EILEEN TABIOS Engages
Waxwings by Daniel Nathan Terry
(Lethe Press, Maple Shade, N.J., 2012)
While appreciating the many moving poems in Daniel Nathan Terry’s Waxwings, I also admire the structure of this poetry collection. When poets create a poetry book, many tinker for a while on which poems to include and in which order they shall appear. I don’t know how Terry came to organize this book, but on this particular issue,Waxwings has one of the most effective structures I’ve observed for form-ing a poetry collection.
Waxwings’ organizational coherence takes the title poem, “Waxwings” as the root for the poems that follow its position as the third poem in the book. Here’s an excerpt:
…the boy counts thirty-seven waxwings
necklacing the telephone wire. They are too distant
to see the glistening red drops for which the birds are named,
but he knows they’re there, at the tip of those folded wings
like seals on old correspondence between lovers. The cool air trills
and wheezes with strange talk. As he shifts
his backpack, one bird swoops from the wire
to the round holly pincushioned with scarlet berries
not five feet away. The boy freezes. The bird plucks one only,
then returns to the wire. Gingerly,
the berry uncrushed, the gatherer passes it to its neighbor,
who passes it in turn, and so on down the wire.
In the long minutes before the bus arrives,
the same bird gathers berries, passes them down
until each bird is satisfied. Finally, the first bird fed
feds the provider.
At that moment, the boy in the poem “fantasizes / that kids in his class break into song // and dance like fools in an old musical.” When a camera records their joyous performance, the kids would be seen as
…all of them holding hands—
Jack the football star, Shannon the beauty queen,
Ronny the bully, Todd the unattainable, the distance,
the secret, the wrong—joined together in a star of arms and legs
that kaleidoscopes in the blackness. Everyone smiles
as they mouth the words to a love song.
The poem ends with the boy’s wish “to reach out,/ break the red seal, open the envelopes of their wings, / read their characters on the white sky // until he understands, until they become a story / he can share.”
The poems in Waxwings can be seen as stories shared by the poet as he tries to understand his life’s experiences. Many of the poems are not just stories but “love song”s. The poems span a life—from boyhood to adulthood. Each poem is underscored by this attempt to understand something until there is a story the poet can share. It’s surely no coincidence that in the poem “Waxwings,” the sky is described as white in the line “read their characters on the white sky.” White sky—white page? The page upon which poems are presented to a reader.
It’s also a wise move that this title poem was not the opening or first poem in the book. While it could have played its same role (root) as a first, versus third, poem, a layer of complexity arises from this poem being introduced after the first two: “Scarecrow” and “Self-Portrait (Gay Son of a Preacher).”
“Scarecrow” is (partly) about a fragile pretender of a man, while “Self-Portrait (Gay Son of a Preacher)” is about what its title says it’s about. Both are so necessary that they enhance by introducing the root (third poem) of the collection. Here are some lines from “Scarecrow”
“crows mistake you for a man:”
“How long before the snow and I
take you down?”
and here’s an excerpt of “Self-Portrait (Gay Son of a Preacher)”
The sermon is halfway over,
but the boy hears enough—Naaman,
once a great warrior, became a Leper,
ghost white, his flesh a torn garment
of wounds. And he remained that way—
until he obeyed God’s prophet, washed
seven times in the river Jordan and his flesh
was made clean and new as a child’s.
The boy’s fear slips away—he releases
His mother. He rises, joins the altar call.
His father’s arms open
Before him, wafer and wine in his hands,
The congregation sings “Just as I Am.”
But the boy, silent, mouth open,
Hears only his Savior—a voice
In his chest –saying Come,
and I will make you whole.
It’s significant that in the above excerpt, the poem’s ending, the congregation sings “Just as I am” but the boy narrator is focused on his “Savior… saying, Come / and I will make you whole.” That is, the boy seems to understand that there is a process of living and maturity he needs to undergo before he can be a real “man” or “whole.” But that’s not all—how must the boy grow to understand that what/who he is, with his “secret” that is “wrong” (“Scarecrow”) is nonetheless not a “leper”? The answer lies in the unfolding of these poems for the rest of the book.
Relatedly, while I understand from the poem that waxwings are birds, what comes to my mind in reading that title is the myth of the boy Icarus who flew towards the sun on wings made from wax. And that the boy plummeted to his death because his wings are not real. Of course the poet must have been aware of this Greek myth, and its story’s layer also adds to the poetic urgency of what roots this collection: this desire to understand and the importance of understanding.
