It’s been a decade since Brian Blanchfield’s last book, Not Even Then, but his newest collection, A Several World, feels like a long-awaited poetic grail. The poet, essayist and former University of Montana poetry professor has a remarkable talent for connecting language and ideas in mercurial ways. With signature verve and an impeccable ear, Blanchfield’s newest lyrics are just as daring and robust as before, but with greater sensitivity and reach. One other big difference: Not Even Then was a city poet’s book, while A Several World is a book of playfully sculpted eclogues and town-and-country ruminations tethered to a more tactile world. It’s a book of pastoral poems. We can start there.
An eclogue is, traditionally, a poem in which two shepherds converse. Although only four poems in A Several World are eclogues by name, all of the poems in the book seem to encounter or reveal a shepherd of some kind (or several): each idea, figure or allegory is shepherded by something else. Blanchfield’s poetry plays with a flirtatious call-and-response between subject and object, an erotic come again between lover and beloved, and a constant, elaborate sensing between landscape and inhabitant. These poems bob, dart and skid on the surface of this provisional tension between whatever’s underway and whoever’s expressing it. The relationship between the pair is propositional, and proposition is playful. In the beginning of “Pterytium,” for example, he proposes a cheeky postcard view of rural conditions and outlook:
“Hallmark meteorology: a little what-if weather/ sworn over time to the ridgeline conditions/ the basiners downvalley to the lucky look/ of trouble. In an updraft apprehension/ replenishes the cloud, a steady sort of borrowing/ against promise. Welling at bottom, a slow spring fills/ centrally where it plummets, a sump and font that fills/ convexity out to its inky meniscus...”
Whichever subject each poem takes on—ducks enraptured by a goose, modernist Italian art in down-home Charlotte, chat-dating websites, Reformation-theologians Calvin and Luther as lovers, teenagers getting stoned in Missoula—they offer lavish studies of language overheard in everyday life.
The third section of A Several World, “The History of Ideas,” departs from the rest of the book, like a sort of outpost or mini-collection within the larger framework. This section contains some of the most acrobatic poems, and is Blanchfield at his most versed and virtuosic, ironic and bedeviling. The other three sections are composed mostly of the sorts of pastoral eclogues that make the collection the ambulatory and conversational book it is. These are poems chiefly about place and situation, excited by encounter and incident. “No place is dangerous” as Blanchfield notes in “Edge of Water, Nimrod Falls, Montana,” because, “The situation arrives/ as we do.” They are poems that dip into the pastoral’s long history of eroticism (particularly homosexual eroticism) with theatrical invention and an attentiveness to the natural world. In “The Inversion,” a poem reeking of Missoula, Blanchfield invents a suspenseful situation in a familiar natural landscape:
Through the truckstop fudge of mascara,
threat or ecstasy having subsided, through
either diner window, time
to decide, while he’s in the men’s,
the dead, tall tangle of mallow in cheat grass
and common tansy
barely stirs in the opposite lot,
and beyond, farther still from the overpass
the steers like gurus
move despair around.
This enchanting mix of naturalism and muscular musicality—his alliteration and well-crafted asides—brings to life a landscape in which several realities coexist. In the last poem of the book, “Edge of Water, Moiese, Montana,” the lived and the created not only overlap but multiply: “…Rake your face cheek to jaw/ with broken mica, and the moth traffic/ triples at your back. Is that a fact?”
In Brian Blanchfield’s world it is.
Brian Blanchfield reads from A Several World at Shakespeare & Co. tonight, Wed. April 16, at 7 PM along with Alice Bolin who reads from her book Motel Diary. Free.