The Complete Poems
by Robert Watson
Xlibris Corporation, 347 pages
$29.99 hardback, $19.99 paperback
The six poetry collections (accompanied by a section of new poems, Mr. Watson is still writing, yippee!) that comprise the bulk of The Complete Poems span thirty-four years from 1962-1995, but what struck me with every poem was how contemporary and unornamental each felt. Watson doesn’t pad his poems with long, flowery adjectives and descriptions, because his poems have muscles. These poems are active, alive, and always vibrant with imagination.
One of Watson’s major talents is his ability to transcend his own world of experience, to step into other characters’ lives either to paint a portrait or to climb into their mouths to speak, always with extreme empathy and clarity. After a few dozen pages, I couldn’t discern which poems were fictional and which were factual; when the speaker of the poems addressed me, I couldn’t know if it was the author or a persona. By the end, I didn’t really care and it didn’t matter. The “Did that really happen?” impulse that distracts and undermines many poems simply had no place here. In his poem “A Childhood Friend Embezzles Five Million,” it doesn’t matter if it’s Watson speaking or someone else. What matters is the fascinating psychology of a speaker who envies this disgraced criminal, his last tie to his home town. That nagging question of factuality shouldn’t matter in a poem, but it takes a great poet to make a reader forget it entirely.
Other poems like “Planet Eight,” give examples of the persona poem where we’re taken on an expedition: “We clambered down in airtight suits to the ground / Of Planet Eight where the temperature / For us was cold. The sky was green and windless, / Our feet sank into the dust that felt like fur.” This first stanza is fresh but approachable, foreign but clear. As a reader, I’ll see where this goes, which is lucky for me, because it provides the story of an astronaut’s exploration of Neptune and the sadness in leaving such a barren, useless place where, “we would have welcomed rats or flies.” This poem comes from the section Christmas in Las Vegas (what a title!), a book that truly drove me a little mad with joy, shouting at Robert Watson from my bedroom as he set-up the section’s closing poem with three long monologues where he alternately became “J. Goldsborough Bruff,” a nineteenth-century mining tycoon starving and lost on the frontier (as spoken to his dog); “The Last Wild Indian,” a historical account of Ishi, the last Yuni man alive in 1908; and a man who’s “Off to Amazonia” to abandon middle-age for the jungles of South America. Each one of those poems felt as fresh as if it had been published yesterday; these poems haven’t aged at all.
While the personas are strong, I would be negligent to forget that Watson, just as he contains many stories and voices, contains many modes. His lyrics are as delightful and surprising as many of the more celebrated and “surreal” poets without being nearly as elusive or arbitrary. His poem “Kissing in Wind,” begins by telling us, “The wind we pull into our lungs, my cat, / Is the breath of penguins, a Tibetan Yak.” Now all good lyric poems seem a bit like comets to me, but many of them are only viewable from a distance, beautiful but unknowable, impenetrable. That’s a shame when there are writers like Watson, who makes comets we can ride inside while he drives. Another of many great lyric poems included is “The Blue Whale,” a lyric meditation that manages to be emotionally and morally complex while it also stays very simple in its language and listing of facts about the world’s largest animal.
Three hugest dinosaurs do not outweigh
That one hundred foot long whale who will strain
The sea for krill, four tons a day. Svend Foyn,
A man, found how to blow its twenty pound brain
To rice and still its thousand pound heart
For its forty thousand pounds of oil. Soon
The blue whale fewer than the whooping crane
Will be, who is a useless bird. Of old,
Churchmen said the devil was like a whale.
Soon we can sail dry seas empty of all
Monstrosities, and man alone can strain
The little krill, all food, thought for his brain.
There’s life some say in smallest grains of rice.
Man must eat; killing is not good, not evil.
After waters are plundered as well as land,
I will think
Of Svend Foyn who destroyed the devil,
A one hundred and fifty ton, toothless blue whale.
There is final major thing to note in Watson’s style which can be seen at work in “The Blue Whale” and adds one more facet to already wonderful poems: his love of sounds and end rhyme that is always applied with a light touch. Though it’s a little more obvious in earlier poems, the whole collection is full of irregular rhyme schemes and couplets sporadically inserted for the little zings of pleasure they provide. In poems such as “Afternoons and Evenings” we see the author’s zestful wordplay sneak into a wearied speaker as he says things like “My wanderlust has lost its lust” or an entire stanza (centrally-located) composed of the same line repeated three times: “Christ, I need a day off.” These moments supply a little jolt, but leave before overstaying their welcome. In the work of many poets, it’s possible to drift off, distracted by your own thoughts. There is no such monotony here.
The Collected Poems of Robert Watson can be tender, callous, sympathetic, or mine darkness where we’d be afraid to go alone (and Watson owns those dark voices, not simply content to discuss a concept). When he wants it, the poems are extremely tight and formal; more than a handful of traditional formal poems appear, but other times he chooses to be reckless, wild and free. Christmas in Las Vegas alone would be worth the price of this book, but the astonishing truth is that there is not a single filler poem in here. An impressive enough feat in a single collection of poetry or a selected works, but in a complete works such as this, it’s miraculous.