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The Reign of James, Son of Richard

10.27.2015

By the #s

James Richardson, a poet I first read in the New Yorker a couple years ago and subsequently got to know through his most recent collection, By the Numbers, and his selected poems, Interglacial, is, in this small-time reviewer’s opinion, the real deal. A man with a prodigious critical faculty, he crafts his poems in all sorts of ways: short, long, rambling, terse, comic and tragic, rhyming and rhythmic, full of figurative language and factual description.

Here’s the poem I read in the New Yorker:

“Essay on Wood”

At dawn when rowboats drum on the dock
and every door in the breathing house bumps softly
as if someone were leaving quietly, I wonder
if something in us is made of wood,
maybe not quite the heart, knocking softly,
or maybe not made of it, but made for its call.

Of all the elements, it is happiest in our houses.
It will sit with us, eat with us, lie down
and hold our books (themselves a rustling woods),
bearing our floors and roofs without weariness,
for unlike us it does not resent its faithfulness
or question why, for what, how long?

Its branchings have slowed the invisible feelings of light
into vortices smooth for our hands,
so that every fine-grained handle and page and beam
is a wood-word, a standing wave:
years that never pass, vastness never empty,
speed so great it cannot be told from peace.

It’s a fantastic poem, one of my favorites. Tightly composed, astute, enlightening, full of alliterative feeling, a focus on the science of life as much as the consciousness of it, and, in typical Richardson style, slowly musing on a theme, like ripples through the brain. So much in so little space, a true act of poetry.

The short poems in general are some of Richardson’s finest. The opener of By the Numbers, is “Northwest Passage”:

That faint line in the dark
might be the shore
of some heretofore unknown
small hour.

This fir-scent on the wind
must be the forests
of the unheardof month
between July and August.

This poem, again a personal favorite, is indicative of what Richardson is after in much of his poetry: getting at the spaces in between, the unseen, the just barely felt essences of moments or things or people (this, after all, what a lot of poetry is about). Another terse verse is “Birds in Rain”:

Studious silence in the trees.
Later they will tunefully dispute
whether the drops came down in twos or threes.

The last line is so rhythmically perfect, playfully giving us, via the tongue’s stresses, the impulse to claim it was indeed in twos—’whether the drops’ being two sets of two—or in threes—’drops came down’ being three stresses in a row.

Or, lastly, “Prokaryotes”, one of the poems showcasing Richardson’s love and knowledge of the sciences:

Say we found it on Europa,
DNA, an alien line,
could we wait a billion years to ask
How was it for you
blue, that whiff of ammonia, Time?

Prokaryotes is both pronounced like, and actually are, precarious—single celled organisms without a distinct nucleus, the simplest of living things. And the poem asks a simple and precarious question: what is the meaning of our existence?

Richardson is just as well known for his aphorisms and ‘ten-second essays’. These are exquisitely crafted—many could be poems—and full of insight. Generally, they take a form somewhere between metaphor and statement. There are too many to quote here (and he has another book of them, Vectors), but a few will suffice.

10. The heart is a small, cracked cup, easy to fill, impossible to keep full.

13. My mistakes are not mine, but they are embarrassing because you might mistake them for my sins, which are.

45. Faith is broad. It’s Doubt that’s deep.

52. Thoughts are discussed, opinions displayed.

71. Somewhere in evolution we traded endurance for foresight. Intelligence was first of all the ability to worry.

115. That book, that woman, life: now that I understand them a little I realize there was something I understood better when they baffled and scared me.

161. All my life I’ve been working on an excuse no one will ever want to hear.

And so on. Like some of the great aphorists before him, Richardson likes more than anything to turn something on its head: an established piece of advice, an old truism, a desperate belief held by most of society.

Also evident in the collection is Richardson’s deep love of our language’s comedy and puns. At times he is outright Joycean (“Songs for Senility” could be a chapter in Finnegan’s Wake). Other times, his wit shines through, as in “Bit Parts”, where he begins in the humor of Ricky Gervais’ Extras:

In that monster epic of the checkout girl
I’m the guy setting groceries on the belt
in order of decreasing density, or maybe the one
whose Did you get that coupon? is the last straw,
so she streams out, shedding her smock, through automatic doors.

And, after taking us through the emotions, the experience of life itself, ends in a beautiful passage, the gorgeous imagery working on multiple levels:

I’m the abrupt laugh, or the back of a dark coat
up which, like rain on a windshield, climb the credits.
I am that faint curve graphed on the sand
in wrack and paper cups and foam that shows,
as the light comes up, how far the night had risen.

That’s a powerful final metaphor. The man is, I must admit, particularly good at endings. Strong endings. Here’s the one for “Roads Not Taken”, a wonderful poem (and as a Californian I love a good driving metaphor), full of humor and sadness like “Bit Parts”:

We don’t have to be anywhere. The party we left
and the one we were headed to are probably over.

And as for those who might have been following me,
odds are I lost them long, long ago.
Nothing to do but keep on driving as clearly
as if I hadn’t, flashing my change of lane and exit,
in case there’s anyone who needs to know.

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