Review of Old Heart, by Stanley Plumly
“The Crystal Eye: the ‘I’ as Prism”
by Sherry Horowitz


Old Heart, like most of Plumly’s signature work, speaks in rich and dense narratives, but in relation to his previous book, Now That My Father Lies Down Before Me, this latest collection is mellower, appropriate with the theme of ageing and accumulating wisdom. The central theme focuses on transformations; the voice taking stock of what has passed into loss and memory, with an eye to the promise of a looming afterlife. Plumly has always been a master of his craft, but what makes him a distinct force in poetry today is the mature development of a philosophy that underpins his work.

In a 1991 interview with David Bespiel for the The American Poetry Review, Plumly reveals his efforts to strive toward a certain sense of purity:
I’m writing larger poems. I’m writing wider… my poems are richer, more generous… If they are not purer, then there’s a mistake somewhere. [They are] purer in the directness of the language, its specification. The poems also have more on their minds; more present tense experience (Stanley Plumly Interview, 5).

In the following years, these ideas have grown into a terrific expansiveness and a vivid urgency in his work, but Old Heart’s purity has evolved some, and the book pares itself down into purity more by compression and distillation than sweeping expansiveness. And perhaps this was a necessary evolution because Old Heart focuses on transformations, mines old memory for new revelation, winnowing experience through rumination, reminiscence and elegy.

However, beyond this desire for purity in expression, and what makes Plumly’s voice so clear and distinct, is the orientation of the “self,” or the “I,” in his poetry. In the same 1991 interview he explains it like this:

The more you disappear, the more—this is a philosophical concept—the more you allow. The more you disappear, the more everything else can appear… it’s like the self, the body, gets in front of the camera in some way…it blocks out the view and blocks out the object or object-world which is potentially the subject. And what I’ve come to realize… is that one’s presence in the poem is inevitable anyway. But who are you there? I can think of any number of poets whose presence in their work is not particularly interesting to me, who they are is not particularly interesting to me, and who seem either too uptight, too intellectual, too entitled, too supercilious, too witty. What I’m saying is, I don’t see, as Joyce does, that the writer can stand outside the work paring his fingernails like a god. Nor inside the work playing with himself like a fallen angel (Stanley Plumly: An Interview, 5).

In “Spirit Birds,” (18), the first person voice expresses epiphany as a vision that comes from capturing images through a lens:

The spirit world the negative of this one,
soft outlines of soft whites against soft darks,
someone crossing Broadway at Cathedral, walking
toward the god taking the picture, but now,
inside the camera, suddenly still.

The attitude here toward the “self” treats the voice (and the poet) as a conduit, a lens, that shifts the point of view and creates a brilliant prismatic vision, a panoramic view of experience. This is a point of entry for the purity Plumly seeks; with the self out of the way, the spotlight is on a purity of experience, the subject, or the object-world, set within a context. In “Spirit Birds,” the object-world extends to the possibility of afterlife, where everything in the experience of a windy, winter stroll is imbued with meaning and reflection:

Autumnal evening chill, knife edges of the avenues,
wind kicking up newspaper off the street,
those ghost peripheral moments you catch yourself
beside yourself going down a stair or through
a door—the spirit world surprising: those birds,
for instance, bursting from the trees and turning
into shadow, then nothing, like spirit birds
called back to life from memory or a book,
those shadows in my hands I held surprised.

Plumly also focuses on the “present” moment of the poem, culling all the possibility of gorgeous detail available in that object-world. There is a thrilling sense of dimension, a quantum mechanics, the gnat set in the galaxy, the miniscule operating on the same plane as the grand. Subject is triumphed instead of the self; the “I” becomes the “Eye.” The voice, or persona of the poem, recognizes the significance of its setting/context, acknowledging its latent, or active, inter-connectedness to its environment. This approach is what makes the subject, or object-world universally appealing.

Such a voice is inherently selfless, unselfish, out-of-the-body (the body as the self), and lends the voice a spiritual and omniscient quality. Plumly’s poetry fosters a breathing, organic, rhizomic context, connecting and interacting deeply with the voice in the poem, and ultimately, with the reader. There is a balance between the self and the world, between intimacy and intrusion. This balance creates a space between the poet and the reader that is alluring and invites participation in the poem’s discovery. There is space enough for inquiry and association. Space creates room for movement and movement is that crucial precursor to transformation.

Perhaps what is so timely about Plumly’s vision has to do with a modern collective mindset that is a result of an Age of Information. The predicament of the modern mind is fractured; the average person inundated by information overload. Deepening this sense of fractured identity is an age of globalization, where ethnic, religious and cultural identities become cross-pollinated and greatly diluted. In a country that is a melting-pot of nationalities, where pluralism and relativism are a necessity for balancing our differences, a sure sense of identity is diminished. Plumly’s work reinvigorates the weakened sense of identity because it stems from a strong and developed sense of self that is not afraid of sitting off camera.

