‘Playful Song Called Beautiful’ by John Blair

by Kelly Cherry

Playful Song Called Beautiful: Poems
by John Blair
University of Iowa Press, $19.95, paperback, 102 pp.

There were two winners of the Iowa Book Prize for 2016. I have already reviewed Lindsay Tigue’s excellent System of Ghosts. John Blair’s offering is equally excellent and almost the obverse of Tigue’s book. (Maybe I should say ob-verse.) His poetic voice is firm, exact, assured. He has opinions. He has an inclination for the dark and dire. He uses a good deal of rhyme (more poets should, I think; why leave out the music when music is what makes poetry poetry?). He is not in the least interested in cheering us up or consoling us. He wants us to take a good hard look at reality. And with his help, we do.

The poems are corralled into two sections, but there is an epigraph that encompasses both. It’s from Yoshida Kenko, author of Essays in Idleness. Kenko lived from 1284 to 1350. He was a Buddhist monk. The epigraph? “I have spent whole days scribbling down nonsense.” Does Blair mean to say that he, too, scribbles nonsense? I doubt it. Or perhaps he is letting us know that he is aware of the futility of writing anything. And yet his poems are strategically aimed, bursting with words he has coined himself, and clearly invested with emotion. Some readers might prefer not to look at reality but it is enlightening and exciting to do so, and Blair is an exhaustive and sophisticated guide.

There are poems about Göethe, physics, Turing. There are phrases like “endless as pi.” How much I wish I had come up with that! There are words like pellicular, which means A thin skin or film, such as an organic membrane or liquid film. In short, Blair knows his stuff.

His poem “What Is Left” begins with a dive to the bottom: “Inevitably, in the bottom-scrape and backwash, soft fruit to keep you company, old bones and early morning ink black like ashes thumbed across your forehead. . .”

Probably the poem does not look like that, but Kindle versions of poetry do not lay out the poems the way the poet would. Still, we understand that the poem is telling us that not much is left. In fact, he says that the “you” is trapped “between the sentence and the light” and “all the yous you’ve suffered / and loved chew fat-rat through your tender meat until all that’s left is you.” We may not know what precisely is meant but we certainly know we ought to get out of that place, and fast.

And yet there are sonnets, and they are beautifully turned. Sometimes I think his poems may be fatal to the reader and at other times they shine a light where light is needed. In his poem about Turing, Blair speaks of “the oiled thrumthrust of their fell paradise.” (I do think he’s too hard on poor Turing who, after all, did important work and suffered terribly. He seems to blame Turing for being gay.)

But I could be wrong about this. Playful Song Called Beautiful—the title poem, possibly the best poem in the book—is a book that requires rereading, rethinking, relearning. It’s not a book that can be read merely once. The author has worked to take us where he wants us to go and in return we are required to take the closest possible look, which cannot be a glance but must be a full-on investigation of all the poems.

KELLY CHERRY has previously published twenty-two books (novels, stories, poetry, autobiography, memoir, criticism, essays, and reviews), nine chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. The most recent book is A Kind of Dream: Stories. Her newest full-length collection of poems, The Life and Death of Poetry, was published by L.S.U. Press in 2013 and her newest chapbook, a group of poems titled Vectors: J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Years before the Bomb, appeared from Parallel Press in December 2012. Other awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bradley Major Achievement (Lifetime) Award, a USIS Speaker Award (The Philippines), a Distinguished Alumnus Award, three Wisconsin Arts Board fellowships, two WAB New Work awards, the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for Distinguished Book of Stories in 1999 (2000), and selection as a Wisconsin Notable Author. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards: Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the South. A former Poet Laureate of Virginia, she is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband live in Virginia.