From the Understory: A View of James Seay’s Poetry

by Billy Reynolds

The black-and-white photograph on the front jacket of James Seay’s Open Field, Understory, New and Selected Poems (1997) is the most stunning image on a book of poetry that I can recall in years. The photographer, Erik Kridakorn, is situated within the dark understory, looking out with his camera into a bright, open, newly-mown field. Out there, beyond the striped shadows cast over us by what we presume is the growth of the understory, the coast is clear, except for a blurred fence ambling across the mid-ground. Whether those are wooden rails or strands of barbed wire stretched between the rickety wooden posts is hard to tell: the rails or the strands of wire are nearly invisible, ghostlike, indistinguishable from the shadows striping the ground. The photograph’s focal point is the two magnificent trees guarding the sun-drenched field on either side: on the left an old crooked oak on the verge, I imagine, of dropping its leaves, and on the right, situated a bit farther in the distance, an even larger sweet gum in full yellow autumn leaf. In the background, the details are so small they are barely distinguishable: what could be a large shed or barn on the far left, almost out of the photograph’s frame, and on the right, behind the sweet gum, what is possibly a large bale of hay or a fuel tank; beyond that, the hint of a white house, made by a trick of perspective to look even smaller than the hay bale. At the horizon, a soft line of trees blends into a deep-colored, cloudless sky. There is an interesting blurring of boundaries here, the objects other than the two huge, sharply-focused trees blurred or distorted by distance so that, from our viewpoint within the understory, we find ourselves filling in the details of what is out there with our imaginations. We experience this romantic vision of the two trees and the open field from the darkness beneath the understory, yet even this boundary is blurred for us: we cannot see whatever is over us, casting the shadows from which we are looking out. The dark of the understory, the sunlit open field: our own perspective is blurred as the boundary between the two shimmers and dissipates. For Seay the shadows of the understory provide cover from which to view and reflect upon the world, while the vision of the sunlit open field represents our desire to reach out for and to merge with the natural world outside of ourselves.

In a very real way, this front-jacket photograph serves as a proem to the themes of Open Field, Understory, for if boundaries provide an illusory sense of safety in Seay’s poetry, it is his speaker’s blurring of such boundaries that offers him exposure to the larger world. In these poems, such exposure comes in many forms: a description of the uncanny similarities between two near-death experiences; the meeting of a fellow poet at a writers’ retreat; the image of a homeless man trying to heat a can of soup. The speaker of “When Once Friends”tells us that his two near-death experiences were “long ago,” yet in the telling the speaker reenacts his younger self’s restless energy and hunger for travel: Whether he recalls fishing at a shrimp farm with his former friend or being ferried, years later, by private charter to a remote location, Seay’s speaker wants to slip into and become a part of the natural world, “to arrive early and alone at the shrimp farm where sea trout were working along the fence for strays.” Similarly, the speaker of “In Residence” wants to know if his Slav friend is sad, “walking stooped and slow / to the end of the chateau’s jetty.” The poem’s series of questions does not lead the speaker to an answer, but to an exploration of how the world’s woes exist in this beautiful Mediterranean retreat, where the two have found themselves lucky enough to live and write for three months during the winter. From a safe and cautious distance, from the dark of unknowing that is perception, the speaker observes his friend’s heavy drinking and his violation of etiquette at the buffet from which he “suffers stares of wonder.” The speaker recognizes that his friend’s violation of etiquette isolates him from the other writers at the retreat, but the speaker does not stop there. Instead he meditates on other, more distant sources of his friend’s sadness, on his troubled past that includes time spent in a WWII concentration camp:

Or it may be that the skeleton of fence
and bunker at the jetty’s end
has opened the album of far-off Sachsenhausen,
his barbed-wire house in 1941,
labor that almost set him free from breath.

The speaker imagines his friend gasping for breath, but his imagining is an act that quietly registers empathy. Now the speaker is free himself to observe his friend on the last days of their residency, seeing him dance “in front of the big fire at our farewell dinner” or snapping a photograph of his friend at his desk, “manuscript in hand, / the fine room and windowed sea as background.” Both share reservations about the luxury of their residencies—the speaker calls it “luxury on loan”—as well as flashes of cynical wit. When the speaker gets sick from shellfish toxin, his friend writes him a funny poem in French that rhymes “comique with “la bombe atomique.” Finally, the speaker realizes that what connects these two men from vastly different parts of the world is not a shared sense of historical nightmare, but a love of poetry and the ability to laugh at the world even when feeling isolated. In “Inside, Outside, The Dialectics Once More,” the speaker again describes the various ways that inside and outside become enmeshed. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker and his son, having just emerged from an art museum, literally have their heads full of van Gogh when they stumble upon a homeless man trying to find an electrical outlet for his hot plate. The final line of the stanza, a distillation of the heady experience of seeing van Gogh’s final canvases, expresses how the speaker invariably negotiates such sorrow. He can neither hold on to the image of the homeless man nor let go of it. In a strange way, the speaker has carried his experience of the museum back outside with him in New York City at Christmas time.

