Poems by Eric Pankey
|Milkweed Editions, 2015
Reviewed by CL Bledsoe
Pankey’s collection begins with the ominously titled, “Ash.” Ashes are inscrutable remains, something that shows that there was a previous form, but reveals little about that form. “At the threshold of the dive, how to know/but indirectly,” the poem begins, establishing this theme of inscrutability. Pankey hedges, debates which image to use to express his idea, and finally settles on “a Buddha, handmade, / four meters high of compacted ash, the ash / remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer.” Of course, this icon would be delicate, as, “With each breath, the whole slowly disintegrates. / With each footfall, ash shifts. The Buddha crumbles.” The very act of approaching it destroys it. Finally, Pankey gets at the meaning of his non-meaning, “An infant will often turn away as if / Not to see is the same as not being seen. / There was fire, but God was not the fire.”
Opening with such a powerfully, purposefully non-narrative poem sets a clear tone for the collection. Many of Pankey’s poems mirror the themes and images of “Ash.” Buddhist imagery and ideals permeate the collection. Many of the poems settle onto fleeting hints of scenes and images before skittering off, tantalizing the reader with meaning and significance. Pankey has removed the poet’s ego from the poems; he crafts evocative images but rarely assigns his personal emotional stamp to them. Rather, the joie de vivre of observation is his sustaining celebration. In “Spirit Figures,” he writes, “To hew a living flame, I let the pear / dissolve into its own muddy sugars; // I mix powdered bone with seed, / toss it high, / and let each handful fall as a crow upon the snow.” He describes a scene: “A lanky fox noses at a dead hawk: / startles, backs away, circles uncertain.” And, later, returns to the image, “Alive with hunger, wired with fear, the fox, / your envoy, said nothing. / I understood.” To put it simply, Pankey is trying to suss meaning from meaninglessness. In, “When We Meet On that Beautiful Shore,” he begins, “I keep speaking so as not to disappear.” He examines many sources of supposed comfort, in life, “There is no cause, / only correspondence.” and describes, “Pleasure no greater for its deferral.” Finally, the image which hints at what it is to be alive, “The stone rests/as water moves around it.”
The title poem is a meditation on meaningfulness, or meaninglessness. In the first stanza, he describes crows settling onto a field. Then:
There must be an equation for defining
The long odds that Vesuvius would erupt
On Vulcan’s feast day, or that a baby’s birth
Beneath the fall of a comet might result
In the slaughter of a thousand innocents.
Pankey then brings us back to the crows, “The crows scavenge what they can, are efficient. // The crows, in their crow-like way, do their crow-work, / Tidy up the wreckage, the aftermath.”
Though Pankey definitely has a Buddhist bent in his poems, he also has a heavy Christian focus. He references Christian paintings in a series of ekphrastic poems—personal favorites of mine in the collection. There’s also a heart of deeply personal poems, cementing the collection. “My Brother’s Insomnia,” is one of these, immediately followed by “My Brother’s Ghost.” In Insomnia, Pankey describes the interests and fears of a young boy:
He cares little for snakes, but fears spiders more.
The recluse spider is his least favorite.
Some nights in bed, he holds his breath and is dead.
Some nights in bed he holds his breath and listens
To wind rattle the unlocked front door,
To time rustle and scratch in the attic like mice.
He cannot remember if it is summer
Or winter, if sleet or a wren pecks the window.
There’s a timeless element to Pankey’s descriptions; his brother is forever captured in this moment. In “Rehearsal for an Elegy,” Pankey gets at hard-learned truths with lines like, “After years of use the millstone is a mirror,” and, “If the past were honey / One could scrape it away / With the flat of a knife and be done with sweetness.” When Pankey considers religion, his isn’t a blind faith. As he states in “Fragment,” “What comfort to think that the great beast / Will be thrown into a lake of fire.”
Pankey’s poems remind of meditations. Many of them are titled some variation on the idea of a fragment, and work more as groupings of similar themes than coherent narratives. This isn’t, in any way, a criticism; Pankey links these themes coherently, giving his poems complexity and verve. I’ve read several of Pankey’s collections, and he continues to impress me with his exact language and his ability to get at the stuff of living an intellectual, spiritual life without coming off as didactic or overly vague.