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Views and Reviews: Barbara Knott

That’s How the Light Gets In: A Review of R. Cary Bynum’s Sea Vigil, a collection of poems published by St. Johann Press, 2008.

One clue to Cary Bynum’s poetry is in the title of his second volume of poems. The great image is the sea, and the attitude toward the image is in the word vigil: the act of keeping awake, of keeping watch, and of something like religious devotion expressed through such an act. A thousand years ago in Europe, Christian warriors began to keep vigil over their weapons in preparation for entering knighthood. Today, we still speak of keeping vigil over the gravely ill or over the dead waiting to be interred. The word implies a purposefulness in refusing sleep as we honor the important transitions in this world. In our own time, the artist carries the burden and the privilege of wakefulness, and the poet especially wants words to make experience real, to realize what is there in the world.

I believe that any literary expression worthy of being called a poem has this in its genesis: someone paid attention to something--someone who had the capacity to be affected by it--and that person found the right words to render the experience intelligible and moving to others. In making poems, the quality of attention is thus very high, high enough to set in motion an act of imagination, enough to turn an ordinary event into an extraordinary experience. Any subject will do, animate or inanimate. But how many people are capable of this quality of attention? That’s why poets are rare and why we lend them our ears and borrow their eyes to see what they are seeing. In the right circumstances, it doesn’t take long to become enchanted. And this is an enchanting small book.

Let me illustrate: In a poem called “Slumber House,” the speaker tells us that somewhere on St. Simon’s Island, off the coast of Georgia, while he was walking “down a live-oak shaded street,” sometime after eight o’clock in the morning, he came upon “a house of slumber:/ over a dozen people asleep on a/dark-screened porch, breathing in/sibilant variations, August attired.” We notice how attuned the speaker is to what he is passing by. He has quick eyes and quick ears and a notion of what is unusual in this scene: “A dog amongst them rouses and/ barks three times/ as I stand gawking./ No one stirs, not a head raises;/ the dog quickly sinks back into/ a limp sleep on someone’s chest.” That’s it. It is a non-event, but … "I cannot tear myself away.” He muses then on this theme: “... how fortunate that these friends,/ at some time during the night, in or/ out of whatever state of sobriety--/ lay down together, trusting each other/ with their own deep, very personal sleep ….”

Bynum says in his brief preface that he has never lived near the seaside; the poems are about his many trips to the coasts of Florida and Georgia and a few trips to other coasts of other lands. Sea coasts are the subject of travel writing. One difference between travel writing and poetry is depth. A poet has one pair of eyes on landscape and another on inscape. The poet focuses not on surface appeal but on experience.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke tells us in the Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (as quoted in Leppmann 245-6) that verses should not be written too soon. Instead, one should allow them to “gather up sense and sweetness through a lifetime, if possible a long one, and then, just at its close, then perhaps you could write ten lines that are good.”

For verses are not feelings, as people tend to believe (those you have soon enough), they are experiences. For the sake of a single verse you must see many cities, people, and things, you must know animals, you must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which tiny flowers open up in the morning.

The poems in Bynum’s Sea Vigil are full of sense and sweetness and good lines made possible by richness of experience, nuanced recall, and a way with words.

In the opening poem, “Reconciling the Old Wilson Hotel,” he presents unusual verb choices, such as “tendering a boil on my lip” and “footing down dark green steps.” These are actions of a boy in 1946 visiting the Old Wilson Hotel on a “rare Georgia atoll” with his family, where his “navy-clad father” forks up a day’s pay to buy a great orange ball that, much to the amazement and amusement of “full-skirted, blue-laced gypsies/who waddled from their fortune stand,” at once floated “far out on the horizon/like a tiny setting sun,” bringing to a sad conclusion the father’s “visions of week-long beach play.”

When the persistent desire of the father to enjoy an ordinary family jaunt to the ocean takes them back the following year to the Old Wilson, once again we see the dad’s dream deflate. The boy eats something tainted that works its way through him over six days and nights until “my pernicious seaside crud/ abandoned its deep labyrinth,” though not before “my somber, tight-jawed dad,/trying not to show it,/ watched his hard-earned vacation/ go down the Old Wilson’s toilets/ in the hot buzzing nights.” This boy, this burgeoning poet, notices early how we humans set up ideals and watch them struck down.

