Review of Auroras, a collection of poems by David St. John

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, shines above Bear Lake; United States Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang

Photo by Joshua Strang

Even before opening Auroras, the latest collection of poems by David St. John, I immediately thought of Wallace Stevens’ “Auroras of Autumn”—his personal ruminations about a poet facing death and the limitations of the individual imagination. Harold Bloom said of it: “Watching the auroras, Stevens re-enacts the central Romantic confrontations between the power of a poet’s mind and the object-world or universe of death.”

But the poems in St. John’s collection reside beyond this crisis, where phenomena contain the imagination rather than the imagination containing the phenomena, where we triumph over death, for the time being, with red strawberries in a white ceramic bowl. Stevens felt afraid and powerless. St. John is quietly observant in a neo-Buddhist acquiescence to change, fate, purposelessness, and death. Indeed, in the first poem, “The Lake,” the poet proclaims:

          What’s given to us    however dulled & undeserving we remain

          Is beyond our reckoning

St. John is not afraid to take as his subjects the regretfully typical occasions of death, violence, prurience, leavings, depression, suicide, incest, and disintegration of relationships—reduced and detached by Stevens in his pantomime in the sky.

No doubt the most chilling poem in the collection is “From a Bridge,” in which a boy observes his mother killing herself by jumping in a river. I don’t know if this act or any of the other situations portrayed in Auroras, is grounded in St. John’s own experience, so to me this is a conflation and reworking of Stevens’ two rather detached women in “Auroras of Autumn:” the symbolic but impotent mother in the theater of childhood who sings half-hearted, and the lover who might next spring be hanging (dead) in the trees. By adding the boy’s perspective, St. John anchors Stevens’ “ideas” in a cutting, real-life tragedy.

The tragedies and disappointments in this book are what they are, defying any greater significance. Refusal to bestow meaning is represented in “Without Mercy, the Rains Continued,” where the persona receives in the mail a cassette tape on which an old lover, decades earlier, had secretly recorded (under their bed) a conversation in which she asks something of him and he responds with silence.  He decides to respond to this missive, again, in silence.

One of the more poignant poems in the crux of the book is “Human Fields” which portrays a killing field where thousands of war or genocide victims are buried, sometimes reaching their hands or shin bones up from the ground, announcing a “new order” (as opposed to the order imposed by the woman’s song across the port in Stevens’ “Idea of Order in Key West”)…

          As if some heaven of actual memory
          Had begun to radiate at last beyond

         The cold & actual sky

Stevens’ poem hinges between cantos VII and VIII, at the transfer of power from “flippant communication” to a “time of innocence.” Such a crossing from the act of explication to the act of mere offering is remarkably represented in St. John’s “Reckless Wing,” where one person swoops away with her arm all the ephemera (newspapers, coffee cups, toast rinds) positioned on the kitchen table between herself and the persona, and locks his gaze in hers “to make/Plain another new beginning.”

The Romantic confrontation that Bloom refers to is represented in Shelley’s conceptualization of the imagination imposing meaning on the silence and solitude of Mt. Blanc—and in St. John’s “The Empty Frame” where the persona recalls

          The story of a boy who’d lie

          At night in those fields believing
          A world beyond always awaited

          Restless in its insistent music

But the grown boy has returned to his childhood home (the cold, dry white cabin of Stevens’ “Auroras”) to find something very different. Although the house has been razed, he mounts the destinationless concrete stoop and imagines seeing through the missing kitchen window frame Stevens (I like to think) writing by the lamplight that guided him there. He asks Stevens, “When did you first know I’d come back [to your aesthetic]?”

And in the following poem, “Late Offerings,” we find the luminescent celestial serpent of Stevens’ “Auroras” snaking up the face of the poet who enjoins the muse to

          Release me to

          The presence
          Of the present.

          Its difficult passage
          Its steep ascent

          The shale-splintered
          Cirrus-scaled aperture of

          Phantasmagoric sky

St. John has entered Stevens’ cabalistic theater of the Sublime, but wishes to be “released” to the present where real things happen to real people and we all make something different—and inscrutable—of them.  Light snakes, like Stevens’ boreal serpent, through his final hymns, imposing its caprice on the inner necessity of the poet.

Overall, the poems in Auroras glow like their namesake, pulsating with the light of their unique place on the color spectrum, but they pound brilliantly in the last section, “The Auroras.”

This section begins with dawn, a sign of cyclical immortality painfully missing from Stevens’ “Auroras.” The first aurora, “Dawn Aurora,” is a direct response to and departure from Stevens’ auroras and Shelley’s Mt. Blanc and his West Wind—even from Whitman’s blades of grass—and a reassurance that his forefathers’ art is as brilliant as the lights of the sky yet lasting, spanning the generations of poets:

          …Look to your sons, look to your daughters,
          Look to the blades rising out of the dark lawn. Don’t worry;
          each of your myths remains emblazoned upon the air. The way
          the wind moves across the vellum of the mountain,
          as the silence lifts its chords from the old piano. In the still dark
          & still uncertain dawn, there begins that slow revelation larger
          than the mind’s, as the light grows coronal, & the house fills
          with those elaborate agendas of the day. The monastery & philosophy—
          this morning, both seem so far away.

St. John’s “Autumn Aurora” reflects understanding of the cast of illusory characters in the beginning of Stevens’ “Auroras of Autumn.” An apostrophe to the reader follows, where the poet defines himself in Stevens’ terms: priest of the Sublime, extremist, illusionist, playing to the reader on his dulcimer, helping her discover what seems impossible—the fragrance of the moon.

The poems of Auroras, collectively, are offerings in the dawn beyond Stevens’ autumn auroras. They give to us the present, ordinary circumstances, in indifferent observance, yet with the language and artistry needed for the reader to create her own significance, her hope, her consolation—and a reassurance that there’s nothing to “understand” in circumstance, in death or destiny, like there was in the superstitious days of yore.

In the coda, “Dark Aurora,” the persona responds to a beautiful letter from “you” (the reader or Stevens, perhaps) only “with the poor reflex of intellect” (which is what I am doing here, I guess). Yet the intellect is incapable of shedding any light. St. John’s auroras end as did Stevens’, as do all natural pursuits insofar as they are conceived: in the darkness of the extinguished sky, the darkness of midnight ink, the darkness of death.

About Ruth Zamoyta

Communications strategist, project manager, épée fencer, poet.

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