by Scott Owens
IF WORDS COULD SAVE US
The poetry of Tony Abbott has always resonated with me. That may not be a surprise. He and I are both contemporary white male Southern poets after all. Besides, the simplest criteria for good poetry is that it resonates with the reader, that it has an effect — else, why would we choose to read it?
Because Abbott’s work, like the man himself, is always sincere, approachable, and carefully and intentionally crafted, I suspect I am not alone in having been moved by his previous collections, especially The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat and The Man Who. Abbott, thankfully, after all, is no solipsist of poetry, no self-infatuated post-avant, no obscurist drawing pleasure from his own cleverness. No, Abbott is about finer, more significant things, poetry with purpose, art as a mirror that helps us examine our own lives, passions, thoughts, and reactions, and deepens our experience of the world we occupy.
As such, Abbott wants to be read and understood. Fortunately for all of us, he possesses the drive and the skill with language, imagery, and observation necessary to insure that he will produce, we will read, and everyone will be richer for the experience. And in his most recent collection, If Words Could Save Us, there is another quality that rewards the reader, something I first glimpsed in his 2009 collection, New & Selected Poems, and see has come to full fruition in his new work: a quiet calm, patient maturity, reassuring balance, perspective, and tolerance that could only be called wisdom.
Abbott has long been a mentor of mine as well as numerous other younger poets who have worked with him at Davidson College, Catawba College or through the NC Writers’ Network or NC Poetry Society. The poems in If Words Could Save Us suggest that he has accepted the mantle of a further-expanded sphere of influence, that he has deservedly become what might best be called Sage to all who are fortunate enough to read, meet, or work with him.
These poems range in subject from the innocence of youth to the reflections of age, from striving to acceptance, and at the center of it all there are the oxymoronic truths that while we know we will make mistakes, we must try anyway; that while we accept the ravages of aging as a part of the process, we must never give into them; and that while we understand the limitations of language, we continue to use it as the best tool we have for reaching into and out to the world and life and all there is and might be.
Such wisdom is conveyed throughout the length of this collection, appearing in the first poem, “The Hat,” as a light-hearted lament of the opportunities lost in the innocence of youth:
I wish I had known, known how to make
a game of the stealing, the reaching,
the recovery. Had I known, I might
have kissed you in the barn, deep
in the bales of hay, where we played
our innocent games of hide-and-seek.
Similar wisdom is apparent in “At the Window” which finds in the insomnia of a twelve-year-old the quintessential human quest for answers:
He is looking
for something he
Later, in “The Man Who Didn’t Believe In Luck,” we discover a statement of purpose reminiscent of my favorite line ever from a movie: Tom Hanks’ “Earn this” from “Saving Private Ryan.” Abbott’s version of that sentiment is “We deserve nothing. We / earn nothing, but we are loved just the same. / Nothing to be done except to give it back.”
Abbott as sage is at his best in the remarkable “Knife Blade of the New Moon,” where he reminds us to recognize the daily miracles of life:
He wakes one day astonished
to the burgeoning spring.
The white azaleas
in full profusion
on the front lawn
Even the light green
of the coming leaves.
For a long time he had forgotten
such things. He had walked
with his head down, eyes askance.
Now he stands in the rain,
tasting the wetness.
He kneels on the willing earth
places his face
in the long spring grass
and smells earthsmell,
He looks up.
Of course, none of the aforementioned appreciation of Abbott’s poetry is uncommon. He is widely read and frequently awarded for his work. What is, perhaps, somewhat less common in my relationship to Abbott’s work is just how often his poems inspire poems of my own. It happened with The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat; it happened with The Man Who; it happened with New & Selected Poems; and it has happened again with If Words Could Save Us; in fact, it has happened five times so far with this book. Could there be any greater statement of appreciation for a poem than to say it lead me to write a poem of my own? Such is the inspiration to be found in Tony Abbott’s if words could save us.