“They dug her up in Queen Street.”
This first line of Stephen Oliver’s “The Find”, from his collection Earthbound Mirrors, would be an excellent introduction to the body of his work. Unsettling, at once beautiful and morbid, full of the weight of death and the wonder of it. I mention this poem as a good introduction because this was the only problem I had with his new collection, Night of Warehouses — simply getting into his book. Do I read the new poems first? Do I go in chronological order? Or perhaps topical order, as aided by the oh-so-thorough contents page? For me, it was like finally sitting down and talking the old stories with your grandfather and a bottle of beer. Looking at the facts of it, it is a rather astounding collection: 5 smaller collections of poems, ranging in date from 1978 to 1999, and a collection of New Poems from the year 2000. That’s poetry from three decades, folks, maybe four, depending on which side of the “year 2000, is-it-the-new-millennium-or-not” debate you’re on. There are poems in celebration of major American cities, poems in celebration of tiny islands, exotic (to this American reader) Southern Hemisphere locales, and always the specific. This is what finally impressed me with Stephen Oliver, the balance between a cosmopolitan view that celebrates all walks of life, and a focused curiosity about the most specific and tiny of moments.
I have great praise for some of the older poems in this collection, but I’m hesitant to mention them in this review because of the critical attention they may have received in the past 30 years. I find his collection Interviews to be as striking and moving with its language as anything cummings ever did, and grumbled out loud as to why I hadn’t been exposed to these poems in various classroom settings. From “the departure”, for instance:
Flies have short memories
immediately toward the instinct of smell
they collect themselves,
The comma softens the breath,
and I wait
We are in the smallest of places here, perched maybe on the edge of a piece of bark, looking at this fly, reading this poem in our small way. A fly is collecting itself, there, right there on the edge. Our breath is soft, and we are waiting. I take his poems, for one reason or another, variously as something personal, some grand monologue of discovery, or some long imperative, a list of orders from a drill sergeant. This comes, I believe, as a result of the language – the spare language, the use of the space on the page (which it seems he has since abandoned), the weight attributed to punctuation, which eventually comes to be like a sort of stage direction system – Oliver is telling us how this is read, and it is wonderful. Throughout this first collection, we are taken to wonderful places, at one point a “white destination of rain,” earlier, the “airy carpetry of autumn.” I believe I will be better able to talk about his New Poems, if I take some of what I love about the older poems into the room with me.
Dylan Thomas, washed up and reincarnated as a leathery-chested turtle. A 10,000 year-old pine tree. Two or three occurrences of vodka. This is a poet who has lived and died and is somehow still alive. The final collection in Night of Warehouses is simply called New Poems. This last collection is just as epic an attempt as & Interviews. Whereas his collection released just before Night of Warehouses (Unmanned) seems to be part language experiment and part grand family narrative, these New Poems tell stories. “Taffy the Turtle” gives us the aforementioned Dylan Thomas as turtle, which should be a nice laugh except for Thomas’ quick exit, the poet’s all too quick loss of the moment. “Oldest Pine” is an inspired, almost sublime thought experiment on the life of an ancient pine tree, concluding beautifully:
They are shadow leaves.
They flow many-branched.
They house every myth.
They rise in me to air.
Here is an unusual instance in which Oliver seems to put rhythm over meaning, here he is really crafting poetry and at the same time breathing out a damp, green smell of life. New Poems is as lifelike as the rest of Oliver’s poetry, and is worth buying this compilation of Oliver’s work for.
Indeed, if owning a great book of poetry by a greatly underappreciated poet doesn’t interest you, then how about simply owning a great book of poetry? Stephen Oliver’s Night of Warehouses is simply that: a great book of poetry full of the world, and ever mindful of the truth.