The Earth as a Dump and Refuge

The Astropastorals, a new collection of poetry by Douglas Crase, brings together two decades of material in 18 pages.

The opening lines of the title poem in Douglas Crase’s first book, The Revisionist, played on the promise of an almost inconceivable imaginative strength:

If I could raise rivers, I’d raise them
Across the mantle of our past: old headwaters
Stolen, oxbows high and dry while new ones form,
A sediment of history rearranged. If I could unlock
The lakes, I’d spill their volume over the till
I know you cultivate: full accumulations swept away,
The habit of prairies turned to mud. If I had glaciers,
I’d carve at the stony cliffs of your belief:
Logical mountains lowered notch by notch, erratics
Dropped for you to stumble on. Earthquakes, and I’d
Seize your experience at its weakest edge: leveled
Along a fault of memories.

As sheer promise, this was electrifying. But what’s incredible is that the poem, and the book as a whole, came through on that promise. To take on geography in this way, to take on history with such assurance — nothing in American poetry since Paterson had dared so much and achieved it. All the more astonishing that Crase was doing this in what was simultaneously a form of love poetry, as became clear at the conclusion of that catalogue of Herculean tasks:

When these were done, I’d lay around your feet
In endless fields where you could enter and belong,
A place returning and a place to turn to whole

An amorous submission to the conquered beloved, but is it to that recalcitrant country, America itself, or a living and breathing individual? Let each reader decide. John Ashbery was right: “Crase looks at the city and the landscape with the amused, disabused eye of a lover.” But equally, he looked at love with the eye of a visionary historian.

This book, first published in 1981, was clearly going to be the start of one of the great careers in contemporary poetry. But years slipped by as Crase’s admirers awaited the next collection. None appeared. Finally, in 1996, a second book arrived, but not a collection of poems. Instead, the curiously titled AMERIFIL.TXT: A Commonplace Book was, as the subtitle indicated, an anthology of passages from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries “on the nature of the American character,” grouped under headings such as “Doing Your Thing” and “The Common Defense.” A very different book followed in 2004: Both: A Portrait in Two Parts, a dual biography of Dwight Ripley and Rupert Barneby, a couple whose lives bridged the worlds of art and botany in the American Southwest and the New York of the Abstract Expressionists. Among the smaller works that Crase has published since then, I should mention in particular a long and magisterial essay on Lorine Niedecker in the 2013 Wave Books edition of her Lake Superior.

By then, more than 30 years after The Revisionist, even Crase’s heartiest admirers had long since given up on seeing a second collection of his poems. There had been time enough to reason ourselves all the way from denial to acceptance: On considered thought, The Revisionist having in itself fulfilled its promise, stands as a complete body of work, entire in itself, that does not require continuation. No “career” necessary. Crase owed us nothing further and we should be content with what we got.

So the sudden appearance of a small new book of poems by Crase, The Astropastorals, might raise hasty hopes among some devoted readers who’d made themselves forget they had any such hopes. And how suggestive a title, auguring, it might seem, a transcendence of the poet’s sublunary concerns with rivers, sediment, glaciers, cliffs and the rest for an even larger perspective, one that’s cosmic in scale. But such transcendence is far from Crase’s aim. The title pans out, but in a way that in retrospect should not surprise those familiar with the canny feints and sly indirections that have always characterized his writing. His remit is no longer national but terrestrial.

The book’s 18 pages of poetry comprise 13 poems of which we are told that “the earliest, ‘Once the Sole Province,’ appeared in 1979,” while “the last to appear, ‘Astropastoral,’ was published in 2000.” Crase doesn’t say, one way or another, but one can only presume that this is the sum total of the poetry he has written (to his publishable satisfaction) since those he collected in The Revisionist — and nota bene, none of it composed in this century.

So the book is slender, but the writing’s density gives it the fullness of almost anyone else’s thick tome. And the poetry’s reach is enormous, counting (per “Once the Sole Province”) on the intimation:

That outside ourselves there be a scale more vast,
Time free of whimsy, an endless unbended reach
In which to recollect our planet, our hours, and ourselves.

But how to keep the whole planet and one’s own little self in view simultaneously? The pretense to having achieved a planetary consciousness might amount to a sort of gentrification of the spirit, or so Crase implies in “Dog Star Sale”: Those who “freely take up / A volitional duty to curate the spheres” can’t so easily separate themselves from the common run of humanity who remain “All involved on the earth with your chores of pollution.” Or, as Crase puts it in that poem’s sequel, “Sale II”:

All this could be mine
this live indecision
Some tend to call
As if they knew what to compare it to
Life on the earth

Crase remains committed, for what it’s worth, to what he calls “that horizon / Of which I am witness and not the one farther on” (“True Solar Holiday” ), that of “a world agog / With its own gravity” (“To the Light Fantastic”). In this poetry, where conclusions are rare and usually asymptotic at best, and where “All things are wild / In the service of objects toward which they verge,” as “Refuge,” the poem that closes the collection, would have it, the only conclusion that seems sure is the one that closes that poem and the book as a whole, namely that:

Life lifts from, it
Harries the ground, and the study a species
Must turn to is that earth
Where the dump and the refuge are relations under the sun.

But however indispensable to the reviewer’s task, the isolation of an easily paraphrasable statement is at odds with the poetry’s essential motion. The sinuously twining, constantly self-revising syntax of The Revisionist, deviously seductive, in fact, was already an instrument of an almost confounding intricacy, the obliquity of whose bearing could be all the more shocking thanks to the impression of immense rhetorical certainty it delivered — that undeniable accent on the poem’s absolute ability to “raise rivers” and “seize […] experience at its weakest edge,” despite the careful hedging of a hedging preliminary “if.”

The language of the poems in The Astropastorals has become even knottier, more elliptical, open to bewildering swerves and jump cuts; after many rereadings I’m still stymied by the first half of “Once the Sole Province,” I have to admit. In “Theme Park,” Crase reflects on the troubled relationship of poetry to what’s sometimes called its content, starting with what might sound like a formalist’s position:

Too much of a subject can interfere,
Be a drag, so subvert the procedure to which it refers
That the wisest course is to visit it just for fun,
Have fun, and make a clean getaway—

But to take that at face value would be to ignore the curious grammatical gap between the second and the third lines, which can only be resolved by the realization that the “procedure” to be subverted is precisely the one that calls for a disinterestedly playful quick dip (“to visit it just for fun”) into a subject that would otherwise turn out to be “too much.” Finally, Crase seems to agree with Roland Barthes, who said that a little formalism turns one away from history but a lot of it brings you right back there, since:

More deeply recessed and peacefuller
Still, the substantive structures themselves
Are seen meeting their needs in scale: shops,
Ammo dumps, taverns, and houses of prayer.

The Astropastorals, at minimum, serves as a reminder that the history we are brooks no conclusion, so that it remains in continual need of revisionists (and therefore of The Revisonist). Crase’s first book is not, after all, a closed case, a done deal. We still need him. Some savvy publisher should bring The Revisionist back into print and append to it the poems now made available in The Astropastorals, in what is presumably a small edition fated to be quickly sold out. And then we can ask the poet when to expect a collection of his work of the 21st century. Who knows, maybe that future poetry will find its root in the added surprise this collection offers in the form of the several brief, untitled, rhymed poems that punctuate it? One of them glosses, in a different way, the more-than-formalism that “Theme Park” seems to call for:

A reductionism that makes the world
complex, a truth that simply nothing
can explain, is how events curled
up in space when seen are scattering.

The Astropastorals (2017) is published by Pressed Wafer and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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