If you read only one issue of a literary magazine this year, let it be this issue of Poetry Northwest, if only to read Stanley Plumly’s gorgeous essay “The End of Keats.” Plumly writes with gentle reverence of the poet who famously died too young, in poverty and failure. Plumly’s writing kept me reading to the end of Keats’ life, and I learned so much. At the end of the piece, Plumly shares his view of Keats’s short life and painful death and writes that the tragedy “lies in the not knowing; or worse, knowing the wrong thing.” He goes on to say that “that is true for most of us: we never know, we never really know the long consequences.” This theme runs through the essay and through many of the poems in the magazine that also deal with truth and the experience of dying and how the living deal with it all. In many of the poems in this issue narrators speak to lost loved ones in sadness and in hindsight at what might have been missed in lives ended too soon. Plumly’s essay is a perfect ending to this issue that deals with endings.
I have to admit that midway through the poems in this issue I felt a kind of disconnect, like a disoriented traveler without a map. Words, phrases, lines, images, and metaphors were not coalescing in every instance for me. The Keats essay returned me to solid thematic ground, and I was willing to go back through the poems to take another look through a different lens, the upshot being an afternoon well spent with the works of talented poets.
At first reading, even before my encounter with Plumly’s sublime essay, I opened to the two poems by Oliver de la Paz. Having read his work before, I felt confident beginning with something I knew would be of high quality and finely crafted, and I wasn’t wrong. The two ekphrastic poems demonstrate the poet’s skill in describing two photographs of Eadweard Muybridge (1830 to 1904) without having to view the photographs themselves. In “Heaving 75-lb. Rock,” Paz offers details he observes in Plate 311, adding his poetic voice to a description of what he sees. By the time I reached the last three couplets of the poem I could see
rising above him so that it is a sun. And he is
a god. The relation between them,
momentum. The relation between them, negated
with the thought.. . .
The movement of the man heaving the rock had come to mean so much more than the action of it, “as when the man’s right arm moves // across his face, arcs, and releases what was his.”
Kate Lebo’s four-part elegy, “Fishing for Icarus,” is a stunning tribute to someone lost, a friend perhaps, someone who is dear to the speaker, the “you” of the poem. The four sections of the poem contain vivid imagery that serves as a subtle kind of foreshadowing, leading to the dénouement where Icarus, the speaker’s friend, and an anonymous “freshman from a party” come together in one identity for whom the speaker searches in the lines: “Now here I cast a net / to drag the spot for splintered wings // and the boy who flew. . .” Lebo ends with a message about art, love, and longing and “how art can stare a person down.” Her couplets are ones I want to circle back to again and again to understand more fully the relationship between the speaker and her lost friend.
Meghan Dunn’s “The Ring” also deals with death from the first line and creates a metaphor for her loss, likening it to the skin beneath a ring that has been removed:
thin and soft, closest
to the bone which has narrowed
to accommodate the missing
circle of gold, which I touch
and touch, feeling the shape
of what I can’t.
From Joseph Harrison’s sonnet “The Key” to Francesca Bell’s free verse “Prayer” to Emily Warn’s “More Endless Than Blue Because of Its Substance,” the poets in this issue explore what it means to endure aging, ailing, and appearances that may not be what they seem. Warns explains “it’s easier to point out suffering than to its cessation— / the sound crows make before, during, and after a mobbing / is the world-sob. . .” Bell wishes to age gracefully and in the moment, embracing the process and asking,
Let me leave
whatever age touches
the way I’ve never
liked to wash
right after a lover.
Harrison’s lovely sonnet offers someone a key to something they’ve never understood. Although I am not sure what the seeker wants to understand, I read and reread the poem wondering what it is, “the brilliant cover, the perfect lie / Telling what little truth you’ve come to know.”
Truth is a quality that changes with perspective, and so Keats’s famous definition at the end of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” makes complete sense, now and forever, and certainly for the poets in this issue of Poetry Northwest. Exploring this truth, this beauty, is a perpetual process and the work of poets. The fruits of their labor are sweet and plentiful in this issue—taste, bite, savor, and ruminate.