Friday, May 10, 2019

Review: Captive in the Here by Gary Metras

Review: Captive in the Here by Gary Metras ( Cervena Barva Press)
--reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

If only, Gary Metras seems to ask in the poems of his latest collection Captive in the Here, if only we could stand outside of time and fully engage with the experience of each moment we inhabit. There is so much beauty in the world, so many beautiful moments. But, we are humans, after all, we have memories, we have histories, we are aware of time and our obligations, and we leave tracks we can’t escape or ignore.

The titles of the three sections of this book, “History as Good as Fictions,” “Weather and Such Deceptions,” and “The Real World, As They Say,” imply the difficulty of accepting life as we find it, and the poems contained in each bear out this qualification. The collection’s first poem, “Confrontation with What I Have to Do,” establishes the poet’s mission and dilemma: to be both observer and victim of time. “The wall clock,” Metras writes, “escorts without kindness, / nor hatred; it has its own life / without us.” Our awareness of time imprisons us, not only in the past we can’t escape because it is part of us, but also in a future full of worries we can’t help but be aware of: “my father’s death approaches, my wife’s cancer blossoming years from now, / . . . A daughter . . . new to mortgage/ and waiting for time to bring a holiday/ so she can finish painting a spare room.” But though the poet cannot overcome the troublesome backward-and-forward relationship with time, at least he is capable of recording this awareness in his “cadences,” his poetry, and though he unable to protect “those I love,” he can at least preserve them in a poem: “captive in the here, the now.”

If we are the victims of time, what are we to value? In “The Tree House,” Metras depicts a boy mastering skills that enable him to build something permanent, a tree house that takes shape in his mind first. After he actually creates the tree house, his “new world/ . . . his hands smiled their cuts.” This value of work, especially physical work that confronts and transforms the natural of world, is also reflected in “The Hooded Men.” The workers the narrator observes “digging foundations in the snow/ . . . keep a schedule despite the season” and “earn the evening paper / and cup of whiskey-kissed coffee / in a cozy room each night.”

But is it enough to admire the work of creators? Metras suggests that the admiration of that which we don’t personally create ourselves, what we don’t generationally “capture in the here” on our own, has a diminishing value. The poem “Goshen Stone” captures the detailed care a father takes to build a stone wall, which he later shows to his son “when he thought he was old enough” to appreciate it; yet the father can only describe the structure in words, and when that son, years later, pauses with his own boy to admire the stone wall “your grandfather built,” he can only say “a few things about stones / as if his own soft hands knew what that meant.”

Is there the same kind of futility in a poet’s effort to preserve a moment in time for the reader? Is the act of creation of value only to the poet? “My Spider” begins, “I’ve invented a spider, / the green-backed spider.” The new spider, it turns out, was created by accident, “brushed . . . aside with the paint brush that left its back green.” There will be no future generations of new arachnids—it is the green spider of the poet’s moment.

And if not only accidental spiders, but also solidly built structures like the wall of “Goshen Stone” lose their value over time, what is the legacy of literature and its forms?
Metras dips into the past, parodying Eliot’s “Prufrock” as he laments the role of the teacher of literature in “Imagine Huck,” which envisions Twain’s young adventurer rafting down a modern polluted river: “I am no Huck Finn,/ was never meant to be/am a lone child scribbling this down . . . after years/ of kidnapping children and torturing them with . . . Homer, Shakespeare and Dickens,/ so they can keep the cycle afloat, if only in a dream.”

Yet it remains possible, Metras seems to suggest, for literature to help us transcend time, bringing depth of appreciation to the moments in which we are “captive.” It’s possible a poet, reflecting on old forms, or using them as a lens, can place that moment in a greater context. In “All the Futures,” there are echoes of Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” and that poet’s gyres of history and artistic forms, as the narrator, playing with his granddaughter thinks, “how one thing builds upon another, how the golden walls/ of Troy lasted a thousand years, as flesh/ fell.” And, while Yeats wonders if Leda absorbs Zeus’s “knowledge,” of the eventual fall of Troy during their violent interaction, Metras contemplates the “blue rubber egg filled with pebbles” his granddaughter hands him and wonders at “all the eggs she carries, all the futures inside her, waiting.” Metras uses the frame offered by the Yeats poem to preserve his experience with his granddaughter. Though grandfather and granddaughter are “captive in the Here,” as we all are, the poet offers an opportunity to contemplate the future as he reaching into the past and, re-figuring an old poem, guides the reader into a vital, new experience.

Metras, finally, offers the reader a vision of the poet as a creator who transcends time by interpreting and preserving what might otherwise be only mundane experience. In the longest poem of the collection, “Thrust Reverser Actuator Access,” he records the experience of a jet flight from Cincinnati to Hartford; during his descent, the narrator’s attention is drawn to “small words printed white on blue metal,” words which the reader must take for granted are the words of the poem’s title. Metras understands that his purpose as a poet is to give this experience meaning: The words, as he sees them, “seem almost magical, almost un-human, unearthly, even/ words I could never use in conversation,/or anything else, except,/ perhaps, in a poem.”

And so, as with so many of the other poems in Captive in the Here, we join Metras in his contemplations, accepting him as our guide as he fills the time and space between Cincinnati and Hartford; we are resistless “captives” in the “here” these poems re-envision.

Gregory Wolos lives, writes, and runs in a small New England town. More than seventy of Gregory’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in print and online journals such as Glimmer TrainThe Georgia ReviewThe Florida Review, The Baltimore ReviewThe PinchPost RoadThe Los Angeles ReviewPANK, and Tahoma Literary Review

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