In ten years of this
The most you’ve said
Is the odd “I’m glad”
To my declarations.
The rest is silence and
Its works –
Your silence, open as
Our window toward the sea
And above it your whole
Again with my
Combusting in the night,
Moored to me.
— Reynolds Price, The Collected Poems
Reynolds Price was best known as a novelist. A fairer assessment would class him as a man of letters, given the breadth of his work, his mastery of multiple genres. His first book, A Long and Happy Life, received the William Faulkner Award. The 1986 novel Kate Vaiden earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award. A volume of memoir, Clear Pictures, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1989. And though he never received that level of formal recognition for it, his work as a poet shares the sensibility so widely appreciated in his prose. It also establishes Price as a poet with a sure hand, light when need be, though he is capable of rumination when appropriate, of elegy as well. He is a poet conversant with a range of poetic traditions and able to adapt them seamlessly to suit his own ends.
Price began writing poetry gradually for, as he notes in a preface to his Collected Poems, “Through most of the 1960s and early seventies, my energies continued to concentrate on the writing of more novels, stories, plays and essays…It was only in the late 1970s, however that I found myself more and more subject to the arrival of poems and to the eventual awareness that many of my experiences had begun to present themselves in the shapes and tones of verse.” His first published volume was Vital Provisions (1982). Price was 49 years old at the time. It was a mere two years before a spinal astrocytoma left him a paraplegic. It did not, I hasten to add, inhibit him as a writer. He told Frederick Busch, in an interview which appeared in the Paris Review, “I’m compelled in a very invigorating way to write. It’s not some Dostoyevskian ax-murderer compulsion to spend the day at the keyboard. No, I love to do it.” In addition to the novels and memoirs which came as part of his late flowering, Price produced three substantial volumes of poetry: The Laws of Ice (1986), The Use of Fire (1990) and The Unaccountable Worth of the World (1997). The four are available in his Collected Poems, a worthy addition to your library on any number of accounts, be it as a contribution to Southern Literature, to bolstering your poetry shelf, or as an acknowledgement of the full range of Price’s talent.
It’s a formidable talent indeed. I’m not going out on a limb saying that, I realize, but his poetry was something of a revelation to me. It cuts directly through the first years of the AIDS epidemic in America. “Jim Dead of AIDS an Hour Ago, 25 September 1988” is a stark, pretty farewell to a man fortunate enough to know, “a decent man you taught years back/Who saw you through.” Price writes, “You’d walk through fields of broken glass/For a smell of surf, its battering light,” and offers a brief, wrenching benediction: “Sail far, kind/Ancient luckless boy.” They aren’t strictly elegies in the same manner, but his three-poem “Pictures of the Dead” sequence, devoted to Robert Frost, W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell is equally memorable. Take his last words on Auden, for example:
At one unheralded moment, mid-sentence,
You lean with the grace of an oak umbrella-
Rack, kiss me twice rapid-fire
On the dry right cheek.
They remain – and my thanks.
Price, as openly and unapologetically Christian as he was openly and unapologetically gay, is no less authoritative when writing of religious matters. His Nine Mysteries series offers lively readings of everything from the annunciation to the ascension. “Two Caves, a House, a Garden, a Tomb (Memories of Israel and the West Bank with J.C.A., 1980)” unfolds in six parts. The language is fundamentally earthbound, a fitting vehicle for Price’s humble verse, as when he writes,
This one’s Mary’s house and has been so honored
Since at least the second century – small, low, shallow
With a marble altar saying Here the Word Was Made Flesh,
That hilarious unthinkable moment when a virgin God
Merely boarded a spotless likely-teenaged girl
And spoke some sound, known only to her (she’d already
Agreed), and thereby flooded her darkest space
With scalding light – her eventual death, our torturing shine.
Of course there’s a great deal more, both in terms of subject matter and formal acrobatics. “Black Water,” which was written after a German folksong, could also be an unsuspecting cousin to Michael Ondaatje’s “Skin Boat.” Among the early poems, “Rescue” is a highlight, the account of a man on shore watching, almost diffidently, as his lover swims in against the turning tide.
Apart from his work as a writer, I loved Price in a documentary Checkerboard Films made about James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime. In it Price, who reviewed the novel when it was initially released in the late 1960s, weeps as he reads from the book’s closing lines*. This from a man who had no doubt read and reread the chosen passage dozens of times over the years. It’s an unassuming, affecting moment, an instance of real humanity from a deeply human writer, a man we should remember and honor.
— John McIntyre
* This is not the clip in question, but is still a worthy example of Price’s gifts as a reader.