Saint Friend
by Carl Adamshick

Reviewed by Caleb Caldwell


Published by McSweeney's, 2014   |   65 pages

Hart Crane finished “Cape Hatteras,” the longest section of his epic The Bridge, only a couple of years after Charles Lindbergh completed his solitary trans-Atlantic flight. In it, Crane implicitly links Lindbergh’s accomplishment to Columbus’s, positioning both at the vanguard of history, translating technical accomplishment into transcendent ideas: the conquest of time and space, the imaginative binding of wilderness. “The nasal whine of power whips a new universe,” Crane wrote,

And now, as launched in abysmal cupolas of space,
Toward endless terminals, Easters of speeding light –
Vast engines outward veering with seraphic grace
On clarion cylinders pass out of sight
To course that span of consciousness thou’st named
The Open Road – thy vision is reclaimed!
What heritage thou’st signalled to our hands!”

Crane, like Whitman before him, envisioned human potentiality as linked to technology and transport – for Whitman, the locomotive, for Crane, the plane, for both, of course, the bridge – the conquest of space bringing forth a new “span of consciousness.”

Flight is also one of the primary metaphors Carl Adamshick uses for the nodes of desire and activity around which his second book, Saint Friend, takes shape (the book-design, with its three embossed prop planes on the cover, helps to clue the reader in), but the thematics of flight have changed drastically since Crane’s The Bridge, and the optimism and sublimity of Whitman and Crane’s visions are gone. For Adamshick, the dramatic shifts in geography that flight enables only engender isolation and rootlessness: “They keep paging Kenneth Koch at the airport,” he writes in “Layover.” “Someone should let the announcer know / he is dead, that there is no city he can go to, / that no one is expecting him.” Instead of Crane’s celebration of the dynamo – the capture, conversion, and deployment of energy – we have an enervating, static, and all-to-familiar situation: the layover. Planes, with the accumulated weight of the world wars, the Jet age and the Cold War, and especially 9/11, are no longer symbols of transcendentalism.

The persona-poem “The Mathematician,” for example, centers around an intellectual who, it is hinted, may have had a distant, calculating role in the bombing of Hiroshima – unleashed, famously, by the Boeing B-29 “Superfortress bomber” Enola Gay. Though this setting haunts the periphery of the poem, the foreground concerns his failing relationship and the dominance of ruthless and acquisitive behavior in society: “The sound of a nation / at industry, shaping planes by the thousands.” The mathematician stares at his naked lover, unbelievably beyond his ken, as if he were a scientist investigating inorganic matter. When he does attempt to translate his logic, his “solutions as reality” into an aesthetic practice, it fails to relieve his subtle contempt for her or instill any kindness into him: “I think of her as a fugue, / as relief in metal, . . . as a monument people touch in winter.” Amid a culture of disintegrating faiths, the almost ungraspable horror of the bombing of Hiroshima plays out merely as part of their domestic drama: “It’s been five weeks since Hiroshima. / I never wake her. / I don’t want this to ruin us,” says the mathematician. In the figures of the mathematician and his lover, the absurd and disjunctive are made to seem particular and intimate. Our beloved fictions of rugged individualism are torn down, and the economics of our mourning acknowledged. Still, the mathematician retains some hope that their marriage remain intact, a consolatory possibility held in the conciliation of their relationship.

One of the volume’s most successful poems is “Pacific,” which elliptically voices moments from Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across Atlantic, her time as a WWI dispatch nurse, and, finally, her failed flight round the world, which took her life somewhere in the Pacific. Earhart here, “volant” (in flight), is also, of course, alone; but Adamshick imagines her musing on her marriage, on a sibling lost in utero, and on the possibility of her own pregnancy (“I wonder what it is like to fill / with another life”). The possibility of dissolution looms, in her past (“My father must have felt like nowhere”) and in her solo flights: “One could disappear in this, // above rainfall and cloud, oceanic mist.” But her solitude, made finale and absolute in her death, never obliterates her fragile communal allegiance. Adamshick writes of Earhart, as a nurse, bending “to the stranger’s scar,” alive to her care of the stranger as both necessity and difficulty. As Kierkegaard pointed out, “It is easier to indulge in abstract thought than it is to exist.”

One of the finest qualities of Adamshick’s poetry – and his poetic personas – is a refusal to dodge the difficult pathos of existence. This is clear in Adamshick’s treatment of elegy, which is also his primary mode. He reworks the tradition of poetic mourning even as he relinquishes its various consolations and idealizations. Speaking of his mother in “Layover,” he writes,

          In her death
I see her eyes closed in prayer. Her hand
that was never a star. Her foot that was kissed
but never a bridge. Her heart that was never
anything but a heart.

Writers, as Christopher Ricks so cannily argues in State of the Language (1980), can make intelligent, purposeful use of cliché. Always gracious and largely free of pretension, Adamshick nevertheless does sometimes fail to fully revitalize blunted language – “beauty,” in particular, is overused, even when it’s acknowledged as a potential factor behind warfare and destruction: “It was beauty, / unwavering brilliance, / that sped us to accomplishment,” the speaker reflects in “The Mathematician.” Adamshick’s tone is, perhaps, not level enough, on the one hand, or ecstatic enough on the other, to carry off such abstracted words. Adamshick’s verse proves more pleasurable when it offers greater resistance to an initial reading, either through a modest request for the reader to investigate historical particulars on her own (as in “Pacific”) or by way of a surrealistic playfulness, as in a reminiscence in the first lines of “Layover”: “Once, I applied / to be a horse.” The modesty of the absurd claim – calmly enjambed and sandwiched between quotidian declaratives (“my friends have moved away”) – avoids any willful difficulty. But the comic modality prevents the poem from clouding with naïve earnestness, allowing the real seriousness of the poem’s subject matter to seep slowly and clearly through.

The short lyrics in the volume, few enough in number, are of a lower caliber. “Thomas” might be the exception, with a lovely, surreal extended metaphor that is reminiscent of Charles Simic in its simplicity and strangeness:

There is an oar wedged
in your body . . .
The handle pains your ankle.
The blade looks out through
your lungs onto a warm summer field
singing with insects.

It’s as though Ulysses, on his journey inland, finally swallowed the oar in protest and futility, yet found some modicum of pleasure and communion, some way of allowing his past to influence his present without succumbing to it entirely, aware of the ankle pain of the present and not despairing but going on, creating, affirming.

Perhaps, Adamshick seems to be suggesting, we need a new mode of transportation. The airport, with its incessant layovers, doesn’t seem to take us where we want or need to go: “If only I could travel / fast enough and far enough to see what has happened.” He interrogates the poetic construction of the world, as well as how that world continues to resist us, and suggests that something akin to Kafka’s Verwandlung (metamorphosis) may be our best hope of reestablishing the link between the potentials of flight and poetry: “It’s one thing one second, / another thing another second,” he writes in “Layover.” Adamshick gently and obliquely poses poetry, not as a Yeatsian arrow shot beyond the tangible, but as an alternative for relocation and reconnection: “The moment I believe bats / sleep in their cave like a dying black fire, I know / I’ve begun my walk back to the beginning.”

Caleb Caldwell is a Ph.D. student at Washington University – St. Louis. He reads and writes about many of the usual suspects. His work, scholarly and otherwise, has been published in several print and online publications, including Religion & Literature.

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