Everywhere West by Chris Green
Mayapple Press, 2019 (forthcoming). 70 pages.
Reviewed by Ralph Hamilton
Childhood—the joy and wonder of his daughters’ singular spirits, braided between the asperity of the poet’s own rearing, echoed in his fear for their futures—stands at the heart of Chris Green’s fourth book of poems, “Everywhere West.” With startling acuity, straightforward language which suddenly takes lyrical flight, and often umbral humor, Green’s poems meditate on the pain and beauty of family life, on fatherhood and mortality, on our national myths, the loss of innocence, and on finding the balance of mind between palpable blessings amid ongoing peril.
Rather than lofty decree, “Everywhere West” begins with a quiet, tentative avowal: “Small things in this world are mine,” soon exemplified by “My daughters, two ungrown girls / perfect in substance like lightning / and sea carrying on.” A few poems later, he again presents the kind of resonant marvel parents regularly witness:
Callie plays “Silent Night”
on the piano.
Lydie sings “Ring of Fire”
on her ukulele.
Their duet a furious,
headache, a disturbing dream—
children who keep appearing
one a flower,
one a flame.
Yet soon we sense that beneath the father’s delight and the daughters’ startling talents, a more complex and worrisome reality exists:
Lydie at the dinner table, the prophet of what is not talked about:
“When I grow up, I’m going to be a nonalcoholic.”
Likewise, in “Praise Poem,” a seeming domestic reverie, instead recounts one daughter’s near fatal encounter with a car on their street. A later poem about the burial of a beloved guinea pig provokes an unsettling assessment of the pet: “a thing without treachery, // a soft target.”
Woven between the paeans and worries of fatherhood are troubling memories of the poet’s own family life.
I remember once my dad kicked me hard & high
into a gorgeous Utah morning. His legs kept going up and up
(he was a professional punter of sons).
This and other factors in the poet’s childhood established a watchful appreciation for the contradictions seemingly woven into the fabric of reality. Thus he writes, “All of my boyhood lost, something uncanny about how I stood witness.” Again and again, what the boy sees and hears renders him mute: “I sat / with the dog and talked, but the talk was / stroking her warm fur. I watched my Mom smoke. / I couldn’t speak it. ”
The reader begins to realize that the world the poet presents is not stable or singular, not a world in which a danger is simply a danger, or a blessing merely a blessing. Even goodness is not necessarily rewarded. Meanings are often multiple and contrary. Both confirming and denying its own implications, “The Broken Hawk,” tells of a simple, kind boy who takes in a badly wounded hawk and nurses him. “You can’t repair a wing,” the poem declares. Yet,
By fall the hawk was something deadly again.
In firm wind, it flapped a curve across the mountain,
left him in a blaze of darkness unpacified, thankless.
Similarly, in the fearful afterglow of an MRI, as the poet’s mind races about what the test will reveal, he realizes, “Obliviousness is what you miss, and this feeling // is continuous and teasing.” Even after counting his blessings, intensified by “his daughter’s accumulated glow,” his mind returns to darker thoughts:
Since life is deadly, this morning you remember Africa
where thousands of flamingoes like pink flames
ring a lake above which dark eagles wait.
The miracle of growth and transformation with its inherent dangers continue to bedevil the father’s imagination:
Lately, each morning,
you present yourself
conscious of your hair,
the slope of your shoulders.
You are transformation.
You are on the brink.
Days you will be wounded to the heart.
Within this textured and bracing reality, the reader delights continually at Green’s ability to embed deep emotion within his descriptions, such as his mother’s room where he observes, “The sad ceramics / of her clowns stained with dull suffering, the yellow scars of stuffed bears.” Or, after watching his father watch his own father die, the poet reveals,
under the boughs of the hospital’s trees,
we were strangers in a poem, the sun beating
Green’s dark humor is never far away, as when he reports a story of “rich boys” tormenting a caged tiger named Tatiana:
Imagine them sniggering, strutting away like gold medal winners in the Little Arrogant Prick Olympics …they turn a corner and in what must have been an unhysterical man-caught-in-a-dilemma-he-cannot-understand kind of scene—Tatiana was standing there, waiting.
Later in the same poem, he suggests, “they stunk like ruined movie stars.”
Despite his unstinting candor, Green also has an unusual ability to avoid taking himself too seriously, often mixing the farcical with the profound, as when, as a young man on vacation in Hawaii with his family, an ocean wave rips off his swimsuit:
To be undressed by the sea is to suddenly stir in some prenatal sleep.
I could have called out,
but I looked around and saw only history—my aunt, uncle, brothers,
and parents, our bad relationships and cruelties. I almost felt persecuted.
My family there, pressing against each other pointing,
their concern purple as a bruise.
In the long, seemingly Whitmanesque travelogue from which the book takes its title, Green locates himself with characteristic humility as both witness and participant. But this “road song” quickly discloses itself as “a lullaby of grimy machinery.” Neither triumphant nor salvific, the country it crosses is mostly lonely and haunted and played out like “withered shopping malls”:
Before us nothing but speed. From old AZ
the whole loneliness of the Southwest
builds a bright twilight and the great tangled
road where the sea used to be
is terribly shaky country running down
[Later in the poem…]
The world will forget us anyway.
America goes on—the long throat of the Mississippi
lost between the turnpike and the lawyers’ signs
looming among the locust trees, toward
` some dark church below the chemical hills…
By turns rapturous and elegiac, the pattern of wrestling with his own darkness in the presence of the radiant light of his wife and daughters persists throughout “Everything West.” Still, in the penultimate poem, about finding a mother deer with her fawn in his yard, Green acknowledges the hard-won balance he has found—what might be described as a mindful adult joy.
I go as near as I dare,
Find the courage to reach slowly down.
Unafraid, the deer-child rises to console me.
It’s what a daughter can give.
She is a source. Language can’t make her.
In the end, I am nothing more.
Though the word “redemption” is never used in the book, the journey of “Everywhere West” is indeed a pilgrimage of deliverance. In the face of a shrill and troubled time, it shines as a mature and deeply moving testament to the consolations and redemptive power of domestic love.
Ralph Hamilton is editor of RHINO. With an MFA in Poetry from Bennington, his poems have appeared in Court Green, CutBank, Pirene’s Fountain, Blackbird, The Ilanot Review, and elsewhere. He judged Fifth WednesdayJournal’s (FWJ) poetry prize in Fall 2013, and served as FWJ’s guest poetry editor in 2014. He also co-edited the debut volume of Glass Lyre Press’s Aeolian Harp Anthology in 2016. His first book of poems, Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015) was listed among the top 10 poetry books of 2015 by a committee of the American Library Association, and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. In 2015 Ralph was also nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize. Ralph is currently working on his second book, Faster, Daddy!