Sunday, February 01, 2015

Keepers Meet Questing Eyes Poems by John Michael Flynn

Keepers Meet Questing Eyes
Poems by John Michael Flynn
Leaf Garden Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-49964-1530
120 p., $6.00

Reviewed by David P. Miller

John Michael Flynn’s publications include two previous poetry collections, published in 1997 (Moments Between Cities) and 2013 (Washing Apples in Streams), and at least one chapbook, States and Items, published recently by the same publisher as the present collection. Of the 98 (by my count ) poems included in Keepers Meet Questing Eyes, many were previously published in 40 different journals and anthologies. It really not possible, in the length of a review, to survey the different voices and subject matters included in this ample selection, so I will focus on a sample of those poems that speak most directly to me. These feature nuanced, detailed representations of specific people, or a kind of cognitive-dissonant relationship between the present situations of the poems’ speakers and their memories or backgrounds.

“Thanksgiving as L’Ultima Cena the Year I Am Seventeen” presents a suspended moment of family dynamics at what can be the fraught scene of Thanksgiving dinner.  The family is compared with Da Vinci’s Last Supper, “Two symmetrical groups of three on each side of my father, / depth of perspective and vertical lines of walls and ceilings accentuating the scene at our table.” In contrast with Dad’s grounding presence – “the serenity he feels centered in his family, his mission / not even looking up, yet so powerful in his fatigue and wisdom” – Mom emerges with the food that moves time forward, animating the painting – “those noises of our meal sustaining a timelessness, each passing second mythical yet true.” It is surprising, then, to learn how the speaker sees himself in the picture: “a high contrast between lighted upper-left walls / and the soft shadowed light and me, / puzzled betrayer and teen seated in his Judas spot, /an angry confused face craving a vision for his shadows.”

This sense of neither here nor there, out of alignment, haunts many of these poems. In “Sanguine in Worcester,” we see a “him” finding himself in the real flow and sense of life in that city, like a Whitmanesque saunterer:

    He walks Millbury Street
studies the hard faces of a new tide of immigrants
in the smokestack windows from the Wyman Gordon plant
that like so much of the landscape used to be there.

    He watches Kelly Square gridlock trap a blaring ambulance,
laborers bundled for brutal cold with hoods up,
Cor-Tex gloves, Patriots logos and pocket change,
lugging lunch pails and plenty of wishes.

His silent meditations teach him that “he’s still a somebody in the making,” and though he might wish to escape, he can still find nourishment while immersed in this hard-bitten place: “a fortress of blood in iambs, meters and images / resilient as any three-decker on the city’s seven hills.”

However, the ability to align himself in an affectively equivocal setting in one case is challenged in others. In “Class Envy on Constitution Road,” the writer perhaps wants to settle his art into what seems the periphery of an upper-middle-class “mountainside estate”:

I could spend days here hidden behind my sunglasses,
court ways to describe the cleverness of light,
the roseate essence in cedar bark
where they’ve been planted equidistantly
on both sides of an entry road.

With some irony, although that passage itself comes close to actually doing what he says he would like to do, in the end the situation is simply too alien, as he contemplates:

this parcel of heavenly domestication
its white manse seen through a cleft
in a high furry green-gray ridge
each window saying no, no, no,
not mine to covet.

Using condensed images, “Yesterday, Today, City” represents the speaker’s constant movement toward becoming in a more benign light, but still with a full acknowledgement  of what he carries forward. Whereas previously he was “a drop of sweat in the scuppers of an oil barge. / Jets thundered out of my temples”, he now finds himself “a white horse / Sunshine fills my modest room.” The room, though, also contains his “losses” arranged “in a straight line …brought out from my private crate of horrors / so many closets, so many other cities.” Still, these are treasured, “each one like it’s a found object.” If he has found some redemption, or positive transformation, it is not at the price of discarding his deeper ground.

As mentioned, many of the poems here give us the texture of specific  people, the fruit of close and sympathetic observation. Although “Albert Conant” begins with “Friends warned me he was off his rocker,” this easy judgment is challenged the more we find out about him. Yes, it is true that
One day he just started walking out of the valley,
mumbling to himself. He was on his way back to Maine,
his home-state, the only place he’d ever felt wanted
– leaving his wife “hysterical, missing him.” This is the same man, though, that reverently buries roadkill, calls phlox “a lavender blessing” and knows the natural world in depth:
    We watched a hawk one time and he said, Need more hummingbirds.
    The whole darn valley is thirsting for flowers.

“Millwood Ennis and Chester Garland” presents two portraits in one, in the course of it unexpectedly flipping one of the pictures. First, a barber and “the mayor of our village, one Don Millwood Ennis / who I always thought of as the original swamp Yankee / told me over his oily and busy and loquacious shears / a story about Chester Garland.” The latter “had blown his brains out with a Winchester 30-30.” As critical as that is, as the poem unfolds we learn something more central: Chester, classmate of the speaker’s mother, meant more to him than a rural suicide story. For example:
He showed me my first bird’s next.
Having taken it gingerly from one of our trees
he’d said to me before looking at it,
A robin will always lay four eggs.
Sure enough, there were four of them.
It’s the simplicity and clarity of these details that tell of the complexities of a real life and allow us to extend ourselves with empathy.

These poems represent only the lightest suggestion of what is available in this volume, but I hope indicate the interest I sustained while reading it. At the same time, I could not help but feel that there is so much work presented here, it was difficult for me to have a sense of the book as a whole – of its particular shape or focus. Too, the book’s title puzzles me. The word “keepers” suggests two things to me – either a person in some position of authority (e.g. zoo-keeper) or a particularly valuable find (a “real keeper”). After finishing the book, I still cannot connect either of these with an image of “questing eyes.” Nor did I find the title included as a phrase in any of the poems, although I may have missed it despite deliberately reading for it. Nevertheless, I am glad to be introduced to John Michael Flynn’s poetry and look forward to more.

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