J. W. Bonner   •  October 25, 2002

Iridescent Beauties: Things Suffice

A Review of Thomas Meyer’s At Dusk Iridescent

At Dusk Iridescent by Thomas Meyer. Winston-Salem, NC: The Jargon Society, 1999. 257 pages. ISBN: 0-912330-81-3, $40 (paper wrappers).

To put pen to paper, to type at the word processor, is a risk at any time: will the words make sense? Will I communicate what I want to convey? Will anyone care? Will I add something, however small, important? Anything of beauty? Thomas Meyer’s lovely At Dusk Iridescent contains more variety and takes more risks (aesthetic, thematic, formal) than most American poetry. Meyer’s collection, drawing on over thirty years of woefully overlooked poetic achievements, provides a rich cornucopia of forms: sonnets, epigrams, translations, and free verse. Meyer’s poems play with “Art’s great triple avatar / Style, Content, Form.” These poems feast on concrete, sensual details; Meyer eyes things: nouns, names. Many of the poetic lines are muscle, no clotty adverbs or adjectives to fatten the line—or poem. Witness the internal rhymes and alliteration of “The ground thick with / crickets, thickets & thorn”; the very words, with the th- phoneme filling the mouth, slow the voice, create a bramble to pick through. The densest poems are all musculature, sinew and bone. For example, “Rune” lists eight trees or plants in the first fifteen words. The ten lines of “JW/L” (a 50th birthday poem for Jonathan Williams) evoke goat skin and wine, spring water, a cup, song—a birthday toast. “Calendar” lists the twelve months with one or two word-connected events (“bare thorn” or “first frost”). “Adam and the Alphabet” asks, “Am I a man of words?” and responds, “I am the man of things.” The poem ends with this image: “the word that is a dwelling.” This line suggests words are the dwelling places of things or that things themselves dwell in words—taking us to Emerson’s “Nature”: “Words are signs of natural facts.”

Perhaps, this emphasis on things finds its best expression in “Coda”: “Themselves, most things are quite sufficient, / Needing no more fuss, though no less, than those iris.” Meyer does not imbue the things he describes with human consciousness; there is no “contrivance.” Things that are human stay so; things that are not, are not; they are what they are, “quite sufficient” in themselves.

Sufficient unto themselves, yes, but the poet’s mind reflects on the world, attempting to make sense of it. In “Valentine,” the poem’s persona watches leaves “let go a little” from the evening’s cold and frost. A cardinal “flickers” in sight, ready to eat at the feeder. Then the reflection begins, “What / do I ache for // that turns up / like that? / Unexpected and suddenly / red?” The poem’s title and the bird’s color merge and carry with them an association of desire and love. This day is the poet’s birthday, too, adding another level as one grows older and sees a bird, thinks of a Valentine heart, observes the frost thawing, a day’s heat beginning, cold letting go. The things of the world are as they are, but there is the emotion alongside the observing eye and rational mind, this feeling that wells up like a mountain spring.

This gathering also includes a number of frank poems of (gay) desire. In the rich sequence “Sonnets for Sandra,” a sequence in which many of Meyer’s ambitious themes coalesce as in a burl, the poet expresses a wish “To set desire in a natural light, to draw // Up what is felt like well-water.” Meyer does not create a gimmickry about desire. We read real expressions of love and lust. He imagines his face in the ass of a man walking up the stairs ahead of him, remembers the longing for a lover (the impatience attendant on waiting to arrive at his house), or supposes what treats a waiter might offer off the restaurant table. In another poem, “Love’s Dial,” Meyer invokes Dante and asks him to “aid me // I want to speak of that love men have / of other men.” Later in the same poem Meyer creates a lovely image through complex syntax: “anything / that isn’t / his arms // denies me / my desire, him / holding me—that / is God.”

