Fall 1993, Volume 10.3
Reviewed by Karen Marguerite Moloney, Department of English, Weber State University
The Island: Poems by Michael White. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1992, 68 pp., $10.00 (paper).
Michael White's first book of poetry should never be presented as a gift to newlyweds-or to any other person on the hopeful brink of adventure-for they would likely feel only impatience with its wise stoicism in the face of daunting loss. On the other hand, to someone wrestling with life's inevitable accidents, unfairness, and dashed hopes, the book offers the solace of commiseration, of validation of one's pain.
The book is dedicated to White's late wife, who died as recently as 1991; we learn from a brief author's note at the end of the collection that she died of cancer. Ah, we say, remembering the poems we have just read and whose cumulative effect rivals that of one long meditative elegy: the book may speak of other deaths-of the mother of a childhood friend, of friends, of a ship's crew; it may even be brightened occasionally with a poem like "Post card" and its skillful evocation of the "waves of enormous color" of autumn trees, but the book, ultimately, is a love poem to the author's lost wife. It is also a tribute to his courage.
The seventeen poems of the collection are divided into three sections. "Solace," the title of the first group of four poems, begins with "Recurrence"; its careful description of the natural world, here focused on the sounds of a windswept night, is characteristic of the poems comprising the collection:
Darkness, but a mountain wind howled through the canyons, through the dark-red willows bent wildly about along the snowy bank-whining and drowning out the sound of rapids hurtling, gnawing away at rock and root, and the sound the spruce made creaking: strokes of cadmium blue on white.
The desperate tone is intended, even fitting, for the chaotic world around the author signifies his own inner turbulence.
The second section of the book contains four "Stories and Odes," the terrain of Vladimir Nabokov's butterfly-collecting expedition as faithfully rendered as earlier scenes near Utah's Wasatch Mountains and Missouri's rivers-not to mention the precisely detailed scenes of sea and ship to follow. This is the section that contains the poem from which the book takes its title: the poem tells the story of a ship driven by "the north wind-/As if a celestial longing had bellied the sail-" (a fact underscored by subsequent, slightly varied repetitions) toward a harborless island ("Not one breach in the sheer rock face, no bay nor breakwater"). Unable to land, the ship is again swept out to sea, where, one by one, the crew members are "ripped overboard /Along with the rigging or splinter of wood they clung to-" to drown in the raging sea. Fate is more than capricious for this poet; it is unfathomable.
And yet the nine poems of the book's third section, "This Water," though once again a section primarily elegiac in tone, conclude as the breaking sun enables "the rounded, primordial outlines of limestone cliffs/ [to] Invent themselves," a fitting backdrop against which, stoically, "you take another step." It is the book's parting comment, the answer to the image of darkness with which the book began.
If anything, the book draws too much from the world of memory, dream, and loss. The reveries become too extended, and the reader longs for more respite, more "relief poems," if you will. But this is a first collection, with an emphasis on "grief observed," even if written of obliquely (after the first poem, one learns no other details of his wife's death, relatively little of the other deaths that motivate so many of these poems, and even less of the author's own pain). White undoubtedly will have more to say. Based on this particular sampling of work, we should await, with eagerness, further collections of his poems.