Christopher Buckley’s Modern History: Prose Poems. . . And Beyond
In Modern History, a generous collection of prose poems written from 1987-2007, Christopher Buckley self-deprecatingly mythologizes his life as poet, professor, and daydreamer. Though the mythology Buckley renders is by no means a grandiose fictionalization of his exploits; rather, a humble series of recollections spanning childhood, adolescence, middle-age, and finally looking ahead with metaphysical ruminations on mortality and the hereafter. His poems are a melange of prose, verse, memoir, political rant and philosophical essay that, taken as a whole, seem to call into question what exactly a prose poem is. Buckley, however, by such blending and conflation of genres, by juxtaposing the mundane with the transcendent, consistently refuses an easy answer, admitting that he is simply “writing a few rambling poems that I like.”
In the first section, and throughout much of the book, Buckley returns to the Edenic Santa Barbara of his youth where he felt that he was “already living in paradise.” In “The Sea Again” Buckley muses, “We filter the present through our memories of the past, and, strictly speaking, we live there.” He manages to render nostalgia for his past without sentimentality by using humor and by framing his childhood within the Catholic upbringing that he was always unable to grasp. In the book’s opening poem, “Eternity,” Buckley remembers that “death, darkness, and sure damnation were there equally for us all if we didn’t stop talking during mass and go out and finagle quarters from relatives and folks on our block for the pagan babies. Dear God.” His ability to temper the serious implications of being fear-mongered into faith with comedy demonstrates his content realization that his life could have unfurled in no other way—that it is what led him to possess the ever-present sense of awe that continues to permeate his being. Buckley seems to echo Keats' conception of negative capability by reflecting that in place of God he “accepted substitutions in the sky, and took equal parts of oxygen and doubt.” Religion instilled in Buckley wonder—the ability to be “content tossing pebbles in a pool, all the time in the world in the relay of silver ripples.”
In the book’s second section, Buckley moves onto the quotidian details of middle-age, as he expresses in a poem on low carb diets, “These days, it’s all fishes, no loaves.” In this sequence, Buckley continues to confound the prose poem by placing his individual experiences within the larger socio-political constructs that produced those experiences. Also, in “Conspiracy Theory: Low Carb Diet Conversion,” he observes, “given the pastime of organized national aggression, everyone’s blood pressure is climbing like gasoline prices.” Buckley's tendency to relate the details of his life to the world beyond him suggests that in the personal can be found the universal. In “Time Change,” a poem dedicated to Larry Levis, Buckley believes that the former's intention was to “stop time”—an exercise which pervades this book and spurs many of Buckley's mid-life meditations.
Always humble, always willing to be the butt of his own joke, Buckley addresses the unrewarding vocation of the poet, saying that “It’s like looking over the shoulder of Scott Fitzgerald as he fox-trotted with the rich in his haircut and two-toned shoes.” However, Buckley never leaves it at self-deprecation; later in this poem aptly titled, “The Assoc. Professor Crashes the Awards Program at the National Arts Club,” he takes humor and turns it into mystical longing: “I toss the confetti of another ms. into the dark to flutter momentarily like the scornful stars.” He furthers this Frank O’Hara-esque blase attitude toward his own work with “The Semiotics of Ham & Cheese,” in which he solemnly concludes, “I have not enunciated to any lasting effect, language that would move others, let alone myself.” Ironically, it is by this very denunciation of the power of his poetry that Buckley is able to pique with tenderness the dense, fibrous tissues of the human heart.
In the book’s final section, Buckley begins with a poem called, “Humility,” which again returns to his child-like affinity for the sea: “the sea is faithful to salt, consistent with a certain dust and light across the prairies, but together with the stars, quantifies next to nothing on the long list of our desires.” Such a statement expresses the continuity of childhood’s influence in adulthood and seems to be neither prose, nor philosophic verse, but something entirely Buckley’s own—an incantation of enchantment at the All, and a mocking of language's attempts to confine it.
Again, in “Buckley y Yo,” he metafictionally confronts his own shortcomings as an artist: “I’m happy a couple hundred people might see your work, but you’re not trying to tell me any of it is unique before God.” Invoking Borges, Buckley is never satisfied with introspection, but must situate such inward truths within the worlds, both literary and everyday, that envelope him. He is an island within an immense ocean of islands in the poem, “Inertia/Global Warming,” where he declares that “God doesn’t care how much we finally understand, how much sleep we lose, how many dead stars continue to reach us with their blank checks of light. We lied about the world. We ate our bread.” The mythos of Buckley is never self-contained—it is part and parcel of the often discordant music that trembles within us all.
Ultimately, Modern History is a collection that confounds genre distinctions as much as it imbues the commonplace with wonder. In one of the book's last poems, “Ineffable,” Buckley asserts that “We understand as much of the unqualifiable cosmos as our cats [...] do of the world outside our fenced yard where they are never allowed to go.” It is this very dubiousness, albeit playful, toward existence that find its correlative in Buckley’s hybridization of the prose poem. He blurs such boundaries that he himself might get beyond the inadequate confines of language when faced with the things most numinous in his world—the sea, the undersides of leaves at night, childhood, the cathedral beyond the stars, and whatever lay beyond them.