I’ve been waiting for this book since The Missouri Review published a batch of the poems while I was poetry editor there, round about 2012. Baker pulled off something in those muscular, bewildered, visionary elegies that I was barely ready for. But their foreclosed Auerbachian darkness and inexorable momentum left their mark on me. I’m happy to have a little more to say now, and to report that Posthumous Noon, Baker’s second collection, meets, even exceeds, my very high expectations.
An endemic fireweed of insight runs riot in these posthumously disturbed homescapes. Having ministered to his dying clergyman father, the speaker of these poems is sent reeling. Uprooted, unhoused, these poems report from the threshold between the living and the dead, the self and the other, the word and the world. Grief’s particle accelerator has expelled him from himself, from his life and its materials, which he sees through new eyes. From “Fairhill Farm”:
The turkey buzzards arrive and things get
smaller, then smaller still to become full-featured
microcosms that nothing worms out of.
How abstract, this winged circling around
what once gave pleasure and will give pleasure again.
Cut off, “severed,” “amputated,” he’s “wrenched” (one of his favorite words) out to the limit of his life’s gravitational field, a kind of “last west” (“Late Pastoral”) redolent of what Elisa New calls “the old American preoccupation with the end.” Here, he makes grief’s orbit, detached in a self-protective cocoon, withdrawn in idealism, like Milton’s Satan licking his wounds, looking for a way back in. In garish HD he sees all the flaws of the “brutal” world (“The Old Nerve”), the sham and shame of its ceremonies and works, all the gaping pores and blackheads, starting with his own. Channeling his father’s chiding humor (“Careful, kiddo”) and Calvinism (“the house of election”), the speaker’s eyes are fully opened. He’s tasted the fruit, and in his terror, pain, and regret, he winces and recoils at his inadequacy, especially at the inadequacy of his calling: language.
Face-to-face with the unthinkable ruin of the patriarch, with the failure of his father’s life and body, the speaker can’t help but feel that he, too, has failed. If, like Adam, he’s lost the company, the home of a caring father, then it only stands to grief’s reason that, “more wrong than wronged” (“News Hour”), he deserves it.
Before they can come round and suck their small drop from grace’s honeycomb, these poems need to blister and hiss. They’re “drunk / on decay” (“The New Religion”) and the “good animation” of anger (“Rock Island Lines”). The banner over him is art. “Love,” which has hurt him so badly, “is the serpent’s breath” (“In Articulo Mortis”). He’s come to see that art is constant strife, in constant need of renewal, “failure…necessary for it to be itself” (“Februrary Nocturne”). Art will be his new home, his spinning tin can, a thundering silence raging for patience adequate to his father’s suffering: “Early on, what the patient hates more than the pain is your pity. / Finally he hates only the pain” (“In Articulo Mortis”).
He himself is hell. But by dint of such hard-won artistic renewal somehow redeeming his loss, he holds onto a strand of his father’s Christian hope (to say nothing of the myriad wings and angels). “Elegy fails unless it ends in resurrection,” the second poem concludes.
Strength needs weakness. That is the story of salvation,
as well as the story of every depravity. Kids, hold hands.
We’re going to outdo ourselves this time.
You are as delicate as a dried leaf in the hand, and as ready for fire.
(“In Articulo Mortis”)
For a moment (while the father’s still living, notably), the gap, the gulf, the no-man’s-land in which the speaker finds himself abstracted and subtracted holds out a creative, if not incarnate, potential.
Here in the silence before the poem
is where I’ve always been, just outside
your awareness. Since before even
you named me, and now I watch
as the nurse comes and goes, as he
trims your nails and sets your hands
back down with unnecessary gentleness.
I’ve always been here—the shape
of an echo, the pause between words.
“Late Night Show,” the third poem in the collection, juxtaposes the speaker’s own sonogram— “the white swirls of my hands, feet, / and head pressing up through the dark”—with a scan of his father’s cancer:
…The growing mass
on the slide almost familiar,
could be almost brother.
Rather than the more conventional “could almost be,” Baker writes, “could be almost.” Such amazingly effective, subtle moves (his consistent, sly use of repetition is another) are what, as much as anything, set Baker apart from his peers.
In “Late Night Show” life and death are twinned, a womb-tomb something like the Word’s “always” alreadyness. The poem ends:
The curtain stirs. A shoe scuffs in the hall,
more laughter, a car honks. Always
the return of silence, always this need
to trace its form. A new thing will be born.
