Booth: Poet of the Hard Country
Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999
by Philip Booth
Hard cover, 291 pp. $24.95
Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999
is the most comprehensive gathering to date of Philip Booth's
poetry of the last millennium. Nine of his previous volumes
(several no longer in print) are represented in sections numbered
in chronological order. The last section, the tenth, also called
Lifelines, is made up of poems of the last five years.There are poems that
reflect on Booth's aging, his father's death, his mother's madness,
a daughter's first swimming lesson. There are elegies for neighbors
(e.g., Robert Lowell) and friends (e.g., Hannah Arendt). There
are poems that speak of the approaching millennium in apocalyptic
tones (e.g: "Zeros,""The Turn of the Century,"
among others). "Species," though not a Y2K poem, may
remind some readers of a certain Hitchcock movie: it deals with
the extinction of humanity as witnessed by the birds.
Reading the collection as a whole feels a little like leafing
through someone's personal journal: quick takes of people, happenings,
land- and seascapes and a self, recorded through half a century
by a solitary observer not unlike Booth's role-model Thoreau
or his teacher Robert Frost.
And there are several self-referential poems. Any made thing can
be a metaphor for the poem: a house, a table, a formal garden.
"Supposition Without Qualification" is typical. It's
about a man who tries to express a wish to try to express something
with absolute honesty. Like most of these poems, it's essentially
about the poem it finally becomes. When a poet's as capable as
Booth, he can wake up with nothing to write about, write about
that, and make it interesting to read.
But if you're looking for the postmodern, look elsewhere. Booth
is a traditionalist in his verse and in his attitudes. The two
labels for Booth's work that leap to mind are Romantic and Pastoral.
He's "Pastoral" as Frost is pastoral: his most common
settings are not the idyllic pastures of Virgil but the "Hard
Country" of Maine, both rural and wild. The Booth of these
poems spends the "turning year" keenly aware of seasons,
solstices, equinoxes, constellations; he writes more often and
often more sympathetically of the rocks and trees and birds on
the mountains and at the sea's edge than he does of his neighbors.
He's "Romantic" as the manifesto of the unabomber was
romantic: he believes organic nature and the culture of technology
are at war and nature is losing. He sees the natural as good,
true, and poetic but past or passing, doomed to become the road-kill
of a technological juggernaut bearing down on us more oppressively
and boringly every day.
The road-kill metaphor comes straight from one of the new poems,
"Narrow Road: Presidents' Day," which illustrates his
handling of this mythology. The speaker, driving to work along
a country road on Presidents' Day, passes a local woman just opening
and leaning out
on her elbows to
talk with three
"She smells spring," he thinks, in February, in Maine.
But before we cynical readers can dismiss this pleasant picture
as vintage Norman Rockwell, Booth inserts a flashback. "Not
a mile back," he'd swerved to miss a dead skunk and spied
next to it "a big mother porcupine/ dying hard." Tears
had come to his eyes:
morning messed up
by road-kill, wannabe
The sun has been trying to pierce the fog
and he wonders, as the poem closes, "when, if spring/ happens,
the new/ lambs will come." What makes this upbeat ending
and indeed the whole poem work as poetry is of
course the crafty flashback that recalls us from the midst of
the idyllic to the stupidity and death so casually wrought by
our technological world. When we return to the pastoral vision,
we recognize the intensity of the drive that informs it and
may even share, for the poem's moment, its longing for the innocent
harmonies of the human and the natural.
Booth is among the most accessible of 20th-century poets. Though
some of these poems have richer and more concentrated manners
of expression, the language in most of them yields its burden
on a first reading. This kind of clarity is surely among the
poetic virtues. As Booth himself puts it, in his only untitled
poem, an amazing book-long meditation that winds through the
whole of Before Sleep*, welling up irregularly, in italics,
between the titled poems: "I didn't become/ a poet for
*The untitled poem is found in Section IV of Lifelines.
ALSO OF INTEREST
Gifford, Terry. Pastoral (The New Critical Idiom) Routledge,
1999. Paperback, 200 pp.
Rotella, Guy. Three contemporary poets of New England: William
Meredith, Philip Booth, and Peter Davison. Twayne ,1983.
Out of Print.
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