Phebe Davidson, Review of Harry Calhoun’s “How Love Conquers the World” and “Maintenance and Death”

by Phebe Davidson

How Love Conquers the World
Harry Calhoun
Flutter Press, 2012

Maintenance and Death
Harry Calhoun
Pig Ear Press, 2012

Harry Calhoun’s two chapbooks published in 2012 invite readers to re-enter poetry with open ears and eyes, to rediscover the freshness a good poem can deliver.

How Love Conquers the World is exactly what the title promises, a collection of love poems. This is not an easy thing to deliver, and Calhoun sets up his project in the first poem, “After the Poetry Reading.”

I had just had one of those rock star readings,
everything went right, and she came up to my table
after and bought four of my books.

There are, at this point, some cloying narrative possibilities built into the text. A callow poet high on success, a romance at the signing table perhaps, . . . . As it turns out, though, this “she” is not the poet’s love, not the reader of his dreams, not even his reading tour diversion. She is simply a random young woman, buying poems she likes so that she can read them to her boyfriend, something she tells the poet, thus allowing the poet a joyous didactic burst:

This is what poetry is all about, folks. It’s not the rock star readings
or selling books or making a name. It’s talking to someone across a table,
or across the ocean, on the internet or on AT&T. The air in Idaho
is clear and cool tonight, the phones are wide open, and this is how love
conquers the world: One poem, one heart, one line at a time.

The poems that follow live up to that pronouncement, and we are fortunate to stand witness to the loves that inspirit the book. In “Unabashed Love Poem” the lover swells to invincibility:

The armies of earth
The demons of hell
The intruder in the night
Cannot pass the bar

of my arm around you

A few pages later, the poet tells his wife “you age well, drink perfectly // as I taste your charm and brilliance / and I know the finish // will last forever” (“My Wife as Wine”).

Calhoun’s greatest strength in these poems lies in the unaffected clarity with which he shares the lucky burden of loving. “Insomnia, with Love” yields a profound and simple understanding as the poet, unable to sleep, writes of himself

you get and leave
the grave of a bed to write
this down, groping for your glasses

on nightstand, and even
in the dark things spring
into focus. The bed is no grave.

Once again, she reaches out
and her fingers cling to yours
pulling you gently, softly

finally into sleep.

Clearly, this is the voice of someone who loves both his wife and his craft as a poet. As “The Bookmark” makes clear, these loves are made wonderful, at least in part, by their attainability, by their sheer, accessible presence in his life.

. . . . Pay attention.
Start simply by marking the place,
the places, wherever she is
before you fall asleep.

Maintenance and Death, published in the same year, brings the same unaffected clarity to somewhat more somber aspects of life–the indignities of passing time, the inevitable loss of much that is loved. The poems, perhaps because they are freighted with such inevitability, amplify Calhoun’s considerable skill with image and metaphor, his acute awareness of need, desire, and the heart’s determination.

“Walking Something,” which establishes the position from which the poet speaks, lists things that people walk. These range from “90 black pounds of Labrador” to “40 pounds of excess weight” carried by a lady who passes his house, to

. . . my lovemaking, emphasis after all these years
on the love, to my beautiful wife. We’re always walking
something, evidence that as Pascal said, all of our misfortune
comes from our inability to simply

sit quietly in a room.

If this seems a curious claim from someone who apparently spends a good deal of time sitting quietly in a room writing poems, it is nonetheless persuasive. After all, as “The Poet on Vacation” makes clear, this is a man who knows he repeats himself, who sits on his deck to write, the poems always

about a dog on the deck at the seashore,

looking at the sunlit ocean and dying
to get to the water. The water bowl
is full, but the dog neglects it,
treeing the beach, the ocean,

his desire. The poet understands,
a little tipsy saluting the ocean
with one swig left in his emptying
bottle of beer. It’s not the drinkable quality

or absolute quantity that matter,
in water or in life. It’s the gap
between what we need and what
we want, the galloping free space between

the water bowl and the sea.

And there we all are, in that gap between, full of longing, mostly unable to settle for what lies close to hand. We find sleeplessness, along with a directive to “Put this in the mirror / that you consult late at night / staring at your unwilling reflection” (“Insomnia Poem #116 This Year) and a kind of desperate nostalgia, an admission that there “was no place to go / but home, the best place // to sit in the driveway crying” (“Emotional Wreck”). These are not the love poems of How Love Conquers the World, but their astringent and necessary ballast, clear-eyed glimpses into the quotidian agony of growing up and growing older. Most crucially, they allow moments that are the antithesis of despair. On a chill July 4th, at 6 a.m., the poet tells us “It’s beautiful, // and I think maybe it’s never too late, / and I write that thought slyly smiling,/ even knowing that I’m wrong” (6 a.m., 66 Degrees, July 4th). A personal favorite, for me, is the poem titled “Vacuum,” which speaks to what is, for many, the first great loss in adulthood.

My parents are buried in the mountains.
You neither make this up, nor can you ignore it.
Not my mom, not my dad, freezing
in the snowcapped cold, evaporating

in the summer heat. I miss them
and this was not the easy distance
I envisioned, or what I wanted either.
But the options have been sucked dry.

It’s hard to sleep, thinking,
and I finally decide
to open up a hole and see
what pulls through.

After roughly 50 years of reading poems, I’m a mildly jaded reader. Even the best poems, at times, seem to flatten into each other. A danger, I suppose, for anyone who reads prolifically. That hazard is more than balanced, though, when reading something for the first time I am seized by resonance, vibrancy–by a voice that heightens language and clarifies experience. Deft and adroit, conversational and profound, Harry Calhoun does both.

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