Such stirrings notwithstanding, a circumspect, reformist zeal, an aloof rebellion drives the collection. The speaker has absorbed, internalized death’s bitter pill. And it tastes like his father’s Calvinism. He doesn’t need Saussure to tell him the game’s rigged. Surely at the heart of the irreconcilable dualities is man’s heart, his fall from grace. An early poem, “Dark Matter,” declares,
We’ve known the seed of failure in action,
how the worm turns on the root, the foredetermined
uncoiling of the double arms into an electric fizz
and last black sputter of cosmic flatulence.
In this fierce passage, beneath the speaker’s powerlessness before his father’s suffering and death, we can hear echoes of Calvin. The speaker now has what Anne Bradstreet calls a “feeling knowledge” of the curse. Rather than the Lord’s incarnate seed engendering eternal life in the flesh, the speaker has come to know “the seed of failure” that negates all “action” (i.e., “works”). Such actions include his own efforts to comfort or save his father, who devoted his life to helping others. Or there’s the craven action of the father’s body killing itself, an action predestined, as it were, in the “double arms” of DNA, the serpentine “uncoiling” of which suggests original sin.
But something’s got to give. Such isolating, iconoclastic irony can only last so long. The speaker doesn’t actually want to be alone, a dissenting church of one raving in the wilderness. The collection ends with something of a prodigal return to “Late Night Show”’s gentler and more genuine hope of renewal. His rage dies, as he says, and what he has to face is that his exile has been self-inflicted. He has to forgive himself. “What do you mean by forgiven?” he asks suddenly in “Back Forty,” a poem which opens the second section of the book. Echoing both the gospels and his new thinking about art, he’d rather “[p]luck out an eye,” “[s]trike off an ear.”
Like the Romantically sublime Alps, death dwarfs the powers of language. “It’s pretty” is all the speaker’s ex can say about Mount Rainier in “Babel.”
In the end, the things themselves were only descriptions,
globs of light, approximations swimming
up through the eye, and it made us sad to look at them--
Mount Rainier’s high Valhalla of ice and stone, glacier fields
and rivers falling through sunlight scrubbed clean by altitude.
On the drive between Paradise and Longmire, we saw
as Percy Shelley did in the Vale of Chamouni
the awful beauty of magnitude. It’s pretty, she said…
Similarly, at the father’s deathbed, the best the speaker can muster is, “Are you comfortable, Dad?” and “I’ve got you” (“Three Lines from Stevens”; “Back Forty”). So much for leaving the pastor with the right words, some illuminating last expression of love. From “Back Forty”:
I feel fine. Light vibrates in the branches of the bastard growth.
Feathered shadows of bracken fern. Oregon Grape
and bug-bitten trillium.
I’ve started to think about the problem
of reconciling the eye to the ear, but that smell’s whatever’s dead
in the underbrush—and overripe blackberries.
Ants fumble noisily at the backlit, finely serrated tips of the hydrangea.
Here is the land I come back to so I can always be going out
from my father’s house. When I held him in his last throes,
what I said again and again was, “I’ve got you,”
as if I was a spotter and the whole thing was some daredevil stunt.
Death infects language from the opening poem. An ironic invocation, “Late Pastoral” begins:
Come, parting dark waves of chlorophyll,
into the last west and the northern woods.
He’s talking to the wind, asking for inspiration from the local Seattle fall breeze. Since the wind that strips the “yellow leaves” from the trees and from Shakespeare’s balding head is the same wind that, “twisted / around in the mouth” (“February Nocturne II”), makes words, this first poem invokes, in one sense, the muse of death. The poem goes on:
Such a short walk from the meadow, just
a few syllables shifting. Say eros without
sibilance, error. Thickened shadows, failing
arterial light—now eternal care pronounced
internal terror. Vowels pass between
the consonants as wind passes between
the stripped branches. Forgive becomes forgo.
The afternoon simmers. Blueblossom
and Devil’s Club. Again becomes ago.
