SWIFTNew and Selected PoemsBy David Baker
In a celebrated paragraph from his 2016 book “The Elements of Eloquence,” Mark Forsyth makes the eye-widening observation that English adjectives always appear in a specific order: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose. “And as size comes before color,” he writes, “green great dragons can’t exist.”
Perhaps, but there’s a “blue tall bird” in David Baker’s poetry, along with a “mercury blue-black still pond.” Wild rye grasses throw a “green long shadow,” and each trillium stem has its “fragile one bloom.”
The convenient thing about a native language is that you don’t have to know its rules to obey them. Grammar is a piano you can play by ear, as Joan Didion has noted. But that unconscious facility can be a limitation for poets, who hope to startle and reorient the language, to use grammar without being used by it.
It’s a risk that Baker recognizes. For close to 40 years — on the evidence gathered in “Swift: New and Selected Poems” — he’s been working to see and describe things as though for the first time. He can lay down an elegant line when he wants to, but he favors an authenticating roughness to a consoling smoothness; when euphony and precision are at cross-purposes in his writing, euphony yields.
Baker is a poet of the natural world who would probably reject that label because what other world is there? Transience and interconnectedness are his big themes. The extreme suburbs and the diminishing countryside are his settings. Attention and juxtaposition are his methods; his metaphors don’t seem so much made as noticed. To read his poem “The Spring Ephemerals” is to gradually register that its title refers to everything in it: the wildflowers, the carcinoma-scarred woman who is busily transplanting them, the woods where they’ve been growing, and the developers who are burning those woods to clear lots for a new subdivision:
She kneels as the sunlight
cuts through pine needles above us, casting a gridlike the plats the surveyors use. It’s the irony
of every cell: that it divides to multiply.
Suburbs are fertile ground for such juxtapositions, with their abutments and encroachments. Deer and coyotes roam freely through the book’s backyards, reminding property owners who the trespassers are:
I have foundonlythe gnawed and spatsplatter of hedge apples, that’s how desperate
they are, driven toward usby nothing to forage,by vanishing treesand razed fields, by exurbs, by white-
flight and our insatiate hunger for sizeand space and taxadvantages.
“Late Pastoral” is the name of that poem, and of Baker’s game.
There’s a visual geometry to much of Baker’s poetry, which he achieves by counting syllables rather than stresses. (Zoology isn’t the only enthusiasm he shares with Marianne Moore.) The poems are platted rather than measured. And the collection itself has a similar symmetry, with each of his previous books represented by exactly seven poems (and seven total from his first two). He arranges this work from latest to earliest, an unusual choice that might seem less significant in another poet’s new-and-selected. But Baker is both an autobiographical poet and one obsessed with ephemerality, which makes the book’s reverse chronology curiously affecting: Parents die and then decline. A marriage ends, then flourishes. A child grows younger. Her parents decide not to have a child yet. It’s as though the book’s structure were another protest against time’s passage and the world’s degradation.
Baker’s style, too, grows greener as the book progresses (or “retrogresses,” perhaps — because time moves forward, there’s a dearth of words for this sort of thing). Mastery in the middle becomes promise at the end. The oldest poems are recognizably his, but they haven’t all earned their earnestness yet:
And sometime in those meaningful hours, we
who have never found a use for the thingexcept to mismanage its name,as is our bitter nature, did not hearthe hedge apple at last
Baker has been skillfully subverting the “natural order” of language for years, but his recent work is his most disjunctive: “[where is that he said]— / [where are—he said—we]— / too a distant bell / too a distant bell—.” This is clearly a considered choice; in the book’s 15 new poems, Baker confronts extinctions both global and local, including the loss of both parents. Like their speakers, these poems are pretty broken up. I find them well made but less distinctive, on the whole, than most of his mature work. When sentences take leaves of absence from contemporary poetry, they’re rarely replaced by something novel. Usually it’s just other familiar units of composition — clauses, phrases, litanies — that happen to lack the purchase and propulsion of sentences:
The permanenthavoc of little mistakes. A hip full of pins andsurgery scars. The hit-spit of a bluegill the cotton-wood seeds small branches greening the old shoe eddying swallowsthe heat.
Such writing may have the immediacy of unprocessed experience, but unprocessed experience is pretty familiar, too. More to the point, it’s a style that deprives Baker of his strengths, which include storytelling — he’s wonderful at smuggling narrative into what look like meditative poems — and the skillful collocation of lines, sentences and stanzas. Baker has spent his life learning how to let a complex moment unfold slowly across a poem, and he’s good at it:
Consider the beech,the lovers’ owne
tree, this one, yes,hearts scored-inand someone’s, and someone else’s, initialsso swollen
they’re unreadable andmore-than-head-high-up the trunk.
