In Karl Shapiro’s poem “A Parliament of Poets”, he writes of “two hundred poets…sitting side by side/ In the government auditorium.” They read from their work, “the young, the old, the crazy, the sane,” and are due to meet the President of the United States afterward, a trip they never make because
It appears the President has chosen this hour
To warn the nation that a fleet of freighters,
Carrying atomic warheads on their decks
Visibly, are moving towards the coast of Cuba,
To intercept and blockade the invaders.
The congregation breaks up, “disintegrates,” Shapiro has it, insignificant next to the gravity of unfolding events.
The poet Will Schutt takes a different tack, a retrospective view which regards the weight of the past and weaves the specters of the great, and of major events, into the fabric of daily life. In his Introduction to the volume, the poet Carl Phillips observes that “Schutt is mindful of how the dead make their resonant way back to us, sometimes as memory, sometimes as guide directing us toward and through the inevitable.” Schutt opens with “We Didn’t Start the Fire” – thankfully not the ode to Billy Joel you may expect – and an immediate invocation of one of literature’s greatest scolds: “Two doors down lived a descendant of de Sade.” What a thing, the reader thinks, but Schutt moves instead to the ignorance of the speaker and his friends at the time: “The name meant/nearly nil to us, cluelessly humming the catalog/of history in ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’” He doesn’t go on to catalog a shift in awareness, gradual or otherwise. Instead he closes with an image of people, getting on with the only life they have: “At sunset,/summer people walked their drinks down/to the beach – happy human chain –/each tethered to one spot, each for now alive.” No gnashing of teeth, no stern rebuke. Instead, a moment in time, and a subtle implication of how far the speaker has come in understanding his place in the sweep of history. “Fragment of a Coptic Tunic” begins, “They draped it over the dead,” and moves smoothly, a few lines later, to “Last week,twenty-six/Christians were shot in Cairo.” The continuity is striking but not strident. Schutt is not a man with an obvious agenda, though the poem dissolves into a question of faith and doubt: “I wonder/what the salvo of pure faith feels like/compared with the slightly dull/sensation I get.”
Schutt has a talent for producing specific, accessible allusions which are somehow also still surprising. “Transparent Window on a Complex View” offers up “Yuma Yellow, the light outside. An unlikely/favorite. Not mine. Fairfield Porter’s.” In “Middle Distance,” he moves from Velasquez’s “pithy line/about his having painted mankind/because he couldn’t see angels,” to reflections on the tediousness of his own youthful ideas, to a detail from Velasquez’s Las Meninas, “a rousing mastiff/whose dark narrow eyes betray/knowing, which is to say restraint.” And “American Window Dressing” depicts “heads of bok choy noosed in rubber bands/and pale-eyed fish laid out on ice. Terrible/things put delicately, like polite fictions/families invent.”
A middle section consists of Schutt’s translations from the Italian of works by Alda Merini, Edoardo Sanguinetti and Eugenio Montale. It’s a bold and unexpected choice, and surprisingly the poems Schutt selects do not break the tonal spell he has cast up to that point. The Montale is a particular treat, deceptively simple, unfolding into,
in Hermione’s absence
rain because absence
and if the earth isn’t shaking
it’s a sign Arcetri
didn’t call it down.
The title poem begins the run to the book’s finish with a view of a church tower in a sort of limbo, where it’s “hard to tell whether the white and blue/church tower is defunct or half-finished/or, like every third house/block after prim block, let for summer” and ends with “Westerly,/Rhode Island, where nirvana is a long time/coming, or untidy, unresolved,/the way stupid hope won’t shut up.” In “A Kind of Poetry,” Schutt notes that “Sometimes you turn to poetry/the way you turn to another country,” and that “You notice things you wouldn’t otherwise.” Judging by Westerly, this happens frequently to Schutt. It’s hard not to hope that continues.
Schutt, it should be noted, is the 2012 winner of the Yale Younger Poets Competition. Awards are no hard-and-fast guarantee of quality work, but the series has long imposed a certain rigor in its judging. Nothing on offer here suggests a dip in those standards. Westerly is slim volume, yes, but also a flag firmly planted. Will Schutt is a poet, and that’s neither a bald statement of fact, nor faint praise.
– John McIntyre