And the world of feeling suffuses many of these poems as well: a “[persistence] in surrendering to these feelings too / frequently dismissed as being only frou-frou.” Rather than treating these feelings as beneath poetic treatment or elevating the feelings via dry academic allusions, Meyer presents the feelings plainly, nakedly. Indeed, he suggests, “what complicates is simple.” The simple domestic life—meals, gardens, chores, and conversations—serves as a thematic element and subject touchstone throughout. The making of a life together becomes the making of a home, the sharing of hours in the days. Yet, complications continue: “what complicates is simple / Sensuality.”

In these poems Meyer creates a classically rich set of forms and themes that are at home in the sensual world of Sappho (Meyer’s translations of Sappho are exquisite), while mining the post-modern world for all its philosophical and pop content. High and low marry in these poems, so that in “Sonnets for Sandra,” Heidegger, Barthes, and Sartre carry the same weight for explaining desire as a pop song lyric. Annie Ernaux writes in Simple Passion,Gone with the Wind, Phedre or the songs of Edith Piaf are just as decisive as the Oedipus complex.” Though Meyer might choose a different movie, play, and singer, the significance of the statement applies to the origin, expressions, and constructs of passion and desire in these poems. As Meyer writes, “The recollection of a few // Frequent memories deemed to be no more than frou-frou / Remains one truth Art seems almost able to handle” (“Sonnets to Sandra”).

Meyer’s work deals with a number of other themes and subjects. In “Venetian Epigrams,” the poems address quite explicitly celebrity, fame, politics, writing (“Any one life has a million details. / While any poem has only a few. / Not one of which can be left out. // Live. And write. I tell myself.”), and success. In a series of sonnets (“Sketches Random Sonnets”), Meyer limns beauty and eternity and other poets (Rimbaud), while merging these “poetic” themes with the more earthly and pungent emotions of lust, passion, and sex. (Meyer himself writes in “Faux pas” that these sonnets might be “A bit camp.”) “Beauty” begins “Truth I could almost live without, but not Beauty.” Beauty is invoked in a landscape and then in the very torso (or landscape) of a young male: “I ache / To furrow those hills with my nose, to make them shine / With spit.” Thus, beauty is an object that is desired, a thing of and for pleasure. Meyer’s “Rimbaud” plays off a reference to a Rimbaud poem from “Defilements,” and Meyer ends the poem transfixed by the erotic: “This complete trust / In pleasure screws me so brutally I could scream.”

These are poems of Eros and feeling, artful, simple, yet buzzing with the complexities of emotion. There is a casual ease to Meyer’s writing, but his work enflames, radiant, bold. His poems are never stuffy or pretentious. Yet, he is at home with the poetic tradition, even as he makes the tradition resplendently serve his individual talent. So much of contemporary writing is deadened by irony. Although Meyer maintains a healthy skepticism, these are not poems of irony or satire. Ordinary emotions flare in the drafts of sensuality, fed by the body’s many alluring parts, by the beloved’s endearing gestures. As Meyer writes in “Ten Uranian Roses,” “Even Eros / stops, // caught / midair // by your / eyes.” The reader also is caught by the details of Meyer’s poems and the lovely renderings of the natural world and the human heart.

Kudzu verse threatens to obliterate the poetic landscape. It’s a verse that looks the same, sounds the same, reads the same. There is a great deal of chewing of cud in American poetry. The pleasures are fine as they are, but the chewing eventually takes the taste out. The best of our poets look to literature, to art, or to a tradition that pulls the poet from home and the daily ordinary. Thomas Meyer’s best work always feeds along these interesting veins.

The very design of the book is handsome, and the heft of the book you hold is equal to the work between the covers. No apparatus—table of contents, index of first lines, dates of publication—assists the reader, so each poem exists on its own terms, fresh for reading. This gathering of writing is a celebration to a remarkable talent and achievement; equally remarkable and decidedly shameful is the fact that so few publishers outside Jargon take on Meyer’s poetry. Instead, this poet has been nurtured by “a limited few and their devotion” (“Venetian Epigrams”), an audience this book should help expand.

This book is not found on every bookstore shelf. To order At Dusk Iridescent, write The Jargon Society, 8 West Third Street, Suite 565, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 27101. (Add $3.00 per book for shipping and handling.)