QUALITY OF HIS HARVESTS: James Reiss on David Baker’s Never-Ending Birds

never ending birds

Never-Ending Birds, David Baker, W. W. Norton

Reading David Baker’s ninth book of poems is like stepping into a museum diorama in which fauna and flora, including such minutiae as the streaks of a tulip, are on permanent display. The setting is central Ohio, but where are its official Buckeye trees? Although Ohio’s state bird, the cardinal, is mentioned once and there are plenty of avian creatures throughout, the overall mood of the book is probably too somber for your ordinary latte-sipping ornithologist from Columbus. Many poems seem steeped in the zeitgeist of olde New England or give off the dank scent of a British fen during Cromwell’s reign.

Yet Baker is a dyed in the twenty-first-century American Midwesterner who has coped with such challenges as divorce and fathering a teenage daughter in an era of Ohmygod and Beyoncé. He’s also spent time in “the financial city”—Central Park and Madison Avenue in the Big Apple—and a woman named Page has advised him, “You should write about the city.” How is it, then, that a rural sadness clings to him like a scarlet letter sewn by Puritans? Rather than shrug and write urbane odes to joy, how is it Baker utters cris de coeur notable for their creepy élan?

First of all, take the book’s last poem, “The Resurrection Man,” a meditation on grief and death that begins with echoes of the obscure, wacko seventeenth-century health educator William Vaughn: “Let [this body] asswageth furie of the mind / with our hoard of bones.” The poem’s speaker busies himself rearranging dead deer bones he’s found on his property “in a sort of crèche / in the barn,” though an unnamed female companion, possibly his daughter, refuses to visit the site. Aware as he is that his “deeryard” is weird, toward the end of this 111-liner the speaker nevertheless returns to his initial exhortation, “Let this body taketh / away sorrow,” and urges his companion to join him in building “a footbridge over // the creek” near where he’s assembled the bones because “we will all lie down, soon asleep.”

It would be easy to call this poem surreal. On the contrary, “The Resurrection Man” comes closer to Poe in its use of Gothic elements to deal with anguish and mortality. Characteristically, Baker steers clear of the confessional mode in addressing midlife-crisis material as personally unsettling to him as the issues behind “The Raven” were to Poe.

One consequence of Baker’s viewing his autobiography through a glass darkly is that some of his work tends to rely on external sources. If Eliot provided endnotes for “The Waste Land” because his publisher needed material to fill out what would have been a skimpy chapbook with too many blank pages at the end, Baker’s antiquarian interests as an antidote to me-me-me confessionalism result in the reader flipping to the back of his book to four pages of Notes. Unlike some of my colleagues, I find such page-flipping tedious, just as I continue to find Eliot’s endnotes a drag.

But enough of esoterica! Two-thirds of Baker’s poems have no endnotes whatsoever and are a pleasure to read, even if their subject is heart-wrenching. For me the book’s title poem is a joy in every sense. It’s accessible, straightforward—not elliptical like many poems here—with only one possible dictionary toughie, “olio,” which means “hodgepodge.” Plus, it’s one of the precious few poems in the book I’d call optimistic, even cheerful. Here’s “Never-Ending Birds” in its entirety:

That’s us pointing to the clouds. Those are clouds
of birds, now we see, one whole cloud of birds.

There we are pointing out the car windows.
October. Gray-blue-white olio of birds.

Never-ending birds, you called the first time—
years we say it, the three of us, any

two of us, one of those just endearments.
Apt clarities. Kiss on the lips of hope.

I have another house. Now you have two.
That’s us pointing with our delible whorls

into the faraway, the trueborn blue-
white unfeathering cloud of another year.

Another sheet of their never-ending.
There’s your mother wetting back your wild curl.

I’m your father. That’s us three, pointing up.
Dear girl. They will not—it’s we who do—end.

How cunningly these couplets go about their business. Like a professor at his chalkboard with a pointer, the speaker shapes his tableau, initially by describing fluffy, amorphous clouds in a huge Gainsborough sky; segueing to one enormous swarm of birds on the wing in autumn; to his cast of characters, the three Baker family members “pointing out the car windows”; et cetera, et cetera. Please pay special attention to the way Baker revels in counting backwards, e.g., “three of us, any / two of us, one of those just endearments”—in addition to his terrific antepenultimate line. Like a couple of his Midwestern forebears, Theodore Roethke and James Wright, Baker everywhere risks sentiment, especially in “Dear girl.”

