This is an excellent collection of poetry -- cleverly conceived and cunningly executed -- and it's become one of my favorite books of this year. Not j...moreThis is an excellent collection of poetry -- cleverly conceived and cunningly executed -- and it's become one of my favorite books of this year. Not just favorite books of poetry -- one of my favorite books, PERIOD.
Not every poem is perfect, and there were a few in which the craft behind the poem seemed the more important concern. There is the occasional too-cute allusion, as to Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams ("This is just to say" indeed). But then the whole book is an allusion, mostly to the titular characters (the libertine John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, and Stella from Philip Sidney's sonnet cycle "Astrophil and Stella") but also to Whitman and Spenser and Snyder and a whole range of other poets, in a variety of styles and eras.
There are other comparisons I would make. Narratively, there are moments when Gerard reminds me of Beth Ann Fennelly, her sexuality and her brassy wit, and others that remind me of Mark Doty's wistful reflection. Structurally and thematically, there times I think of James Galvin. I doubt these are accidents. Reading Gerard's collection is in some ways like a master class in poetry, a history in miniature, and would make for fascinating study in a classroom.
And yet the whole book, as a book, is distinctively Gerard's, the voice his own, and he is a master in his own right. Gerard is terrific with images and ideas: "It's a fucking cliché she came like a hurricane she was / what you hated in your father what he couldn't resist / The storm drinking your mother to death," or "The syntax of expectation's heavy. / I am a rusty nail, a pry bar, a barn splitting at / the seams with wet hay," or "every Sunday I stood between my parents. / I loved the hymns. Daddy and I tried / to harmonize. The choir like rain / reviving a moss garden."
I keep wanting to quote lines from the book to show you what I mean, but the lines in isolation don't show you the full impact of Gerard's work. The real breathlessness of them comes from their cumulative impact, the way the lines and the images and the emotions build on each other. Each line by itself is a weight on a bar, and when you look at one it seems light and easy but little by little they press on you, so the final weight of the poem is often immense.
The collection as a whole works in much the same way -- the very first poem, took my knees from me, and from there it's just punch after punch -- though he is careful to inject a few moments of levity to make the reading more an exercise than an assault. And the structure of the collection is narrative, an actual life shared between these two imagined figures, Wimot and Stella, borrowed from poetry and history but fictionalized and made to stand in for other figures, so you read on eagerly to discover what turn will come next in this odd, beautiful, contentious relationship. By the end of it, you feel you've lived alongside these people.
It's as pleasant a read as I've had all year, and I highly recommend it.(less)