Poetry Review by John Wall Barger

E.D. Blodgett, Apostrophes VIII: Nothing Is But You and I (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2019). Paperbound, 80 pp., $19.99.

Apostrophies VIIIIn his posthumous Apostrophes VIII, E. D. Blodgett focuses hard on interiority, the human mind or spirit, sometimes evoking a sense of praise and wisdom comparable to—albeit distinct in form from—Mary Oliver and John Coltrane. He creates trance-like rhythms, using repetitions and a sometimes-cryptic layering of ideas, to describe fragile and enchanted inner forms. Largely ignoring physical things, or surfaces, Blodgett prefers archetypes, like stars, which are always more than stars: “knowing that these were not the stars that everyone believes are stars, / but places where a universe begins before going out, / a particle of dust, perhaps as large as we might be if we / were seen by God in afternoons that are not ours to know” (“Lost”). Blodgett’s wisdom is elemental: our existence on earth is tenuous, frail, like light or dust. His whirling voice depicts humans as dreamy, disoriented, small, as if viewed by God, from a great distance.

My favorite Blodgett poems, like “Vodník”—which describes how a pond glimmers under a willow tree—strike a nice balance between literal and figurative. Yet much of Apostrophes VIII seems to exist in a solely figurative, or mental, landscape. As a reader of poems, I admit I prefer work with gravity, density, fire. I need a hint of real objects, actual people, a rooted “I” voice, a foot in the dirt. Figurative poems are great if there’s literal weight somewhere. For example, I love Wallace Stevens’ “The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician,” which begins, “It comes about that the drifting of these curtains / Is full of long motions, as the ponderous / Deflations of distance...” These curtains make me feel like I’m looking at the thing directly, not being told about it. With Stevens we sense that some parts, though in the mind, are nevertheless tactile: “ponderous / Deflations of distance” are balanced by physical curtains.

Whether the subject is dead loved ones (“Dreamt”), or a glimmering pond, Blodgett often portrays ethereal symbols—snow, flowers, birds, trees, wind, and light—through a dream lens: “... all of them who seemed / to have disappeared return, and what you think are dreams that you / might dream are those that you have loved who now dream you, but dream as trees / might dream in darkness, dreaming the world ...” (from “Dreamt”). Since all poetry exists, I think, in a kind of dream space, poems that actually mention dreams (this excerpt mentions them six times) may be understood as existing in a dream within a dream, doubly receding from the real. The accumulation of Blodgett’s airy images (“a spring / that was the all of springs,” “rain will not rain,” and so on), without specific details to distinguish them, has the effect of somebody whispering too softly, to themselves. One possible exception is “Boys”:

Father, I curse myself that when you lay upon your bed for the last
time, I should have taken you, helpless as you were, into
my arms and rocked you, as one might rock a fallen child, and sung you songs
as you had sung when you had been a boy, or told you all the stories
you told to me in my childhood so that the empty space
between the father and the child might have disappeared and in
its place nothing but a certain givingness would have taken

shape, a kind of garden where the light had no end, but where
the stars were always present, their light not overwhelmed by the sun,
and there you would have been carried, a burden so light you might
have thought you were already air—or I, neither of us knowing
who we were, like the moon new and old that carries itself
through the nights of the early month, both of us become a moon
of light and shade, hide and seek it might have been, among boys.

I love the first stanza. Father and child are flesh and blood. There’s love at stake, and guilt and human pain. The child wants to show their dying father affection (“I should have ... sung you songs”), but isn’t sure how. There’s struggle here, tension. But in the second stanza, Blodgett reverts to his floaty, liminal images. The speaker wishes the “empty space” would vanish, replaced by “a kind of garden where the light had no end.” Blodgett creates, in the poem, an alternate figurative space, where the father’s (and child’s) burden might lighten. A sweet idea, but, because he paints it by using a list of nondescript archetypes: garden, sun, air, moon, light, shade, it’s difficult to feel.

To his credit, I think Blodgett is striving to speak an eternal language. But, I admit, I prefer Blake’s brand of eternity, that dramatis personae of wild characters and drama! Blodgett, by contrast, adorns eternity with abstractions, which leave me flat. The author—by the end of Apostrophes VIII—reminds me of Eliot’s Prufrock: those first two vague lines (“Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky”), if the marvellous third line had never arrived (“Like a patient etherised upon a table”). After all, we’re not purely cerebral creatures. We’re dualistic, living in bodies. The body adds risk and drama to our days. Losing our bodies scares us. Being a patient on a table scares us. Without a body, a poem will not walk.


—John Wall Barger

As in The Malahat Review, 208, Autumn 2019