September 24, 2021KR Reviews

Longenbach’s Forever

James Longenbach. W.W. Norton, 2021. 80 pages. $26.95.

On the one hand, James Longenbach’s new collection of poems, Forever, resembles a novel: it’s the story of a marriage as seen in the sudden light of the husband’s cancer diagnosis. On the other hand, the book remains a collection of lyrics—poems so intense that this story happens outside of time, sub specie aeternitatis. The main characters recur, though in different guises. The husband, for example, is also the poet himself—also, an adolescent boy, and at other times, Italian. Longenbach’s great achievement lies in his construction of this kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria. He’s the preeminent American poetry critic of his generation, but if there are similarities between his prose and his poetry, they rest in simple virtues: he writes with exquisite clarity and economy and he wears his extensive learning lightly. Most of all, he sees the big structure in the particular moment, understanding how small modulations of tone effect and create the entire action of the poem.

Take the opening sentence of the long poem “In the Village”:

Shortly before I died,
Or possibly after,
I moved to a small village by the sea.

These lines impress with their simultaneous gravitas and Calvino-esque lightness: the fabular and the ordinary combine in humorously plain free verse that may recall Mark Strand or Louise Glück, but remains Longenbach’s own. For instance, there’s a characteristic blend of vulnerability and narratorial command in the sly comedy of “Or possibly after,” which, following the already surprising suggestion that this poem may be spoken by a ghost, jolts the reader with an image of eternal return. All this derives from a small tonal turn, an ironic three-word aside. The mortal stakes of “In the Village,” and of the whole book, are all too clear: “After a routine ultrasound revealed a fifteen-centimeter mass,” the third section of this same poem begins, “my left kidney was removed robotically on February 12th. Fifteen months later, nodules were discovered in my lungs and peritoneum.” The great surprise turns out to be how the fictive voice of those first three lines proves just as credible as this voice relating the dismaying, undeniable facts. I mean that Longenbach’s poems brilliantly advance the claims of art, imagination, and love in the face of mortality, and do so with a prevalent tone of strange, unsentimental joy, as in these lines from “112th Street”:

So little behind you,
So much ahead.

Maybe the best way to understand Longenbach’s genius for tonal drama in Forever would be to look at a single poem. “Notre Dame” opens with an image of the 2019 fire in Paris, then turns to the couple who appear throughout the book:

High above our heads the forest
Is burning, oaks and chestnuts almost a thousand years old.
Smoke is rising, alarms are ringing,
But down here in the past
We’re ignorant, we’re unprepared.

This boy lights a candle in a red cup.
Maybe the girl he loves
No longer loves him.
Look at her, she’s standing right beside him; isn’t he dumb?

This boy’s going to be a father, he’s just found out.
Together with his wife
He’ll celebrate at Le Trumilou, their favorite bistro, just across the Seine.

Viollet-le-Duc is sketching a buttress.
Louis Vierne is playing Bach, the Tocccata and Fugue in D Minor.
They’re embellishers, both of them,
They can’t leave the past alone! Doesn’t anyone
Hear the sirens, see the black smoke
Billowing against the sky?

The surprising, anti-chronological appearance of Viollet-le-Duc, the nineteenth century architect and writer, as well as Louis Vierne, the early twentieth century composer and organist at Notre Dame (key figures, these two) coincides with, and enables, a narratorial jibe—teasing the bookish boy and girl, those figures who in another context are the poet and his beloved, for being “embellishers” who can’t leave the past alone. The pleasure of this humor comes from the self-reflexive turn, the way the artist here becomes his own critic, and vice versa, just as the time periods intermingle.

Another poet might have ended with that third stanza. But as the image of the fire returns, “Notre Dame” rises to its conclusion with a new intensity:

The forest is burning. Beneath it
Little flames of hope
Are burning, too.
Hope, desire, longing, fear.

This boy doesn’t know he has cancer. This boy
Doesn’t realize that, being
Who he is, he asks too much;
The people he loves need less of him.

This boy? He will live forever
In a little house by the sea.

The tone grows more urgent here, as the poem turns not only to the boy’s mortality but also to a deflating acknowledgment of his limits as a person. And then comes the reversal in the last two lines, which are in their quiet way, like this whole book, unabashedly and successfully triumphant. Living forever is of course the ambition of the lyric poet, and such a claim in this book, the wager of art and the imagination, finds its figure in the freehold of that “little house by the sea.”

This book will be called brave, and should be. But the bravery here is not just individual courage mirrored in art, some memoir-like, earnest relation between the hard facts of life and death and their rendering on the page. No, this book, while the cry of a terrible occasion, transforms its material into art. Longenbach’s bravery is that of the artist tout court, for whom a poem or a painting is just as much a thing as life and death, and whose maybe unfashionable but ultimately convincing faith in art never for a moment feels merely curatorial.

In his 2020 critical collection, The Lyric Now, Longenbach wrote about “the way in which a particular poem creates the repeatable occasion of itself.” His particular poems create that moment, and will for a long time to come, by virtue of a simple elegance, a musician’s exquisite skill for doing a lot with a little, balanced by the novelist or architect’s genius for structure. Such skills reach beyond formal felicity, which is everywhere in this work: Longenbach’s superb poems in Forever seem instantly to imprint themselves in memory because their architecture and their music are so strong, and so surprising.