"This place is a longing"

April 04, 2012

A Review by Hannah VanderHart of Daniel Bowman, Jr.'s A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country
  “Mohawk comes / like blackbirds at dawn” begins “Poem for the Undead,” first in Daniel Bowman, Jr.’s A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country. “Weaves itself / into itself / like twisted weeping willow,” the poem continues, “face delicate / curled as ivy.”

If in the silken eeriness of the poem’s heavily enjambed lines you sense something of American myth and folklore, then you are not far from the source of the poems and the poet: the Mohawk River Valley, Upstate New York.

The way the presence “Mohawk” enters the poems bears traces of Hawthorne’s ghost tales and legends of the Catskill Mountains, like “some small creature hit / and left for dead / gray eyes fixed.” Evocative of a folkloric presence rather than a specific geographic site, Mohawk “bites the hills / like a river” (emphasis mine)—and lastly
smokes like your kin at the diner in the gorge, hunched over ham and potatoes, hidden like shadows on back roads, Mohawk comes.
A Plum Tree is filled with the appearance and disappearance of mist, comfort foods, bridges and canals, the fall and winter months, cities (Cincinnati, Chicago, Manhattan)—but it is also visited by an intangible ghostliness and poems that defy a simple materialism, poems like “Walking Through the Dream of a Stranger” and “Your Room,” “The Kings of the Valley” and “The Girl and the Hill.” These poems walk through reality and back out again—on the other side of the diner is a dreamy world with unfolding potential, dimensions. Part of the excitement of Bowman’s collection is the sheer homeyness of the poetry’s more concrete aspects paired with lines investigating spiritual realities, as in the poem “December in Middle America,” where the narrator explains
Just before Christmas
in blue and red
there’s a moment
when my soul knows perfectly
its own emptiness.
That the last shall be the first
and the first, last is no matter:
I smell hot rolls and coffee,
and do not long for the shore.
That the soul’s “own emptiness” can be known “perfectly” in December, in Middle America! Such is the capacity of Bowman’s poetry. Neither do you feel, as the poem’s reader, that the hot rolls and coffee are a compensation for the shore, but rather an extension of that shore—the roll called not only up yonder, but here. As in the poem “Monkey Bars” that concludes: “I’m here. / You can tell by / the breadcrumbs on the cutting board,” the speaker’s being is confirmed by attention paid to “the things of the world” (to quote Augustine and Richard Wilbur).

This is also a book of poetry for lovers of walking, and Bowman’s poems repeatedly discover themselves and their surrounding either by foot (or car, or train) or by dreams (or both at once), which may provide one answer for the appearance of the four haiku (by Basho, Bakusui, Onitsua, and Issa) at the beginning of each divide in A Plum Tree. The dreamy, snapshot quality of the haiku provides a complementary tone for the walking, dreaming poet—the poet who, in “Till Spring Comes,” urges the reader to “Stay by the window,” looking out at the world. The landscape is both outward and inward: what can be physically seen beyond the window, and what the speaker sees without the aid of sight: “Our eyes must close / like church doors / so the fractious sun / can drink us.”

But A Plum Tree is true and fair, and looks around at the entire world at hand, not only the sunlight and November as it “straddles the plum-black fields” (“The Wait”). As in “Somewhere in Chicago, Sometime in the Fall,” where the poem’s subject, drunk and abandoned by his cheating girlfriend,
…kicks a garbage can
in an empty street
but it’s plastic and the sound
doesn’t satisfy.
He vomits hot dogs
into a storm drain;
he rips a poster
off a telephone pole and wipes his face,
caring nothing for advertisement.

By the rich recognition of a pitiful situation, and the real weight of the descriptions—the hollowness of the garbage can, the last meal of hotdogs—Bowman earns the heavier lyric of the poem “Night Walking, Seattle” that opens with the speaker’s observation “Church bells / drunk with grace / cut the spring moon.”  There is both the everyday drunk and the spiritual drunk in A Plum Tree, the hot rolls and coffee beside the recognition of “the shore.” However grounded in Tuesday pot roasts and baseball the poems at moments may be, they are equally involved with mystical presence, from grace, to ghosts, to the Mohawk. And such an awareness moves the poems in A Plum Tree away from artificial categorizations and into a poetics that can admit “This place is a longing” (from “Late September, Rochester”), the poems and poet open to relationship with physical space as well as with something else entirely. A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country. By Daniel Bowman, Jr. VAC Press, 2012




Hannah VanderHart lives in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Ph.D. student in English at Duke University, where she reads (and writes on!) medieval and early modern texts, philosophy, and poetry. Follow her on twitter @hmvanderhart.

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