Any book praised by Anthony Hecht and John Hollander is likely to be two things: fine tuned and formal. Philip Stephens’ The Determined Days is both.
By “formal,” I mean that Stephens’ verse takes shape in specific and rule-bound ways, not that it is fussy or fancy. I’m not sure I can think of a less-fancy poet, nor less-fancy material. The Determined Days is dark and gritty and real.
That this is not your average “decanting of personality” poetry volume is evident in the first poem’s first lines:
We – Hondo, Hawk, Smith, Sandoval and Rome –
Stab with our picks and shovels at the loam,
The sand, black stones the size of hearts, then clay.
Layer by stubborn layer, we make our way
Half of a grave’s depth down into the earth.
We sculpt a narrow ditch, for what it’s worth,
And then we lay pipe, glue it, backfill in.
Next day, where that pipe stops, we start again.
The first time I read it, I was skeptical. “Good Lord,” I thought. “Metered verse about manual labor. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
But the verse is technically gorgeous â€“ four beats per line, rhymes that don’t startle the ear or eye. Soon it became transparent, a vehicle for the story it contains. The voice of the digger rings clear:
Spare me those fanfares for the common grunts.
Ditch digging’s just the shit work no one wants.
It isn’t science, and it isn’t art.
Quite senselessly, we pick some earth apart
And put it back, almost like before.
Nothing changes. Nothing. Nothing more
Except when day ends, Rome might tell a joke,
And we’ll drink coffee, chew, or have a smoke,
Turning our backs on the little sinking scar
Of broken dirt that leads to where we are.
With the last two lines I was officially hooked. Drawn-in. Disbelief suspended. Wanting more.
The book’s first poem gives the reader a taste of the attitude and intensity which follow. But only the book’s first and last poems rhyme and follow this strict kind of meter; they act as book ends for the poems in-between.
Stephens works in ordinary words. He succeeds in elevating experience into poetry not because of any inherent loftiness of language but because of his skill in using small brushstrokes to draw authentic pictures.
In “March,” the reader overhears a conversation between two homeless men playing a game of chess behind a stack of unemployment papers at a library. The way Stephens strings together description and dialogue puts me in mind of Frost: I am reminded of “Death of a Hired Man,” of “Home Burial.”
I love the way “March” begins:
Behind a rack piled high with pastel tax forms,
Two men shed gloves, soiled coats, and the frayed mail
Of cardigans they’d scrounged for, then sat down.
Frayed mail of cardigans they’d scrounged for: that’s one of those lines I wish like hell I’d thought of.<!â€"-nextpageâ€"->
In “Blue Rose Motel,” Stephens wraps together a tense young couple who have just discovered that a baby is on the way, a mare foaling across a darkened highway, and the dried-up dreams of a man who once wanted to open a motel. With that title, the poem can’t help evoking Tennessee Williams â€“ but it withstands the weight of the comparison.
Only place left to go these days is Wal-Mart.
I’ve got old friends work there. We can’t talk.
Mostly what I get out of them is, “Hi.
Welcome to Wal-Mart. May I help you?”
So says the woman narrating “The Headless Deer.” Once she worked in a factory, and hid her pregnancy, so she wouldn’t be fired. After the baby died in childbirth, she saw something she can’t explain.
Many of the poems in the book’s interior present domestic tableaux. “Owl in the Snow,” another of my favorites, is a slice of conversation between a man and his wife on a winter day. Their son has just visited, and the man wouldn’t speak. He’s unaccustomed to being at home during the day, and he’s a little stir-crazy. They don’t talk to each other well.
Haunting, matter-of-fact, depressing, spare: each poem ends when its story is over, without reassuring platitudes. The poems have a measured tone. They’re in no rush.
Although each poem stands alone, some (the work poems) are linked. In “True Story,” Rome and his buddies (now on an electric crew) shoot the shit about a big-breasted woman who stopped into a 7-11. Like “Ditch Digging,” “True Story” spends a few lines describing work:
[M]ost of us hated climbing:
Gaffs rattling on your legs like braces, points
Sinking in wood, your ass and tool belt swaying.
But Rome liked it. He liked to get away
From us and see the things we couldn’t see.
In this poem, the thing Rome sees is a birch log floating in a river. Then it turns into PVC pipe, a bale of cotton, a cable spool, a mannequin – and finally a dead woman. That her story is never revealed makes the stories we do get seem more poignant.
One of the most poignant stories, for me, is the one told by one of the men – it’s unclear which â€“ in “God Shed His Grace.”
I struggled to read Homer in translation
And keep my hands from trembling with the jolt
Of the commuter back to San Francisco.
I reeked of diesel smoke and creosote.
Sweat rings had stained the ankles of my boots.
Eleven hours and I would rise again
At four a.m., just barely able to make
A fist or hold a cup or grip a shovel.
The reading was a ruse. I craved no knowledge.
I wanted coffee, sleep, tobacco, supper,
And I’d grown tired of reading how that culture
Reveled in glories past and failures coming.
The opening lines surprise the reader (a construction worker reading Homer?). For me, at least, the surprise is twined with embarrassment (I shouldn’t make such assumptions) – a neat trick which is reversed when the narrator tells us “The reading was a ruse.” Should we admire the worker striving to better himself, or scorn his preference for food and sleep over the Iliad? What would we want, in his shoes? Isn’t there something uplifting about reading – and yet, isn’t there something masturbatory about immersing oneself in ancient verse when there’s so much to concern one in modern life?<!â€"-nextpageâ€"->
The book ends with another rhymed and metered poem. Like “Ditch Digging,” the last poem is set apart from the rest of the book by a blank page. The final poem is called “Climbing.”
The same list of men is recited: Hondo, Sandoval, Smith, Baze and Hawk.
After the allusion to Homer in “God Shed His Grace,” the list looks epic to me.
We watch as the men “[p]our thermos cups of coffee, chew, and talk/ Of weekend projects, football, payday’s gains,/ And which of that week’s labors caused what pains.” As in “True Story,” in this poem they are stringing wires on telephone poles.
There’s one more wire to cut, and we’ve picked Rome
To do it, since he’s the one who likes to climb.
He gaffs in, breathes deep, then he takes his time.
A train squalls past. Fog crawls the coastal range.
Around us, amber light begins to change.
Rome can’t be rushed. This work’s his kind of art,
Which might reveal, in time, the human heart,
Or else raise one’s thoughts to some greater height.
Or not. Rome digs in like a parasite.
“Rome can’t be rushed.” All along I’d assumed that Rome was just a name choice that fit the sound Stephens wanted, but this half-line nudges “Rome wasn’t built in a day” into my consciousness and I wonder if any of Stephens’ seemingly effortless choices were random.
The lines about the human heart, about raising one’s thoughts to a greater height – or not – are for me the crux of the book. Manual labor, working-class life: they’re neither inherently noble nor inherently ignoble. It doesn’t take a painter or a poet to see the amber light beginning to change, but at the same time, men who work with their bodies aren’t blessed with any special grace. Any kind of work might raise one’s thoughts to some greater height: ditch-digging, wire-cutting, writing poems, trekking through the snow to get the mail. And then again, any kind of work might leave one low.
Stephens shies away from platitudes or easy endings, but I can’t help seeing a trajectory in the book, from “Ditch Digging” to “Climbing.” The closing images in The Determined Days aren’t necessarily happy ones, but I find a kind of hope in the fact that the book ends by looking, literally, up.