“What Does Not Return,” by Tami Haaland. Lost Horse Press, paperback, 65 pages. $18.
“The Bluebird Run,” by Greg Keeler. Elk River Books, paperback, 193 pages. $15.
So quickly do I click through stories on the internet that I often find myself clicking past a story before I have even grasped what was in it. In such a world, can the slow, patient reading that a book of poetry requires possibly thrive?
Montana’s poet laureate, Lowell Jaeger, said in a poetry seminar here not long ago that a fellow poet had told him he literally could not give his books away. Even distribution by helicopter would just leave volumes scattered on the ground.
But new books by two distinguished Montana poets — Tami Haaland and Greg Keeler — provide hope for the slow reader in each of us. Haaland’s “What Does Not Return” and Keeler’s “The Bluebird Run” parade a festival of small delights that tempt harried readers to slow down and enjoy the trip.
Full disclosure: Haaland is one of my bosses at Montana State University Billings, but I was a fan of her poetry long before that. She is an English professor and a former Montana poet laureate, and her first two books of poetry, “Breath in Every Room” and “When We Wake in the Night” won well deserved and widespread praise.
At their best, Haaland’s disarmingly short and simple poems set off little explosions in the reader’s mind. Not every bomb goes off, but they are always there ticking, and extraordinary moments can occur ordinary places.
Her latest book comprises 57 poems in just 65 pages, including title pages and blank pages that introduce each section. Some of the best poems cover far less than a page. For instance, the first section of the collection, called “Forgetting,” describes her mother’s slow descent into old age and dementia. The poem “Ghost” says in full:
“This is no dream.
You sit beside me
pulling hair from your
your shell of skin.
When you are gone
I will miss this haunting.
Sad shadow, a visitation
with silver curls, this
remnant of your smile.”
Like many of Haaland’s poems, this poem evokes small but similar memories in the reader’s mind. As I read “Ghost,” I picture my grandmother, deep in dementia, combing the long, straight, gray hair that she had worn in a tight bun for most of the years I had known her. The poems in this section take one of life’s inevitable tragedies and turns it into something richer, something more human, more universal.
The opening lines of the very first poem in the section put you right there with Haaland and her mother:
“She was so tiny I would give her anything:
sweets, cinnamon or lemon, thick puddings,
strawberries. I would give her my arm, a smile,
kisses on the forehead, my rocking frame beside her.”
Similarly, poems in the other sections of the book — “World of the Eye’s Long Gaze,” “Like Walking Near Water” and “No Reason to Stay Inside” — summon up childhood memories of my own, not because they are unusual but because they are so universal. When she writes of the B-52s that flew practice runs over the Hi-Line home where she grew up, I think of the crop dusters that flew low runs over our house as they sprayed the rice fields across the highway. When you are small enough, a crop duster flying low is every bit as impressive as a B-52.
When she writes about lingering behind at the restaurant table to leave an extra tip, I think of doing the same thing for my father-in-law, who never lived past the notion that a dollar tip was all any service deserved. When she writes of visits to the lake, I think of our childhood trips to the Gulf of Mexico, a couple of thousand miles from the Hi-Line but beating with the same heart.
While I admired Haaland’s book, I fell in love with Keeler’s “The Bluebird Run.” Keeler taught English at MSU Bozeman for nearly 40 years, but he is perhaps best known as a musician, humorist and the author of seven books of poetry. My only previous exposure to his writing was his memoir “Trash Fish,” which was admirable for its candor but perhaps told more about his life than I really needed to know.
But his new book is a delight. I don’t think I have enjoyed a book of poetry so much since I checked out a fat anthology from the elementary school library and discovered that poems like “The Highwayman,” “The Prisoner of Chillon” and “How They Carried the Good News from Ghent to Aix” even existed.
“The Bluebird Run” is a collection of 180 sonnets, only two of which have been previously published. And I mean sonnets of the kind that Shakespeare wrote so expertly that they now are referred to by his name: three rhyming quatrains with a concluding couplet, all in iambic pentameter.
I admire the form so much that I used to write Valentine sonnets for the woman who became my wife, on the theory that greater love hath no man than this: that he would write sonnets for his girlfriend. But the form was too demanding; the poems degenerated into octets and quatrains until finally one year I farmed out the job to a fellow reporter, whose contribution I cannot recall except for the closing lines:
“All the indicia
Point to Patricia.”
I once wrote that all human effort is flawed, with the possible exceptions of Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet and the migas plate at Dos Hermanos restaurant in Bryan, Texas. So I would have liked Keeler’s book even if the poems were much worse. But they are wonderful.
The themes are ordinary enough. Keeler writes of nature and of getting older, a resonant theme to this reader. He also writes of love, but not the burning passion of Marvell’s coy mistress or Shakespeare’s “star to every wand’ring bark.” It’s a calmer, more mature love, the comforting closeness of the senior class that shows up in lines like these:
“Because despair is never far from bliss
I’ll hold you close on fragile days like this.”
Keeler also pays tribute to the old masters, parodying Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet quoted above, titling one poem “After Reading Too Much Whitman” and twisting these lines from Marvell:
“For some the skull’s a fine and private place —
With mouth and eyes and ears, just in case.”
Keeler plays around with iambic pentameter but adheres closely to the traditional rhyme scheme. In one poem called “Sonnet,” each line is a single word. In another with the same title, he explains to his “true love” that too regular a rhythm and meter can drown out the words:
“So sometimes I’ll put a bunch of unaccented syllables
around the strong ones just to make it sound
like a prosy chat in a form that feels unfulfillable
until the reader hears it read aloud.”
Occasionally, Keeler takes on bigger themes. “Our Last God” calls on Jesus to bless “our war, our pride, our stuff, our success,” then concludes:
“And if, by chance, your holy blessing fails
to meet our needs, break out the cross and nails.”
But the real joy is in the sheer craftsmanship of the work. Among the 1,260 rhymes, one almost never finds one that feels awkward or forced. As someone who can’t get through a single sonnet without two or three clumsy rhymes, I stand in awe and read with pleasure.
Even all that talk of old age and dissolutions goes down painlessly. As Keeler reminds us, “The d in death is hard; the end is soft.”