By the time you reach the end of this unique divorce poem—for instance, it totally eschews Snodgrass’s conventional stance in “Heart’s Needle”—you may be unaware that Baker’s apparent free-verse lines are actually anything but “free.” You may be used to blank verse sounding like “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” or “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” Nonetheless, the 10-syllable grid that underlies most lines here—and ever so many lines in other poems in this book—means that Baker and Milton share more than a Puritan ethos in their poems about lost paradises. But if Baker is a formalist, he’s far from unreconstructed. His sly blank verse is remarkable—ars est celere artem.

Moreover, Baker’s last line, split by dashes, has oodles of savoir faire. Throughout his book Baker punctuates lines with em dashes; at times he begins and/or ends a poem with a dash, as if to emphasize the poem’s fragmentary nature. Perhaps no one other than Emily Dickinson and Frank Bidart has relied on dashes as much as Baker, though Dickinson and Bidart use these punctuation marks quite distinctly. Baker’s dashes in the last line of his title poem are reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s parentheses in the final line of “One Art”: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Baker and Bishop’s use of what I’ll facetiously call “lineus interruptus” is a dramatic gesture, all but a caesura, which recasts the content of their lines drastically. In other places Baker’s nervous use of the em dash recalls a fastidious late-Henry-Jamesian obsession with qualifying each and every assertion.

In fact, Baker’s ability to hold several ideas in his mind simultaneously leads him, like Linda Gregerson, to use parentheses sometimes back to back (but always with the aim of opening up his poems) (to ghostlier demarcations). In the middle of “Tis a Fayling,” a poem about the failings and guilt of one of America’s greatest crackpot Puritans, Michael Wigglesworth, Baker flashes forward, in two consecutive parenthetical remarks, as well as a third, from 1669 to the Iraq War and the covert operations of the CIA in Venezuela: “Of my shame. . . , / I carry (see men / flying, as if swallows wing-shot) (a boy / in Baghdad coddling his mother’s eye in / his palm) blood on the egg (now of Black Ops / in a narrow valley, beneath the swept / mountains of Caracas).” For all this Gustav Mahler-like switching of time signatures—and Mahler changed signatures as speedily as he altered his walking gait—the coherence of Baker’s sentence is clear. Over and over, not just in “Tis a Fayling,” Baker resorts to the word “thus,” like a refrain, to establish a cause-effect link between A and B or Y and Z. Some poets, like Philip Schultz, rely on parataxis, often the ampersand, as a poem’s coat hanger. Not so Baker, a rara avis in his insistence on the whys and therefores of things. With frequent fragmentary syntax, despite his love for monosyllables, he’s one of the more conspicuous black sheep in his generation of mainstream poets enamored of the plain style.

Because of the way “Gently Read Literature” is formatted, I can’t quote a stanza or two of Baker’s to show how he deals with another trend prevalent among mainstream poets of his generation, the poem composed of stanzas with an equal number of lines. Well, Baker emphatically opposes the trend with his five-space indentations. All I can do here is describe how he takes quatrains and prints their first two lines flush left, while indenting lines three and four. Or else he prints the first ten lines of a poem with eleven-line stanzas flush-left and indents the last line. Perhaps most offbeat of all, in “Horse Madness,” he prints eight ten-line stanzas with the second and ninth line of each stanza indented. The effect of Baker’s indentations is not only visual; each indented line is a startling emotional leap.

These leaps comprise one important distinction between “Never-Ending Birds” and a book that could be its cousin, “Lord Weary’s Castle.” In his second collection, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Robert Lowell caught the intensity of the Puritan tradition in poems like “Mr. Edwards and the Spider.” But only Baker can leap two pages from his intensely dour first line that uses roman lettering, “I hate the world,” in “Posthumous Man”—a line borne out of anger and dismay because of failed marriage—to the italicized line, “I hate the world,” written by Keats in a letter to his lady love. Only Baker can credibly bring together Fanny Brawne and the ex–Mrs. Baker, poet Ann Townsend. I don’t think his empathy for Keats is in any way self-aggrandizing or patronizing. Likewise, when Baker juxtaposes bits of the nineteenth-century religious mystic Polly Collins’s story with his daughter’s, this doesn’t constitute, for me, evidence of what critic Joshua Clover, in another context, referred to as “compassionate condescension.” In contrast, I find Baker’s yoking together disparate characters and events evidence of a kind of neo-metaphysical poet, i.e., John Donne with an architect’s compass in one hand and a computer mouse Googling in the other.

To switch allusions from the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries to the Celtic twilight of the late nineteenth: at this point in fewer than two decades Baker has planted nine bean rows. Considering the quality of his harvests—they’re homegrown, they’re tasty and wondrous to behold—I hope he continues to work in his garden (as assiduously as he has) for at least another twenty years.