Nowhere is there a better relationship from which to explore the messy and sometimes joyous exposures of self and blurring of identity than in marriage. (“She is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” says Adam of the creation of Eve from his rib). In “An Ideal of Itself,”an elegy for a marriage ended in divorce, Seay explores this paradox of self through union from the point of view of one no longer in a marriage. Interestingly, the speaker never once mentions the words “marriage” or “divorce,” and in this omission there is a kind of natural inevitability. For one, he does not need these labels. The speaker’s details describe the wonderful absurd moments of a past life shared, such as the time the couple watched on television as a three-fingered politician accidentally jumped to a fourth point (and had no more digits with which to gesture), or the time the middle-aged widow from across the street asked to borrow a birth-control pill for a vacation with her new boyfriend. More importantly, this absence of naming lends itself well to a description of how marriage can be thought of in terms of a “shared medium,” as the speaker describes it. It is this shared medium that the speaker both bears witness to and mourns the loss of.

In an “Ideal of Itself” the speaker looks from far away at his past marriage and cannot help but want to go back to such early happiness as he remembers it, yet he knows that he cannot. Here again, the push-pull effect of the poems is suggested in the front-jacket photograph: the desire to stay put and remain hidden in the shadows versus the desire to step over the fence, walk across the field, and touch one of the lower-hanging branches on the sweet gum tree. Seay’s speaker desires both to inhabit safe space and to relinquish it, to be drawn out into the world at large, into incident, circumstance, and action. So many of his poems are narratives of danger set in seemingly exotic locales: “When Once Friends” describes two near-death experiences that share the common angle of mist and fog. In the first instance, a cabin cruiser barely misses the speaker and his friend’s small craft early one morning at a shrimp farm, but never looks back “at my friend and me and our luck/ rolling in their wake” (43). The second, later memory is of a plane ride in a Cessna with a young pilot who does not have radar and has never been where he is taking the speaker. After the plane has been parked on the runway and the speaker stands alone waiting for his ride “on the one road leading in,” he recalls that winter morning on the “wide sound” with his friend when they caught “the speckled trout/our wives broiled with pimiento and Parmesan, / lemon and parsley.” It is the mystery of lost friendship that dogs these two narratives and will not allow one inch of sentimentality to creep into the speaker’s meditation.

In Seay’s poetry it is such damning distance that he tries to negotiate. At times he can open up the distance, as in “An Ideal of Itself,” and other times he closes that distance, as in “Mountains by Moonlight,” a meditation on a postcard of the same name sent long ago from the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina by the speaker’s vacationing grandparents to his family. Looking at this photograph, the speaker senses that his own desire to transform his ordinary life must be an impulse he shares with his grandparents: “We don’t know whether to lie down / and embrace our aloneness together on Earth / or fly to the moon.” Always in Seay’s poetry one finds the given, the “sad thing,” (the passage of time, divorce, poverty, desire)  but he always appears to discover the sad thing’s attendant “little window of negotiable hope,” as he writes in “In Ideal of Itself.” Again, this dialectic brings us back to the photograph, to the vision of the open field from inside the dark and its intimation of Seay’s desire to believe in the sheltering influences of family and natural world. His favorite memory, something he describes in his long-awaited novel-in-progress Spoondrift and discusses in a 1990 interview with William Walsh in the Southern Quarterly, is of a boy alone in bed at night. The boy’s father (much like Seay’s own father) is far away at war in Japan, but the boy can hear his family’s voices in another part of the house. A breeze blows through the cedars and pines, and the boy can see across the street a pale neon sign whose letters spell C.O. Pate Funeral Home. It is safety’s close proximity to death the boy senses, yet when he falls asleep each night he feels sheltered, both by his family and the natural world. The funeral home’s neon sign is a stark reminder of what could happen to his father, yet it also is colored by the boy’s sense of well-being, “the luminous glow of [his family’s] efforts.” It is such relative safety and comfort that Seay commemorates in “The Fire of Both the Old Year and the New.” In it the couple lobs corks into a fireplace:

At year’s end my wife and I build the small fire
of whim that began one year when all the corks
we were saving for we knew not what (compost
or some other conserving gesture) came to mind.

The speaker mourns the passing of another year, but he also has the wisdom to clear away enough room for the small passing pleasures of the moment: the recalling of the vintner’s name, the wine labels that caught their eye, all these wines that are no more but that are remembered nonetheless in this poem’s “small fire of the moment.” The blurring of the autumnal and the pastoral: so many of Seay’s rich and beguiling poems do just this. Seay’s light is the light of exposure, but it also is the light of transformation, the light that moves him (and us) toward the uncertain light of connection.


Billy Reynolds lives in Tifton, Georgia, where he is an assistant professor of English at Abraham Baldwin College. His poems and reviews have been published in CutBank, DIAGRAM, New Orleans Review, storySouth, and Third Coast, among others.