Jeff Gundy’s new book of poems is described on the cover as “sprawling,” “ambitious,” “probing and expansive.” I would add “roving and restless,” as Gundy ranges over a myriad of philosophies, meditations of the mind and religious influences — Jesus to Rebecca Solnit, Emerson and Daniel Kauffman — in the same poem.
These poems are on the move, from island getaway to the gravel roads the poet bikes, always thinking, always trying to make sense of the world, the mind never still.
In the final section, “The Boy Who Listened Too Hard,” the poet returns often to the simple childhood that grounded him, with full knowledge of his loss of innocence. “Lessons of a Gentle Childhood,” from which the book’s title comes, finds that “many lost things are visible.”
The Mennonite poet imagines a time when he could sing “Just as I Am” without switching in his head to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The essence of living awhile is just this phenomenon — a cluttered mind that juxtaposes seemingly unrelated things in its own inane way.
The poem produces a mashup of the way lines collide in the head: “just as I am/thine own to be, silhouetted by the sea, without/a single plea, hey, hey, I am weary, play another song/for me . . .” The well-known hymn used for altar calls has become the poet’s plea for another song: “play ‘The Boy Whose Eyes Are Still Closed’ ” is the ironic final line of the book. Remember the evangelist’s command, “Every head bowed, every eye closed”?
The final poem suggests Dylan Thomas’ oft-quoted lines, “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
This book is about time’s passage. Maybe all poems are about time. But here is a different time, a different stage in life, for the poet.
The 54 often prosey poems frequently come with epigraphs, sometimes humorously titled, like “Gundy Puzzles Over His Failure to Change His Name or Take Off to New York City to Become a Songwriter.”
Recurring themes I found intriguing included:
— Writing as defiance. “There are probably enough poems in the world.” Yet he writes more.
— Loss of friends and aging. “A Gap in the Fence” references the loss of Gregg, potter friend and neighbor, documenting the poet’s grief over our human inadequacy to save anything from decay, the neighbor’s shed or his life: “There’s a gap in the fence where the shed used to be.”
— Recognition of privilege. In “September: 9 Variations,” the poet is stymied, ready to plagiarize himself as he searches for inspiration: “All this in the prison of privilege, one modestly tedious day after another. Every day I hear of a new poem, a new book, by somebody diverse in one of six or seven ways that I am not. I read some of these, and love some of them. What’s left to say?”
In a poem titled “Privilege,” the poet acknowledges he drives a $500 bike, that the people he loves “have mostly not been shot by strangers, starved in camps, or hounded from their homes by deranged fanatics” as he tries to make sense of his privileged life.
Gundy recognizes that in 2019 writing is an act of defiance, especially for an aging white male. The poem ends with the privilege the poet cherishes: quiet, choice and solitude: “The house was quiet. I went down to the quarry, listened to the geese and catbirds, read the names of the veterans on the sign near the street. A yellow leaf fell at my side. A fish surfaced and sank.”
Tortured by the recognition of his own privilege, yes, but not without a reverent gratitude for what is.
The restlessness I sensed in this book was in its assessment of the moral tenor of our times — and of Gundy’s personal time, his stage in life. There is an undercurrent of disappointment in the world coupled with Gundy’s signature refusal to understand the world, the puzzlement that has always been his gift as a poet.
The grace he achieves is that he keeps trying, keeps driving onward, on his bicycle, walking, restless, wandering. “For years I’ve loved the notion of being lost”; or “How many turns of the pedals and the legs in a mile ride, a day’s ride, a life?”
The saving grace in Without a Plea is the writer’s attention to beauty, the experiences of serendipity to be found in the natural world. The opening poem, “Plain Advice,” is the key to many of the poems in this collection: “Look down the road till it’s all mist and fumes:/of course your journey is impossible.”
And later, in the same poem: “beauty is like God, mystery/in plain sight, silent, hesitating in leaves and the shadows of leaves.”
If Richard Rohr is right that the original scripture is the natural world, these poems are scriptural; for example, the magpie where it shouldn’t be on Highway 221. In “Meditation with Creatures and Late Sun” this appreciation: “So many lovely spaces on this earth,/so many creatures together and apart,/ orca pods in the Strait of Georgia/with whale boats on every side.”
Or, these lyric lines that end “The Listener at the Conference on Peacebuilding, or Playing the Spider”(begun with an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s “Noiseless Patient Spider” — “Till the bridge you will need be form’d”): “Sometimes the silence of mourning is all we can offer. Can we eroticize peace?/Everything is connected, but not even the wind harp can say exactly how./ To build soil from dust and ashes./To argue with God and the world as it is./To notice the groundhog and let it be.”
Ah, here is the bridge in both the word and the silence.
Raylene Hinz-Penner is a writer and lecturer emerita at Washburn University and a member of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kan.