Landis Everson’s Everything Preserved won the Emily Dickinson First Book Award from the Poetry Foundation in 2005. The prize is given to American poets older than the age of 50 years who have yet to see a book of their poems published. Everything Preserved includes many fine poems of whimsy and wit. A playful poet (as a younger man, he submitted a master’s thesis on a 17th-century poet of his own creation, the imagined “Sir William Bargoth”), Everson is more than willing to surprise and trick his readers. Although I expected to find good poems in this prize-winning book (and I did), this expectation does not account for my decision to read it in the first place.
Everson’s editor, Ben Mazer, has pitched the book as a comparative study across many decades. The book, implicitly, asks: what happens when a talented young poet “retires” from poetry for forty years? Mazer and Everson have divided the poems into two sections: an initial, brief selection of poems written prior to 1960 (in the poet’s 30s) and a longer, concluding section for the poems written from 2003 to 2005 (his late 70s). The division invites comparison and speculation. Did the older Everson write better than the younger? Do the two Eversons share vocabularies? Do the poems by the older poet answer questions left unresolved in the poetry of the younger poet? And, if the two sections differ: how, in the forty year retirement, did the poet travel from point A to point B? In other words, what are the undocumented events which have shaped the poet of the second section, those missing forty years?
While I think these are all interesting questions, and while the editorial arrangement contributed to my decision to read the book, I worry that these questions do the book and the poet a disservice. Therefore, in this reading, I have tried to avoid such nosy prying. If I were the poet, I would want people to read the poems for what they are, poems, and not as curious artifacts in the life of an aging writer. Thus, in this review for the Spotlight Series tour on Graywolf Press, I am ignoring the first section of the book, the ambitious exercises of the young man, and I am focusing on the longer section at the end of the book, the poems written in Everson’s 7th decade.
Several of Everson’s poems refer to the act of writing, and (as such) might be construed by the reader as aesthetic statements of purpose. I have read his poem “Genie” in this way, but at my own risk. One should be careful not to assume too much of Everson’s intentions. The poet is a wit and fond of chess; gleefully ironic, he mocks self-referential poetry (poems about writing poems) as masturbatory dead ends in “Decision for Self-Love” (pg. 45):
Sometimes you write poetry about poetry.
You can’t help yourself.
Your fingers stray down there where there is
On the chest of drawers the teddy bear
someone’s mother put there
doesn’t crack a smile
as you leave it out.
So, with this wry caveat and a not-very-amused teddy bear as witness, I turn to “Genie” (pg. 33) as an entry point to Everson’s book:
The poem grows
a preconceived experiment
the lab scientists knew exactly
how at the end
the test tube would turn blue.
a bright explosion
an experiment gone odd.
Out of the disaster a genie scowls.
A bridge collapsing
the engineer swore it would hold
3 elephants at one time
but one, only one
cracked the suspension.
The elephant fell into the river.
It was the end of the bridge, the circus and the waterlilies,
but the best thing that happened,
the genie unfolded.
Give a free poem to each poet who promises us
an early death.
Everson died the year after the publication of his first book. Although he left us at the age of 81, it was an “early death”. I think, however, this fact should not distract us, his passing is not the “death” the poem promises. Rather, in “Genie”, as in many of Everson’s poems, it is the death of the poet’s “preconceived experiment,” (the “bam!”) that he embraces. Everson willingly lets his poetry veer off into unexpected territory. Or, as he writes in the beginning of his poem “Landscape with Deer”: “The forest [he steps] in has to be imaginary” (pg. 68). And thus, from out there, out in the badlands, where the elephants break the bridge and crush the waterlilies, the genie unfolds for the poet a “free poem”.
Although I could write about Everson’s “early death” in many of my favorites from this book, including: “Sacrifice”, “How to Remain Dry When it Rains”, “Poems Along the Wall”, and “A Prism of Birds”, let’s turn the page and look at the next poem the collection, “I Reach for My Knight” (pg. 34). Here is another fine example of Everson’s imaginative and sly playfulness. The poet begins with the game of chess, with its constrained rules of play and highly abstracted symbols. After an initial stanza, in which Everson brings some of these symbols back to the mythological characters (the knight, the bishop, and the king) they have always been, he clears the board and restarts:
Instead, play me the game again, but not to win, play
on a flat plain with the knight on it alone
naked except for the fine horse and
that long lance stretched forth into the future
and the Holy Grail he’s always searching for
that is said not to exist–
I will hold that under my ribs where life itself begins.
I’ll let other readers decide where exactly under the ribs “life itself begins” for a lance toting, naked knight and his poet. The poem, however, exemplifies the way in which Everson can step out into the imaginary forest (or even a checkered chess board) and find suddenly, his intimate self, open and exposed. Once again, the poem is “free” when the genie wins the game.
I believe the poet enjoyed this process, this repeated “early death”–putting aside the self and letting the imaginative process win. At least, I hope he found in his last years a great deal of pleasure in the writing. In any case, he has left us a book of playful surprises.