By this time we are ready to go back and pay more attention to the title’s verb, “Reconciling the Old Wilson Hotel.” The reconciling that takes place in the poem is between the paradise and the hell of life on earth, between images of light and of the Old Wilson’s toilets in the hot buzzing nights. We look with the grownup boy, now bringing his own family to visit the same place, who sees how “The Old Wilson stands empty/ in the rice-paper light” among “the ether of salt air/ and light-spliced palmettos/ whispering like balmy sirens/ of our fragile tenure/ in such a paradise as this.” Life enchants us, makes us sick, purges us, leaves us feeling sometimes hollow, and is still able to grant us a face that is, in the poet’s vision, ironically “not unsmiling.”

In a lyric of four stanzas called “Gull Down,” the title takes us immediately to a single bird’s flight and fall, given in the first stanza as a lament. Then, in the second stanza we see the bird’s life in time, and in the third, speaking to the bird, the poet lets us know that the gull’s death was exceptional in that the bird came to rest “in the freckled arms/ of a rust-haired girl in white/ who hoods your ruffled head and/ cradles you like a cherished granny.” The final stanza wraps the experience in an image of serenity: “With closing eyes and beak just open/ you seem so peaceful in your fall/ as if all your earthly joy in skying/ brought you near this perfect end.”

Bynum knows that verbs carry the energy of lines, and in this small poem, one can review the story through his verbs: we see the bird’s flight and fall, the latter depicted not as an accident or a consequence of predation, but as a result of some nameless force that snatched and dropped the bird while it was doing what all birds do: skying. I expect not many, if any, of us have seen such a noun be transformed into such a verb, and with such satisfying results. And then, with the poet’s same attention to the uniqueness of the bird’s death, after it has been snatched and dropped, we see it placed in the cradling arms of the girl—not just any girl, but a rust-haired girl in white with freckled arms--which, the poet says, makes for the bird a “perfect end.” In this poem, Bynum does not shy from the brutality of death, but he brings to it an awareness of life’s rich potentials and also of the possibility of a personal death. Rilke, who did not want what he called a "ready-made death" for himself or any creature, would like this seagull’s death, I think.

Rilke continues his look into the true poet’s mind and heart:

You must be able to think back on paths in unfamiliar regions, on unexpected encounters and on partings anticipated for a long time … on days in still, expectant rooms and mornings by the sea, on the sea in general, on seas, on nights of travel that swept along at full tilt and flew past with all of their stars …. and still it is not enough to be able to think of all this. You must have memories of many nights of love, not one of them resembling any other ….

In “Tybrisa,” Bynum gives words to a scene from an old photograph or perhaps a poster, in which a girl, Iona, wearing “large white hat, stockings, brooch,” together with her young man, mills with a crowd at Tybrisa Pavilion one hot July in the early 1900s while the poet (but not Iona) ponders “the anxious brow of her mother” back home in Savannah, wondering why she let the girl go into the “edgy fun” ...

where now Iona and her beau join hands,
smile as the capping ocean, salt breezes,
rhythmic percussion ensorcell the senses,
where flushed doves of emotion rise with
the incoming tide and the sun’s closing eye.

These two poems give us a selection of interwoven themes: In “Gull Down,” we have images of girl and granny, suggesting the life in time of one person. We also see a bird metaphorically entering a girl’s bosom as she softly cradles the dead seagull. In “Tybrisa,” we have girl and mother, two stages of life tugging at each other’s concerns, and then the image of “flushed doves of emotion” rising in Iona as she becomes enchanted by the sensual rhythms in herself, the young man beside her, and the incoming tide. The death and absorption of the seagull image by the rust-haired girl has a counterpoint in the birth and release of the rising doves of sexual excitement in Iona’s breasts, while the setting sun of her life is both near and far away. Images in each poem have implications for other images in other poems, giving the collection both density and depth.

Another poem, “Across the Trail,” presents the young man of nineteen driving on Florida’s Tamiami Trail at night in a 1948 Frazier Manhattan car, after having stopped at a Miccosukee Indian village where a boy for fifty cents showed him a gator on display that was coaxed into a "frozen grimace, teeth/ bared; nothing, I think, to worry Tarzan/ but causing in me a tinge of uneasiness.” Back on the Trail, he enters a “rising wilderness of shadows” that gives way to the “full net” of darkness that deepens and spooks the driver until “a paralytic numbness binds my hands, arms/ neck, and shoulders; I’m frozen in motion/ locked in a pit of blackness, immobile like/ the alligator ….” Then, too long lost in the dark depths of night, he is “becoming unhinged, panicked,/ gripped by a knife’s edge of nausea ….” He thinks “this/ is what it’s like to feel death closing over you,/ aware for those moments that your known/ world is receding ….” Suddenly, his world comes back to him in the form of road signs visible in the dawning light, and he drives on, thinking that after all, he’ll live beyond age nineteen. Before he reaches his destination, the cottage where he is to meet his parents, he sits on the fender of his car above the Gulf, “looking out at the calm sea” and vowing never to lose that experience from memory.

