The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Views and Reviews: Barbara Knott

Review of R. Cary Bynum's Night Streetcars

What I like about Cary Bynum’s poems is that in them he pays attention, not just to people who might otherwise go unnoticed, but to places that might otherwise disappear. As an observer of many things, even in their minutest parts, he is also discerning about which among them needs to be poeticized. And the title of this volume of 45 short poems published by St. Johann Press, 2016, intrigued me.

Take the title image: night streetcars, evocative of scene and mood that were present in our early years in Atlanta before crowding and tensions and stress created the necessity of shutting out fine vision in favor of stark staring so that we can drive our individual vehicles without mishap. But we have memories of streetcars and even of the night.

I was drawn immediately into Bynum’s love of words in descriptive phrases from the title poem like “a woman stands trackside/shouldering a brown sack,” and the wonderful sketch of a frail man boarding a streetcar, “his quick cracked grin aimed at no one I can see.” Later, the “night streetcar slams/ along its feeder route from/ dimmed downtown work cells/ to outer living cradles….” In still another poem, "Austin Corner," we hear about the “mystery of gaslight behind sash windows.” I like the way he is able to recreate bygone days by selecting details of scene and atmosphere that bring nostalgic memories. He does this notably in recalling experiences of his youth as a popcorn boy in a local theater and a paper carrier on foot, probably in the neighborhood of Kirkwood where he grew up.

His title indicates the sorting of poems into City Poems, mostly about Atlanta and Decatur, and Poems Beyond in which we go along on trips outside the city, in one case (“Fourth Hour”) to a day of hard farm work, at the end of which (the fourth hour past noon) the speaker, lying in a hammock, feels this way:

But in this sweet hour, time has stopped for us,
and we feel indistinguishable in our rest from
open sky, fields of grass, thistles, pines, and
an old, gnarled black-bark persimmon tree.

His love of metaphor comes through in “Astride Junebug” where he describes this summery creature as “a tiny Pegasus” that “glisters/like a golden nugget.” An ode asks the question, “Who fills the void left by a country mechanic?” He is referring to one who has “gone back to the land.”

As I write this review, a phrase haunts me, one from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman where Willy Loman’s wife Linda talks to their son Biff about his father:

I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

That is part of what I want to say here: attention must be paid. The line came to me, I think, because Cary Bynum is paying such attention to such persons and to such a world.

In the ending poem “Caretaker,” the speaker declares that if he were among those who crave “habitation in outer space,” he soon would feel the “geothermic pull of precious/gravity, a longing for return to/ fertile soil and rain.” He relocates himself among “the keepers of a world without end." Thus he closes his book, reminding us that we all are “stewards of our planet” who must ask ourselves whether we can keep it alive and healthy so that we, as a species, do not have to leave.

Copyright 2016, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.