All of Baker’s poems are rich in observation, imagination and memory. But it’s syntax that allows him to synthesize those elements, and to catch his own mind in the act of doing so. “The world gives you itself in fragments / in splinters,” Baker writes. In his best poems, generously represented here, he builds something lovely and durable from that brokenness.B:
白小姐今晚86期马图【当】【时】【所】【见】，【那】【字】【画】【下】【面】【有】【阴】【影】【不】【同】，【他】【便】【直】【接】【撕】【了】【下】【来】。 【等】【往】【后】【面】，【他】【除】【却】【用】【双】【目】【去】【判】【断】【阴】【影】，【心】【里】【还】【有】【莫】【名】【笃】【定】【和】【熟】【悉】【之】【感】。 【很】【快】【证】【明】，【这】【种】【笃】【定】【和】【熟】【悉】【是】【正】【确】【的】，【他】【每】【一】【次】【撕】【下】【来】【的】【字】【画】，【背】【后】【皆】【有】【暗】【格】。 【之】【前】【未】【曾】【去】【细】【琢】【磨】【这】【种】【感】【觉】，【现】【在】【望】【到】【石】【柱】，【望】【到】【丹】【炉】【里】【的】【花】，【那】【种】【熟】【悉】【感】【越】【来】【越】【强】【烈】。
“【年】【轻】【人】，【十】【年】【后】【的】【你】，【前】【来】，【或】【许】，【有】【机】【会】，【今】【日】，【早】【了】。”【下】【一】【刻】，【下】【方】，【一】【个】【老】【者】，【一】【个】【老】【的】【无】【法】【想】【象】【的】【老】【者】，【出】【现】【了】。 【他】【悬】【浮】【而】【起】。 【盘】【坐】【于】【浮】【云】【之】【间】。 【满】【头】【白】【发】。 【皮】【肤】【和】【树】【皮】【一】【样】。 【浑】【身】，【全】【是】【死】【气】。 【整】【个】【人】【看】【起】【来】，【就】【像】【是】【一】【个】【濒】【死】【之】【人】。 【但】，【浑】【身】【又】【和】【天】【地】【契】【合】。 【仿】【佛】白小姐今晚86期马图【本】【来】【今】【天】【中】【午】【就】【是】【向】【坤】【的】【饮】【血】【期】，【不】【过】【为】【了】【通】【过】“【超】【感】【联】【系】”【的】【骨】【头】【和】“【情】【绪】【注】【入】”【的】【兔】【子】【木】【雕】【获】【取】【更】【多】【的】【信】【息】，【他】【在】【感】【觉】【到】【饥】【饿】【感】【后】【并】【没】【有】【立】【刻】【饮】【血】，【准】【备】【撑】【到】【明】【天】【上】【午】【再】【说】。 【而】【且】【向】【坤】【现】【在】【发】【现】，【他】【只】【有】【在】【产】【生】【饥】【饿】【感】、【想】【要】【饮】【血】【的】【时】【候】，【对】【那】【幅】【歌】【词】【毛】【笔】【字】【感】【应】，【才】【有】【机】【会】【能】【够】【相】【对】【清】【晰】【地】【感】【知】【到】【那】【种】“【类】【情】
【一】【片】【灰】【色】【的】【大】【地】【上】，【灰】【烬】【遍】【布】，【草】【木】【都】【已】【经】【消】【失】，【业】【火】【朝】【着】【远】【处】【蔓】【延】，【更】【远】【处】【只】【有】【一】【株】【老】【树】【还】【在】【顽】【强】【的】【生】【长】【着】，【不】【过】【此】【时】【也】【已】【经】【有】【火】【星】【飞】【近】。 【老】【树】【上】【有】【一】【鸟】【巢】，【其】【内】【有】【四】【枚】【卵】，【不】【过】【其】【中】【三】【枚】【中】【的】【气】【息】【黯】【淡】，【像】【是】【死】【胎】，【第】【四】【枚】【还】【好】【些】，【不】【过】【却】【也】【有】【腐】【朽】【的】【气】【息】【传】【出】。 【一】【点】【火】【星】【飞】【来】，【落】【在】【鸟】【巢】【边】【沿】，【鸟】【巢】【开】【始】
【有】【时】【候】，Flag【真】【的】【不】【能】【乱】【立】，【不】【然】，【你】【看】【现】【在】，【司】【马】【沫】【菡】【满】【身】【是】【血】【地】【躺】【在】【了】【病】【床】【上】【了】【吧】。 【而】【她】【的】【灵】【魂】【则】【又】【回】【到】【了】【小】【灵】【儿】【所】【创】【造】【的】【一】【方】【空】【间】【之】【中】，“【你】【好】【呀】！” “【好】【你】【妹】！”【司】【马】【沫】【菡】【瞪】【着】【她】，【明】【显】【一】【切】【全】【想】【起】【来】【了】，“【你】【到】【底】【想】【干】【嘛】？” “【想】【完】【成】【你】【的】【心】【愿】【啊】，【你】【不】【是】【一】【直】【想】【回】【来】【嘛】，【我】【就】【让】【你】【回】【来】【了】，【你】【不】