Here is Rilke again:

But having memories is not enough either. You must be able to forget them, if there are many, and have the vast patience to wait until they come back. For the memories themselves are memories only when they become blood within us, vision and gesture, nameless, and no longer distinguishable from ourselves. Only then can it happen that in a quite special hour the first word of a verse rises up in their midst and goes out from them.

“A Last Jog” takes us further into the depths of the father-son relationship. In it, Bynum describes the later life of his dad who “had in the 1930s been a top/ Atlanta heavyweight boxer” and had spent “two and a half decades/ as judge in its civil courts.” This time the elder visits his son at St. Simon's Island, off the coast of Georgia, and the two men, who have long been accustomed to seeking “athletic distance on/ court, track, field, road” are embarked on what turns out to be their final jog, as the title tells. The poet recalls that the tide was coming in, “cutting our space, to a few feet,/ the smell of/ the gray Atlantic/ recalling the days thirty years before/ when he’d taught us/ to ride the waves/ like pale porpoises/ knifing to the shore.” The younger man is aware that his father “was being tested,/ breathing very hard,” but true to form, he “never quit/ until our run was ended,” in this case when they came in sight of “the grand hotel/ shining up ahead/like some holy city.”

From present time, the speaker knows he must have been aware that their time together “was playing out,/ the glass draining/ toward a final year.” He says, “I thought how little of/ his life I really knew,/ how little I’d thought to inquire about.” And then he adds that he has thought “more lately now,/ that breathing the same air and sharing/ grains of thought/ over so many years,/ and never feeling less/ than enduring love—/ makes my blood know/who he was/ to me.”

Also in the sea of the poet’s memories are the stingrays he caught while young that he “knifed in the glutenous temple,/and dropped back to their sea fate …” Much later in his life, we find him in the poem “Stingray."

Racing into the tossing Gulf,
two steps before the dive
under a swelling wave—
I feel a quick stab in my heel like a poisoned dart!

In the suffering that follows, he is reminded, despite having given up fishing many years earlier, not only of his brutal handling of the rays but also of “the pains of youth,” and he comes to this conclusion:

… no matter how insulated we
think we’ve become in mature years,
there are still barbs below the surface,
wielded by things with long memories.

Having renounced fishing, he has taken up netting, the subject of another poem.

Netting is interaction with sea life,
the fetching of pulsing silver in net,
life’s electric charge in hand—
only to loose them back into their
roiling, gathering, respective tides …

He calls netting a futile exercise that is still somehow a “soul-salving therapy.”

Facing the abundance of life by the sea, it is the poet’s eye that sees and the poet who then gives us phrases like light-spliced palmettos to enhance our appreciation of the multifarious phenomena of the world, the poet who, in imagining, pierces through the thing observed to the noumenal radiance behind it and lets the light (or darkness) slip through. It is the poet who can tolerate disappointment in the breakdown of ideals, the sickness that comes unwanted, the dangers both without and within of darkness, the opportunities missed, longings unfulfilled, and still say Yes! To life.

Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem,” a paean to all who are beginning to notice how life works on body and mind and heart: Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

In Sea Vigil, Bynum takes us on a journey to the coast, to one or another island where there is a peculiar kind of light. “The island light illumines nature’s own,/ makes translucent the precious things,/ shows us strength in frailty.” He takes us to the place where he goes again and again because, through the island's sky and bird, bush and shell and barking dog, pavilion music, tides, sunsets and sunrises, through wife and mother, father and son, boy and girl and babe--a crack appears and sometimes the light gets in. In his poem “Island Light,” he gives us this image of his grandson:

Feet in surf, his tiny being facing outward
into the light, he looks more directly than we
into the bright eye of God.

Citation: The quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke's Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge can be found in the translation used here in Wolfgang Leppmann's Rilke: A Life. New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1984.

E-mail Cary Bynum: Put "Attention C. Bynum" in the subject line.

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