“Late Pastoral” heralds the invasion of death. Death has “now” come between the speaker and both landscape (his home) and language (his art). Words prove flimsy and insidiously unreliable in what becomes an echo poem. We have a kind of inversion of George Herbert’s “Heaven.” Instead of Heaven’s echoes ineluctably reassuring the speaker, here the echoes usurp ventured words of need and hope (eros, eternal care, forgive, again). A devilish irony is at work, the world corrupting words from the inside out. With the slightest shift, something that seems right goes horribly wrong.
A few poems later “Dark Matter” also finds the speaker rudderless at the helm of language, the wheels come off words. This poem, too, measures the difference between what we say and mean, and thereby, the distance between the quick and the dead. Instead of considering the difference between apparently similar words, “Dark Matter” measures the difference between what a word says and what it actually means.
We say the heart is sick, meaning something else.
But when we say the body is broken, and it is, the poem,
like a great engine long given up to the weather,
begins to move…
In this little sermon, with echoes of protestant quibbles about the nature of the Eucharist, words quail and revolt before the fact of death. The poem contemplates the vast difference between grief (which we might call being heartsick) and actually having heart disease—that is, between grief and actually dying. This difference is couched in the luxury of a figurative (and cliché) turn of phrase like heartsick. Next to the irreducibly final “the body is broken,” heartsick looks especially trite, vain. In the face of death, especially the death of the pastor, art’s vanity is legion, its luxury unforgiveable.
It seems the speaker’s gone as far as language can take him. Reduced to a caveman’s grunt and point, language has bottomed out. Failed. Suffering has subsumed language, which, like the father’s body, is “broken.” Metaphor? He scoffs in “Rural Especial Scene.” What exactly should he call “what is…rotting in a hole”? Death is beyond us. There’s no language where there’s no body, and “language / follows our bodies” (“Fairhill Farm”). “Nothing is as dull as dying,” Baker reminds us (“February Nocturne”). Despite what Sylvia Plath says, there’s no art to it: “the body is broken.” Baker’s magisterial long poem, “In Articulo Mortis” is not only about the moment of death, but also about the inarticulateness of it: “You are finally you, having been every version of yourself but one. / Any moment before the last is not yours, and then the last is not yours.”
You might think representation’s failure would stop art dead in its tracks. Just the opposite, apparently. When language’s window closes and all that can be asserted is flat, literal fact, something happens to speech—to the speaker: “the poem…begins to move.” It’s this very failure—failure of the flesh, failure in the moment, failure of the signifier—that drives the speaker to search, even as he dismisses and discards, for adequate utterance.
The sparks thrown when those four words (“the body is broken”) strike the flint of the world ignite a rebellion. “Dark Matter” concludes,
…We grow artful when evil, and broken, take
on the utmost of our powers.
For a while anyway, a cursed sensibility animates artistic endeavor. Division, distance, difference—the world appears scored with boundaries and deferrals. From “Fairhill Farm”:
August’s divisions, pasture from forest,
birdsong from silence. Darkness leans
harder against the light, a furious last flowering
in the margins, and evening as perfumed and desperate
as the sweaty last slow dance at the end of prom.
Ridge from ravine, aftermath from harbinger.
Mull it over, but you’ve got bigger problems now
than the profound. Seen at this distance,
the cars on South River Road pass but don’t make a sound.
Art needs something “hard” to “lean” or strive against. Cast into hell, spitting bullets, brutally ironic, Milton’s hero goes back for another round. The artist attempts to span, connect, or reconcile his hell with heaven. This struggle is the juicy part, what makes Milton’s Satan compelling, “internal difference / where the meanings are” (Dickinson).
The artist’s only recourse is to persist in failure: to, like the sinner, keep renewing his conscience; to, like the church, keep reforming; to, like “the manuscript,” keep “revising” (“Rock Island Lines”). To fail better, as the tattoos say. From “Bitterroot Range”:
…If we could pass from argument
to description, could we be restored to perfection,
and not speaking follow the creek even further next time
into the hills? Of course, wanting such a thing
was itself our undoing. Gravel-crunch and smell
of sage. Far below, the small private lights of houses
lie clustered in the river bend. A few headlights appear
on the highway as men begin to clock out of the mills,
wipe sawdust from their boots and head for home.
Artistic endeavor is doomed with George Herbert’s “repining restlessness.” But by virtue of this limitation, art—at least art that’s alive—never rests, never stops looking. “I was careless to think that we might be transformed / by one remarkable thing,” the speaker avows in “February Nocturne.”
