Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Mindfulness: The 50th Year of Poet Eric Pankey

Eric Pankey, born in 1959, is not quite 50. Yet the body of his work has grown through seven substantial collections, and Ausable Press is bringing out for him THE PEAR AS ONE EXAMPLE: NEW & SELECTED POEMS -- officially due out in April, but probably ready early in February. Hurrah!

Wrapping up a month of residency at the Vermont Studio Center (Johnson, VT), Pankey assigned himself a career-spanning reading for yesterday's public event in the campus lecture hall. He chose to work backward: from the new poem "Between Wars," a grim narrative with a mass grave at its heart, all the way to the work he was doing in his twenties.

Pankey reads with a slow, quiet voice that leaves room for intense attention. He moves inexorably toward truth, though his paths and poems often ramble -- in RELIQUARIES he offered a set of poems where each was comprised of four sections, five lines in each, with connections among them that fuse into powerful conclusions. In effect, the sections create a table setting in which to center the offering. Or maybe I should say, an altar.

For Pankey's quests explore sacrifice, loss, anger, and faith. From the Buddhist "mudra" symbolic gestures to the difficulty in believing our own dead will rise again, he braids threads of spirit and soul into the poems.

Monday night, he offered two poems that included his college roommate George ("August Notes"; "The Back-Story"), then a potent pounding lyric work called "The Narration of Rain" (and I apologize for the formatting here, which can't give the indents that his pages do):

The Narration of Rain

Rain blows through the pines. Rain rattles water oak leaves. Rain on
the stone chime.
Rain quick in rivulets and gullies. Rain on the river's broad back.
Rain amid rain.
Rain fretting the rusty clay. Rain at a slant. Rain every which way but
Rain overflows the gutters. Rain marbles the picture window. Rain's
slips, stumbles, sluices.
Rain in the corn crib. Rain in the trough. Rain blows through the


The crow carries a bauble in its break—something dully reflective—
And drops it onto the path of leaf mulch ahead, caws once, and
lumbers up and low
Over the gauze of gnats, where wild blackberry overruns the unused
train tracks.
I will leave the trinket for another to find.
I sidestep the omen. Ignore
the oracle.
Having learned nothing from Sophocles as I put one foot in front of
the other.


"Assyrians," the husband said, "are the first to use images to narrate."
(I eavesdrop in museums, a bad habit, I know, but one I prefer not to
set aside.)
The wife—I have assumed they are married, long married—nods yes.
"In archaic art," he says, "human faces are a blank.
Emotion is given
to the hunted animals."
She furrows her brow and nods yes. Dubious. Holding back some


I have never heard the nightingale, nor beheld the manzanitas;
I know nothing of the gods; their tedium, their melancholy, their
blood's leaden sludge.
But I have made a narration of rain as it blows through the pines, as
it slips, stumbles, and sluices;
The rain as a scattered body; the rain as shape-shifter; the rain as
The rain on the face of the hunter and on the sorrowful face of the

He cruised through "Epitaph," which is an elegy for Hart Crane -- in Pankey's words, "a very troubled poet who wrote some of the most wonderful failed poems I have ever read" - then exposed his "History," his response when asked for a 9/11 poem a mere few weeks after American's traumatic invasion.

Here is "The Kingdom of God Likened to a Deer Carcass," which was printed with an epigraph from Bob Dylan. Pankey wrote it when in his thirties.

What the crow abandons, worms relish.

If I stare long enough at these remains
I will imagine a kingdom undone:

Surveyed. Staked off. Limestone and ivory.
A cathedral built upon a temple.

This bone a buttress. That one a crossbeam.
Every altar stone bloodless and sun-bleached.

Every chapel floor swept clean by the wind.
For now, wind shudders the collapsing ribs,

Swirls up a mote of fur like milkweed silk,
And touches the ruin intricately.

What the wind forsakes, dogs will drag away.

As Pankey pressed further through his early work for the engrossed audience of writers and visual artists, he noted the appearance of "dysfunctional family" in such elegiac pieces as "Lines in Memory of My Father" and "In Memory" [of his mother]. A sympathetic listener in the front row murmurred, "All poets have dysfunctional families." But as we notice here in rural Vermont, if you add some air and some time to a heap of manure, you end up with fabulous compost -- and Pankey brings from his loss the concluding lines, "The body apart from the spirit is dead, / but that does not mean the spirit is dead."

The further back his poems went, the more concrete Pankey's narratives seemed last night. Then, as if to wrap the circle back to its recent, more space-threaded work, he read a freshly drafted piece from his Vermont stay, titled "The Repeated Image." It began with fragments of thought and image, flicking gently over the surface of the winter's gray integument.

The thing is: There was a subtle, quiet magic in Pankey's reading. By the time he'd painted "gray" in lines and twists of narrative, it looked a lot more like silver: glistening, gleaming, rubbed to a soft tenderness that spoke of what can grow out of griefs and losses, after all.

[Pankey photo by Clare Atkinson-Pankey]

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