopher Buckley include:

WHITE SHIRT, University of Tampa Press, 2011
MODERN HISTORY: Prose Poems 1987-2007, Tupelo Press, 2008
FLYING BACKBONE: The Georgia O’Keeffe Poems, Blue Light Press, Fairfield, IA, 2008
AND THE SEA, The Sheep Meadow Press, New York, NY, 2006
SKY, The Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale, NY, 2004
Closer to Home: Poems of Santa Barbara: 1975-1995, Fountain Mountain Press, Orcutt , CA, 2003
Camino Cielo, Orchises Press, Alexandria, VA, 1997
A Short History of Light, Painted Hills Press, Davis, CA 1994
Dark Matter, Copper Beech Press of Brown University, Providence, R.I. 1993
Blue Autumn, Copper Beech Press of Brown University, Providence, R.I., 1990
Blossoms & Bones: On the Life and Work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 1988
Dust Light, Leaves, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, TN 1986
Other Lives, Ithaca House, Ithaca, N.Y. 1985
Blue Hooks In Weather, Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, CA 1983
Last Rites, Ithaca House, Ithaca, N.Y. 1980

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