His reformist vision is a kind of Rife Machine, whose user searches for
…hums as Royal Rife heard it, discredited quack who believed if you found
the right radio frequency, tumors and viruses would literally be shaken and die.
In his last months, my father held the glass globe, lightning arcing within it,
and placed it to his head, his spine, his chest, in the dark room, Bible on his lap
as he fiddled the knobs of the box, polished wood like a radio of the 1940s,
where he looked for the frequency, the broadcast between worlds
that would return him to his life.
Unlike the father, who’s “settled / in for the ride…in his pressed suit” (“The Infernal Regions”), living art never settles. “Discredited” at every turn, it has to make the most of “almost”: “that harmony that almost coheres / beneath hearing.” Baker’s poems are not only about, but bear the fruits of, this struggle.
Granted, it’s a far cry from the ideal. The chanted Vedas’ or the God of Israel’s words “literally” shake the world. Yahweh’s “let there be” is contiguous with “and there was,” his “I AM” unifies “the verb and the noun.”
Were I to retell this, I’d restore the catastrophe,
undo the work of the angels, make [the father’s final] sermon
about love, what it demands and does to us.
I’d let the lost meanings, little prodigal sons,
come home and lie down, not let the width
of a breath between the verb and the noun.
Three times the Lord refused the devil on the hill
and still he wouldn’t turn the desert stones to bread.
Hell is what happens between my hand and my head.
The speaker’s powerlessness extends beyond language. His actions can’t seem to quite penetrate grief’s atmosphere either. A decidedly protestant ambivalence about action, about work or “works,” runs through the collection. “The Infernal Regions,” a burial poem, features work boots, a backhoe, Atlas shouldering “a weightless / world of light,” even Archimedes with his conditional scheme to leverage the earth.
Of course, there’s nothing more the speaker could have done for his father. Yet, in ways we can’t fully know, he feels like he’s let him down. Part of the problem seems to be that his father was a man of action—or that he believed in action (salvation). When the speaker was a boy, his father uprooted the family to spread the gospel in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, one of the most, and last, out-of-reach places in the world. Baker’s first book, Mission Work (2008), is about his memories of this time. A few poems in Posthumous Noon return to this terrain, like the blank verse “Highlands Cross”:
River breezes stalked the moonlit rows
of coffee trees along the mission’s yard.
Smoke rose above the villages at dusk
and scents of flowers settled in my hair.
The Highland chapel’s cross is standing still.
I watched you raise it when I was a child
and the landscape rose to meet it on the hill.
There seems to be real-world leverage and benefit at work in the father’s cross. Like Wallace Steven’s jar in Tennessee, it has a marked, centering effect on its environment. Or perhaps the point is that it seemed that way when the speaker was an impressionable boy. Perhaps now, as with Mount Rainier, the presumption of such heights just makes him sad, smacking of more failure.
The Bible, meanwhile, is full of efficacious actions. God says this, Jesus raises that; so long as Moses keeps his arms up, Israel prevails. And when his arms get tired? Aaron and Hur are there, supporting him on either side.
What is the son’s concomitant duty to his admirably, pitifully dutiful father? To care for the pastor? To comfort the comfortless? To reassure the man of faith? To make the most of this end-time? To make up for lost time? This speaker who specializes in words, in making nothing happen?
Undone, how can he stop regret from hitting rewind?—back to his sonogram, back before the body, before language (“First Language”). “Sunday Matinee” rewinds a film shot from outside his father’s house.
Seen from across the lawn, a red ellipses tilts beneath the window.
Rewind through the window box being nailed there, the raising of the walls,
the foundation poured into forms dug into the hillside.
Undoing poetry’s pet Bible story of Adamic naming, “The Unnaming of the Animals” goes so far as to foreswear the links of correspondence that shackle us to the world. In the resulting, dangerous silence “something might yet survive” and “we might unfix and fall out of time.”
…Our father calls out in the garden.
No one answers and he must think us ashamed in our nakedness,
but now we are naked even of our names. Now we release
the animals from our dominion. Let [St. Peter’s vision of the] sheet enfold
and return them to the sky—the stamping hoof, the slashing
claw, the grunt and the feather. We must release them,
release them all that we might unfix and fall out of time.
