Sea Level Rising
John Philip Drury
I read half of the poetry in John Philip Drury’s newest book of poems Sea Level Rising while situated on a large towel on St. Augustine Beach along the Atlantic in Northern Florida. It was the ideal setting for contemplating as Drury expressed his love for the sights and sounds of the ocean. “I miss the rising tides,” he reminisces in the book’s title poem, “that bash the docks / and spatter brackish water in my face.” I read half of the poetry in John Philip Drury’s newest book of poems Sea Level Rising while situated on a large towel on St. Augustine Beach along the Atlantic in Northern Florida. It was the ideal setting for contemplating as Drury expressed his love for the sights and sounds of the ocean. “I miss the rising tides,” he reminisces in the book’s title poem, “that bash the docks / and spatter brackish water in my face.” That evening I walked St. John’s County Pier and watched fishermen drop long lines into the dark bulging waters and I felt the “hush” of Drury’s “Great South Bay”:
a distant horn, a fisherman
loading rods and tackle in a boat
on the pier-high waves,
the whole pier muffled to whispers
in the clearing of night,
in the water’s wide basilica.
These poems are brimming with Drury’s affection for not only the ocean, but also the culture and peoples defined by its rhythms and music. Like any good monastic, the poet’s “basilica” is internalized as he is influenced and changed by the rising and falling, ebbing and flowing of certain individuals, romances, cities along rivers and bays, a “baptism” of fishing boats, the “dark water, bikinis, a casino from the poem “Meeting in Water.”
The book is divided into three sections: The Law that Nothing’s Permanent but Change; By the Grace of Cross-Purposes; and Already the Trees of Heaven are Taking Over. Each section evokes religious themes of law, grace, and heaven (or the promised eternity) but it took me a while to connect these three sections to the book’s title until I focused on the end of each phrase: change, cross-purposes, and taking over. Indeed, my brief interlude by the sea demonstrated its propensity to change, cross, and overtake. As I walked into its waters that same afternoon I read Drury’s poetry, I felt its forcefulness crashing against my body and its powerful unpredictability; I was a speck in its wide mouth. So it is with our souls, as Drury shows, that are like the lost autistic boy in “Familiar World” found mosquito-bitten and bewildered behind a Redi-Mart store. This is not the story of our vulnerability we want to tell, says Drury. No:
In some tales, the boy would keep on following the creek beyond
rapids, across a ford,
until he came to a pool where light collected and something rose
to the misty surface,
promising to grant his wishes: how to talk, how to bear the noises,
how to find
a familiar world within the foreign.
We would rather tell a tale of our mastery over the sea—law, grace, heaven all working together on our behalf.
But Drury speaks of his fallible humanity in a “love affair and friendship” that was “tempestuous, not calm” from which he learns in “Honeymoon in Venice” that he’d been wrong to discourage his new bride:
from joy that made her radiant as the wave tips
dizzy with sunlight, cresting with tidal surges.
Love wasn’t rigid but resilient,
open to change, eager to divorce
anything impeding its energy.
And he is not a master when it comes to his memories of poets and people that have influenced him over the years. Instead, he is malleable, undone remembering “Betty” in “Double Elegy” and realizing that he even mimics her facial expressions while walking about a city where they once “gazed at what remained” of its old buildings and foundations. In “Sonnets for Mr. Lewis,” Drury is humbled by the memory of his English teacher from junior high school who was “inflamed by sluggishness!” and couldn’t “stand chaos!” keeping Drury on his toes, a “bad pupil” timidly “wait(ing) on that shore” in his classroom “where breakers crashed.” Drury admits that Mr. Lewis’s lessons still haunt him, change him, like the music he carries inside him passed down from his father and passed on to his son in “Circle Line.” “We gather together in affinities of song” he says.
Drury’s sanctuary, his “basilica,” is internal, filled up with the resonance of many waters crashing and quieting, many songs solitary and harmonious, and many voices building up and tearing down. And Drury is reverent, retrospective, contemplating how the waves are full of law, grace, eternity bound up with impermanence, the weaving of purposes, dark waters pulling with tides we cannot control. Sea Level Rising will speak to anyone willing to take a closer look at what it means to be a speck in the wide mouth of life’s sea.