Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Gary Metras, Vanishing Points

Gary Metras, Vanishing Point Dos Madres Press. 2021. 73pp. $18.00

   Review by Ruth Hoberman

Gary Metras has been an essential part of the Massachusetts poetry scene for decades. A widely published poet, for forty years he also ran the Adastra Press and in 2018 was appointed Easthampton’s first poet laureate. Vanishing Points, his eighth collection, is steeped in this local landscape: throughout much of the book the poet thinks through his own mortality by means of his relation to natural phenomena—mountains, clouds, wind, fish, snow.

Take the opening poem, for example, “The Flame”: “Wind and snow./ A white persistence/as unforgiving as night.” A sleeper wakes from oblivion and lights a candle (whose long, narrow shape is mimicked by the poem): “A heart moves on the wall/like a shadow.” The poem feels brief and breathless, a half-waking vision that suggests the brevity and immateriality of human life.

The book is divided into four parts, the first two of which strike me as particularly death-haunted. Part I culminates in an ominous and ultimately comic encounter with a hearse, and Part II opens with “Approaching Harvest,” a 14-line poem with a hint of Shakespeare’s “That Time of Year” to it: The squash “huddle with fears of impermanence,” and “I sit atop the worn/wood table . . . one more thing/that will not survive the season.” In “Narrating the Pond’s Night,” the speaker catches and throws back a trout after sniffing “the death sprouting under his fins.” This wonderfully precise poem narrates the process of fly fishing at night under conventional headings—“exposition,” “complication,” “climax” “denouement”—while evoking a mystery unstructured by human devices. Images startle with their strangeness: the speaker stands on a “weed throttled shore,” as “water licks my sneakers and the bony flesh inside.” The fisherman and the fish are equally liable to be consumed: “Night is a simple mouth admitting all.” As the fisherman heads home, “Darkness has swallowed/the human way out.”

If “Narrating the Pond’s Night” provides a key to the collection’s structure, parts one and two being “exposition” and “complication,” then the final two sections are “climax” and “denouement.” The poems in these sections deal less with nature than with cultural and domestic experiences: the poet’s response to the “complication” of aging is to celebrate the consolations of human-made things, including a long marriage and a future made real by the presence of grandchildren. Perhaps my favorite poem in the book is “Lint,” which concludes the third section, making it the climax to the climax:

It doesn’t bother me to have

lint in the bottoms of pant pockets;

it gives the hands something to do,

especially since I no longer hold

shovel, hod, or hammer

in the daylight hours of labor

and haven’t, in fact, done so

in fifty-five years.

In an interview several years ago, Metras cited Robert Frost as an influence, and his previous book, White Storm (2018), includes a poem entitled “Frost’s Chair.” Certainly there are echoes of Frost in Metras’s snowy, rural landscape, and an “After Apple Picking” sense of mortality hovering over it all. What struck me reading Metras, though, is how many of Frost’s poems describe labor—a working in/with the land. When Frost’s speaker sees birches, he thinks of boys swinging on them. Metras’s speaker mainly looks. He does fish and in one poem mixes stucco, but after mixing in the scenery with his stucco, he tells us, he “quits the job.” This aging out (or professionalizing out?) of physical labor widens the gap, I think, between the speaker and his physical environment and contributes to the book’s poignancy. Instead of “shovel, hod or hammer,” there’s “lint”—that unnoticed detritus of wear and tear produced by the unnatural collision of clothes and washing machine. The poem’s speaker imagines giving his wife a sweater made from it, or wearing a tweed coat of woven lint to class. “Who would believe it?/ Yet there are stranger things,” he concludes: “the son of a bricklayer with hands/so smooth they’re only fit/for picking lint.”

I thought of Seamus Heaney’s pen, “snug” in his hand in “Digging,” but no match for his father’s spade. Digging, of course, is the poet’s task; Metras offers “picking lint,” an apt if modest analogy for the poet’s skill at noticing, the magical way minuscule observations coalesce into substance (am I the only one who has wondered how those invisible particles that fabric sheds somehow transform into fuzz?).

Part four, our denouement, is dominated by love, the word appearing in multiple poems and underlying the title poem, “Vanishing Point”: “Staring, you look for clues,” the poem opens, the “you” being anyone who has wondered what makes a marriage work. But “Love, when it stays, is traceless,” disappearing into whatever it touches, dissolving boundaries between those who share it: “When two people journey far enough into the distance/they merge.”

In the process they pass beyond the horizon, leaving children and grandchildren to take their place. This is where the book ends: “It is the child who speaks to my future,” the speaker says in “The Birth.” And in the final poem, “Engineering Sweet Dreams,” the speaker confesses to having eaten his son-in-law’s last mint to spare his granddaughter the smell of “stale tobacco” on his breath: “we/want her dreams to be sweet.” That “we” makes his son-in-law (and us) complicit in the theft of his own mint—a funny, complicated commentary on the relation of old to young, of poetry to the world. 

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