Celebrated local poet George Keithley pushes into the cosmos in his new book The Midnight Train
In a spirit of full disclosure The Midnight Train, Chico poet George Keithley’s new book, is accurately subtitled “36 Short Poems.” The pieces are indeed short, many 20 words or fewer, one called “Death” a mere 12.
A busy man is a dead tree—
His hands are shaking constantly.
Yet the poems are not epigrams, aphorisms, imitation haiku or sound bites; and if the music is brief, the subject is vast—our relation to the cosmos. And far from having the literal last word or encapsulating experience in self-satisfied wit, the poems push out, suggest, tantalize and provoke, walking the edge, which Gary Snyder claims poetry must follow, “between what can be said and that which cannot be said.” And by presenting rather than explaining, the author seems to observe Chekhov’s sage advice to cut your openings and endings, because that’s when you’re most tempted to lie.
Though wonderfully “accessible” (as we say), the poems are both subtle and “traditional” but not in an obvious, homegrown way.
The flowers whirl away
In the wind like snow.
The thing that falls away
The lines (which should be recalled each spring as the breeze scatters the almond petals) aren’t Keithley’s, rather Kenneth Rexroth’s rendering of a poem written by a Japanese prime minister in the 13th century. The shift between the immediate and the universal, the specific and the limitless—a passing so matter-of-fact yet so swift and astounding—is the East’s gift to modern Western verse. Tu Fu, the great poet of the T’ang Dynasty, begins a meditation gazing “out into / Endless spaces” and ends, a few lines later, with a tree “full of crows.”
So Keithley in “Delight” opens in outer space and comes quickly and truly down to earth.
A white night—the moon
thinks it’s a lake
frozen for the delight
of skaters in love.
We link arms, glide on.
In the same way “Memory” tells us
The hour is late. Starlight pours
like rain through the storm-torn
roof of the covered bridge
over Lost Child Creek again.
And as creek and bridge are linked with the stars, the title and last word link past and present.
Sometimes the shift is gradual—a cinematographer’s pan shot. In “Among the Leaves,” the opening piece, we move from bird cries to silence, and from the stars gleaming “far but clear” among elm leaves, through deepening dusk, to the starlight on rocking buoys, concluding
… we’re happy to be walking here
on the bottom of the sea.
Which pulls everything together with a pleasurable jolt, reminding us that, as Snyder also says, in a certain sense no one is ever alienated (even in Lost Child Creek).
Such is the lesson of The Midnight Train, but it’s not entirely comforting or cause for sentimentality. Keithley’s poetry works against separation, keeps linking us with the stars and moon, and repeatedly invokes darkness, night, snow, dusk and shadows, all of which obscure distinctions and unite (though there are plenty of diurnal subjects too and even “eternal sun"). In “The Bridge,” the beloved’s presence turns the poet’s own words into an enduring and triumphant link ("No amount of traffic wears away / their dumb weight"), inspiring him to explore metaphor, which is itself a kind of “bridge.”
We belong, then, walking the bottom of a sea whose surface is the stars, but it is easy to misunderstand this sometimes harsh and beautiful truth. In “This Spring” the poet, traveling by train, hears “Voices I hadn’t heard for more than a year.”
When I was a boy often I would lie
looking at the near night sky,
unaware of the arrangements of the stars
until they told me:
You know who you are, you know
this is not your home. Why are you here?
We belong, yes, but we don’t always believe it, forgetting that, like everything else that has its season, we have our coming into being and our falling away, and so, as if to remind us, the world of the poems is overwhelmingly rural and mostly eludes contemporary obsessions and causes. Are we really in 2001? “Traffic” is mentioned twice, but there is no talk of automobiles. Trains appear—in the title poem and a couple of other places—but the Industrial Revolution keeps pretty much off stage. We hear of New Orleans, Des Moines and the Chicago River, and mounted police try to break up a political demonstration, but it might be 1968 or 1868 or some other era. The word “city” occurs only twice—once in a title and once as metaphor.
All of which is not to say that these poems, written over the years in a variety of moods, are a consistent and systematic working out of some worldview. Like all poetry of any complexity, they contain tensions, polarities and contradictions, and if they are often thoughtful, even contemplative, they can also be whimsical and funny. Sometimes, as in “A Song for New Orleans,” they are content just to sing.
Oh, the wine’s fine
but listen, you drink too
damn much, I drink too damn
much fine wine eating
salty fish, we have to
get out of this place—
I can’t whistle
you can’t kiss
eating salty fish.
Sometimes, too, they are unabashed love poems, though love is instructive, and its union entangled with greater unities.
You have taught me why
we no longer require the night
to know darkness.
like the stars we are born
with one fear
In any case, we are never far from time’s winged chariot, recreated as the relentless “midnight” train, whose boarding ensures our getting off, and we are frequently reminded of our place, role and destiny.
Praise now the god who taught leaves all their songs.
Who made an ancient music walking in the weeds.
Who whistles soft when death has filled the lungs
of lovers with nesting birds; our eyes with restless seeds.
The music is “ancient,” all right, and contemporary too, and if the book pays its respects to modern verse, to Walt Whitman and other influences, the sensibility revealed suggests at times the Psalms likening a thousand years to a watch in the night or to the grass that flourishes in the morning and in the evening is cut down.
Nor is death here Whitman’s “delicate” summoner, and readers who think that poets can be neatly classified and reduced to basic terms might compare Midnight‘s stunning and almost literally chilling end with the great “after this life” finish of Keithley’s most celebrated work. The Donner Party closes with a transcendent vision of spring, warmth, fire and rebirth, but in “Getting Off the Midnight Train” the poet asks the question the stars asked him.
How long was it snowing?
I must have slept
for hours. Beginning,
finally, to clear,
in the scoured sky.
And everywhere the wind
hard-edged as ice
has formed, row upon row,
deep frozen drifts.
Oh god, what am I