In a sense, the speaker imagines himself naked of his own name here. Perhaps he’s tempted to relinquish the duties that attend the name Aaron. “In Articulo Mortis” ends with the sentence, “[t]he patient is no longer lifting his arms.” Literally, this refers to the morphine-scratchy father no longer “snatching at his gown,” a motif that crops up throughout the book. Involuntary, utterly useless, this action is a bitter symbol for Moses’s arms during Israel’s battle with the Amalekites (Exodus 17:11). At the moment of death, it appears Israel has lost, that Aaron has let Moses down.
Even amidst fantasies of reversal, death starts to lose its grip toward the end of the collection. Death “has gone a little senile” (“Rock Island Lines”). We have a warming, a closing of critical distance. From “North Shore”:
…This morning is of the world.
Of the fog over the lake. Of the clean linens folded on the shelf,
of the ice webbing the corners of the window glass.
Spring surprises and thrills the speaker, rather than seeming “incongruous” or cliché (“Rural Scene Especial”). From “Rock Island Lines”:
Then one day green again and crystalline April,
birds filling the honey locust at my window.
How did I fail to notice—and what’s this
the blood remembers and rises to tell?
Instead of reinforcing how he’s “crossed” by “foredetermined” conditions, the sun’s warmth has crossed his every line of defense.
Star-crossed—no—the sun has crossed
each of Maginot’s lines, and just
like that I’m conquered, a good morning work.
A book that begins by debunking the “thinness of ceremony” (“The Infernal Regions”)—“what use the madrigals, the maypoles?” (“February Nocturne”)—ends with the speaker embracing his role as part of the ritual. Rather than Aaron the high priest of Exodus, he’ll be one of the “pagan priests.” Calvin can kiss it. Paul, too. The speaker’s going to play along. He’s going to conform, to perform his duties to the world he loves, even if Blake’s worm has found out his bed. He’s going to create, despite the fate of creation. The emptiness will be filled.
The final poem, “Honeycomb,” finds the speaker warming to his Wordsworthian cell. The howling gap between the word and the world, between the self and the other, is pollinated, primed for honey and sex, if not also for grace and incarnation.
Saint Augustine declared evil an absence of good. But an angel guards the gate
back to the garden. Good is an absence, and here below
her gaze, life rises from the dust, root conspiring with raindrop, flower
with stamen, these tiny messengers passing secrets
between them. Soon now, autumn will arrive, the emergency be upon us.
Soon the combs will overflow with honey.
He no longer questions, but rather joins in the ritual. Embracing a ceremonial plural perspective and a redemptive future tense, the book concludes with soothing teleological assurance,
…Soon we pagan priests
must put on our accoutrements and enter the glade, fill it with the smoke
of our censers, bewilder the bees and blind the eyes of the angel.
What can we say about the style and success of this collection? I like the Bishop criteria. Accuracy? Check. Mystery? Check. Spontaneity? Check. It succeeds on the terms of its style: a reading of landscape (“pastoral,” as Baker so often reminds us) studded with interpretation, aphorism, and self-conscious intrusion. Soaring from serious, sonorous precipices and premises, watch out for sudden drops in altitude. These air-pockets, in concert with pronoun and tense ambiguity, profess and enact credos of indeterminacy. This is by no means new territory for American poetry. However, a tension among variable modes of address is expertly maintained. The roughened texture makes the poems stick in the throat, as it were, which, even in our discomfort, we’re convinced is a good thing.
The poems’ report-and-reflect, detail-aphorism structure reminds one of Charles Wright, Baker’s former teacher. But Baker is more surprising and porous than Wright: less voluble, smug and personalitied. Fiercer, flatter, more impacted. More exigent. More slippery. Ventriloquial.
Take, for instance, the chorus of messenger-angel moths in the long, sectioned poem, “A Field Guide to the Moths of North America,” which appears near the middle of the collection. Portending both decay and flight, worms and wings, death and resurrection, their guidance to the guideless is, naturally, equivocal.
I’ll begin within you, your smallest darkness.
Saints are destroyed by their ecstasy, such exuberance
as mine. The cells divide. I squirm in the loam.
The cells divide again! My wings!
A tiny breath unsettles the dust. Then rupture,
metastasis. Metamorphosis in May.
Posthumous Noon by Aaron Baker
Originally from Alabama, AUSTIN SEGREST teaches poetry at
Lawrence University in Wisconsin. He’s currently a 2018-19 poetry
fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.