Cold Spring Rising
by John Thomas York
Press 53, 97 pp., $12.95
In his first collection, Cold Spring Rising, John Thomas York explores identity through the spheres of family, place, and imagination. His language takes us on a journey over rolling green expanses of North Carolina farmland beneath constellations where landscape and stars help to form a narrative drama tinged with loss and triumph. York writes with a warm and generous meditative voice, returning again and again to a landscape that nurtures and haunts his work, “…under limbs / twining and spreading into the sky, / we become silent, / our faces reflecting the softening light.” (Passing Bear Creek p. 76). Here, the landscape is both testament and testimony to the author’s primary relationship with the outer world, a world from which he seeks direction and solace. In “Naming the Constellations”, the collection’s first poem, we are effectively introduced to the poet’s mature voice and the collection’s concern with belonging and identity. It is a voice that inspires trust as it commands us to:
Trace a line from the front
of the Big Dipper’s cup, over to Polaris,
the penny nail on which the Little Dipper swings.
The rest of the sky, even the visible
galaxies fleeing the big bang,
seem to turn on that near nothing of a star.
(“Naming the Constellations” p. 1)
Like ‘that near nothing of a star’, the poet, York, grapples with his place in the universe—in all its apparent anonymous emptiness. Beneath this vast corridor of space, York probes realms of identity, looking to familial relationships to illuminate and ascribe to loss a purposeful function: “My father quit the farm / one piece at a time” (“Puzzle” p. 22) and, while loss is probed, York avoids fetishizing pain in favor of using language that suggests hope and acceptance, “…leaving nothing but a silver wake, the long signature of persistence” (“The Loon” p. 49).
Organized into five sections, Cold Spring Rising is a personal history as well as a map where landscape and memory abut, and where the magical rests just beyond the familiar. We feel this intersection quite clearly when York writes, “There’s a landscape that lives, that shines / behind a scrim of suburban neighborhood, / behind blue streetlights, the cars coated white” (“The Calling” p. 90). In this and other poems we encounter a subdued language of praise, a shy extolling of the extraordinary within the ordinary, the common every-man in awe of the mysterious human desire to belong and to know one’s place in the world. And while York often seems to be on the verge of bursting into sublime ecstasy, he does so anchored by a child’s wonder within the realm of memory, “In the evening, I crawl out a window / climb, the sit astraddle the apex, / the black-shingled roof sloping, like a golden / eagle’s down-sweeping wings…” (Mowing for Grandmothers p. 32).
York’s earnest self-awareness, in an era of poetry that is increasingly oblique and inaccessible, is refreshingly straight-forward. However, it is in his more numinous moments, “So what if I break down, dropped on black stones? / This hand of clay will bring me round again.” (“Diana Flora Throwing” p. 59) that this self-awareness generates a language that reaches beyond attentive observation to explore intimate moments of vulnerability. In these moments of breakage are derived a poignancy from the poet’s yearning, reminding us once again of the need for divine guidance in the face of human fragility.
York is a born story-teller. He charts a course through fond childhood memories with a mature mind’s skillfulness. Weaving the drama of a boy’s loss of intimate familial relationships with beloved grandmothers, “Grandma says, “Remember your roots, boy,” / and I nod and sigh, as if I could forget, as taproots / lunge into the dirt, as the full moon flies.” (“Bobby Jester’s Dandelion Blues” p. 58) and a father who “raged his cigar back to life” (“Substitute” p. 18) before beating the family dog with stories pulled from a cast of eccentric characters, giving this collection pleasing texture. Yet, guiding us across the terrain of Cold Spring Rising is a tone of hopeful acceptance, even of joy at recapturing and holding dear moments that reveal who we are. “What would they tell me? What have I forgotten? / I am forever returning, listening / for the sound of laughter” (“Wild Turkeys” p. 10).
Readers will find York’s collection to be both approachable and uncomplicated written in a clear narrative style, which creates a strong ridge way along which his more imaginative and lyric poems reach. York is a pleasurable companion to have on this journey over a varied landscape of North Carolina as we are transported to universal themes of finding one’s place—in family, in geography, in the world. These poems are infused with tranquility, intimacy, and humility. Cold Spring Rising is a welcome companion on any poetry aficionado’s bookshelf.