Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Old Heart: Poems by Stanley Plumly

While it may be hard to imagine the typical poetry reader, I suspect many enjoy finding a story within the poem. I do. Having a narrative somehow anchors the ideas espoused by the poet. For this reason, I like many of the pieces by Stanley Plumly in his National Book Award nominated collection Old Heart.

The stories may be sketchy, episodic, brief, but there is a person or object, a scene, and an action. In "When He Fell Backwards into His Coffin" on page 50, Plumly tells of a man who died in the bathtub. Many people want the story to be happy and imagine that the man was enjoying a nice bath while listening to opera. Plumly reveals that the man was actually just sitting on the edge fully dressed when he had his final moment of thought. The truly shocking part of the poem is the last thought. The man remembers his mother holding his head down in the water.

"Debt" on pages 34-35 is a bit of memoir. He remembers three creditors standing in the yard with his father on a cold, blustery day, discussing the resolution of a debt. One man is measuring the yard in a threatening way. Plumly links the image to thoughts about debt and poverty from the poets Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and T. S. Eliot. He leaves us a mystery: did the family lose the house?

Like Robert Hass in Time and Materials, which won the National Book Award for poetry last week, Plumly writes often about birds. The poems include "Spirit Birds,""Magpie," and "Missing the Jays." I wonder about the other nominated poets.

My favorite poem in the collection might be "The Woman Who Shoveled Snow" on page 60. The poet observes and wonders about an older, poorly dressed woman who picks up extra cash by shoveling snowy sidewalks, a job usually performed by kids. In her need, perhaps to support a habit, she does a thorough job.

Old Heart is an accessible modern collection of poem that many readers may enjoy. It should be in many public libraries.

Plumly, Stanley. Old Heart: Poems. Norton, 2007. ISBN 9780393065688

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