The importance of understanding. To try to dispel illusion (whether that’s possible is a different story). The importance of understanding because, moving beyond my admiration of the collection’s structure to the poems themselves, the poems address issues of import. Generally (and simplistically), they offer stories on the instability of identity. Here’s an excerpt that attests to a hard-won understanding—from the poem “Snow Falls in Hartsville”:
We never dreamed we’d end up on our knees
together on her narrow bed when we were sixteen
and her parents were wherever her parents went
when they should have been beside her. And mine
were where I should have been—at home,
but I ran away to be with her, to prove
I was a man inside of her, my girl. And she was
so willing and soft, but it hurt her too much
in ways I wouldn’t understand until
a year later, when I lay on my back
in my male lover’s trailer in the longleaf pines
and took him inside me and remembered
how young I was when the farmer’s son
had done to me what her uncle had done to her.
But nothing done to me or done to her
made us what we truly are or even most of what
we were. I loved her because she was the first
man who loved me too. The first man, at least inside
her bones, who accepted the boy who couldn’t be
a proper man, who couldn’t be what he wanted
to be. And she played the Gibson guitar for me
and sang about what would eventually be
today—her short, strong fingers on the fret,
her soft breasts gone, removed by the hip
of the wood, music coming from two bellies
into mine. Only in some ways part of a gift
from the uncle who abused her. Where would we be
now if we’d confessed? But that was years ago.
Twenty-five years ago, and counting still, she confessed
in a letter, not from my girl—but from the man
that she’s become, the man she was always meant to be.
And it wasn’t just the surgeries, it was years
of swinging hard and sometimes connecting
with the pitch—from his uncle, from his girlfriends,
and once or twice, from me. Now, I’d like to believe
I’m the man I was always meant to be—leaning in
to my lover, to my life, to the wonder
of having once been a man who loved a woman
who was almost the perfect man for me. But maybe
neither of us is done with becoming what we were
meant to be. No way to know. And still no way
to keep those considered to be children safe.
“Snow Falls in Hartsville” is an important story that urgently needed to be written. But just as Terry’s meditations go deeply, the language goes beyond mere communication—story-telling—to effect a lush resonance. For instance:
house—bedroom window paned
to look like a roadside cross
erected for a reckless boy, wreath
of camera flare, paper flowers of real grief
with too bright a center, edges finally fading
(--from “Photograph, 1984”)
This a testament to the poet’s discerning eye. Terry’s correct—I’ve seen many of these fake flowers and roadside tokens and it is true (even as I’d not focused on it before) that the centers of fake flowers are usually “too bright” and perhaps inappropriately so when the matter at hand is grief.
Let me leave you with yet one poem whose comprehension and language surely will entice you to exploring this book further:
A Rumor of Fire
Ragged August—a wounded month
slinks under the house, panting in the crawlspace.
Dogwoods burn red two months early.
Birds roost in midday, feverish and thin
as thorns. Lawns sing to thatch brittle
as old doll hair—a rumor of fire
could reduce the neighborhood to ash. I draw the blinds
against the struggle. The air conditioner labors
in darkness. The house is small—
two bedrooms, one bath, a narrow living
room—all we could afford. Six years ago we signed off
in the cool of spring—the front yard masted
with pines, billowed by one live oak,
foam white camellias cresting the blue door. The walls
seemed conceptual, as if longing could sail
us beyond them into the garden. Now I lie
on the sofa, the low ceiling trapping my breath
like a mask, and realize I have never lived
in a house I have loved. I want to wake up
in a soft bed, in a room so vast the walls are imagined,
windows flung wide as the horizon, rain falling
in the green world. And you, my love,
I want you to emerge like a seedling
from the furrowed sheets, dazzled and new,
watching for the rising storm within me.
Waxwings—a generous gift from the poet Daniel Nathan Terry.
And also worth noting is the cover painting, “Icarus 1” by Benjamin Billingsley. It’s a painting that testifies to how there’s really no difference between abstraction and figuration in painting (as several artists have said). I didn’t immediately see the male torso, nipple and wing in the painting that first struck me as a lush abstract (so to speak) work. But that the painting can be both abstract and figurative concurrently or one sighting at a time “fits” the stories and/or theme of Waxwings.
I am also heartened by Billingsley’s color diction—that, despite darkness in the background, there is light in the foreground and on the fields that form the male torso. For just as the narrator in Waxwings becomes a man through the light of increasing revelation—and just as Icarus’ ecstasy was kissed dangerously, but kissed!, by the sun—the colors in Billingsley’s painting form a man who is suffused with light, who is sunlit.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor. An exception is made for the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA as that was co-written with another author, j/j hastain--and it is reviewed by T.C. Marshall in this GR #20 issue. She is also pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books. Her 2013 book, THE AWAKENING was reviewed by Tom Beckett at L'Amour Fou; by Amazon Hall of Famer Reviewer Grady Harp on Amazon and elsewhere; by Joey Madia at Literary Aficionado; by Edric Mesmer at Yellow Field; by Zvi Sesling at Boston Area Small Press & Poetry Scene; and by jim mccrary and his cat Iris at Babaylan Poetics. Her 2007 book, SILENCES: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF LOSS, was also recently reviewed by Nicholas T. Spatafora in Litter Magazine.