Whether or not the actual self is tangible or invisible in any particular poem, there is a strong sense of identity inherent in the work. Plumly’s poetry considers the framework, the context of a fractured universe. The notion of removing the self for a person with a weak sense of identity might be terrifying, but what might leave a gaping hole for some, for Plumly, such a void is an opening for vision. Plumly’s “I” is an eye that becomes a prism.

Plumly collects pieces of mosaic, through time, fractured bits of memory, and filters it back in dazzling new color. The voice has stepped out of the circle of the self, has considered beyond the walls of its own experience, becomes expansive by its recognition of the moment as it lies in concentric circles of a larger reality. This is how Plumly moves us, touches us, gives us pause, if only to cease our own movement for a moment. This how we move toward true discovery, the discovery of truth that poesy has always sought. Perhaps this is the evolution of confessional poetry today, an attempt at healing, of rebuilding, of piecing things together on a large scale. Plumly’s style of confessional poetry is elegant and dignified because it shifts away from that therapeutic poetry of personal discovery and does not rely on empathy or pity to move us. We are moved as if out of a darkened, muddled reality; we are enlightened.

When Plumly recounts his poverty stricken childhood, he re-envisions the context of the memory. He replays a scene where debt collectors come to survey his house but wistfully places Pound, Stevens, and Eliot in the memory to ease the pain of the experience. In this poem, titled “Debt,” poverty is not so painful as it educational and he imagines Stevens saying:

…The greatest poverty,

he said, is not to live within a physical world.
Great poverty is what it felt like when they [debt collectors
and his father] stood like winter itself in the middle

of the room talking figures. I was nine

or ten and twenty years from poetry, when Eliot

said imagination is different from fulfillment.

Here Plumly’s dedication to purity of experience and of the object-world create a tone that revives the memory, making it achingly vivid. Poverty is one of those subjects that falls easily into cliché, but Plumly does not make it strictly personal or pedantic. By re-imagining the frame of the memory invigorates the subject and contributes to the success of the poem.

Plumly writes about childhood, but again avoids the cliché, in a poem titled “Childhood.” Here he creates a narrative that sets abstract emotion in glittering images from the natural world. Plumly recaptures that lost feeling of being full of childhood hope and dream and includes the reader in the experience by addressing him directly in the second person. Only at the very end does the personal “I” surface, but at that point the poet has already included the reader in the experience and the “I” is personal to the reader. Here are a few beautiful excerpts:
You couldn’t keep it out. You could see it

drifting from one side of the road to the other,
watch the wind work it back and forth across
the hard white surfaces, then the oak…
…If you fell asleep you knew it could cover you,
the way cold closes on water. It could shine
like ice, inside you…
Nothing could stop it, could keep it out,
not the room in sunlight nor neutral
like the rain, not the sweeper sweeping
nor the builder building woodfires each morning,
not the wind blowing backwards without sound...
…let the clay gods circle in the fire. The body
piecemeal wastes away, the something soul
slips from the mouth, muse and sacred memory
shuts its eyes. I died, I climbed a tree, I sang.
(Old Heart 36)

The image on the book’s cover is worth mentioning; a curious heart-shaped stone, the book’s namesake, impervious yet malleable. Indeed, this is how the book reads; battered to a smooth polish, cracked and faulty, but enduring. And Plumly uses the imagery of a heart often, and in order to examine transformation, change and discovery.

In the poem “Simile,” a narrative that describes the poet’s discovery of debris on a beach, the poet infuses meaning into the objects, reconsiders their purpose by describing them within the context of hindsight of memory and in their natural order. A heart-shaped stone is “accurate to a fault” and the stone from the sea is “brought up from the bottom / again and again, split like our own hearts, / nicked from the top half down, as if in another / life it had been real, stone atrium, stone sorrow, / stone ventricles, stone arteries and veins.” The heart becomes petrified, an emotional signature, a shell shaped by the environment of its life- it is “worn into shape, swirled, half-eaten out.” The decayed carcass of a bird found on the same beach is “so rendered past resemblance, you throw it back,” and a skull is “neither human nor animal but brilliant white/ brain-coral, pitted, scalloped, furrowed/ at the brow, its stone, teardrop-shaped face / a mask for mourning.”

In the poem “Meander,” the heart is “built by source and branchings,” and the voice, (and the form of the poem), wavers in and around the imagery associated with the heart. Here botanical xylem, and split of river and vein, function as a metaphor for the often haphazard, or surprising arrival at epiphany after suffering, and particularly in this case, after heart disease. Instead of focusing on his own disease, Plumly places himself, a single organism, among a complex body of organisms that inhabit the universe. While a terrifically eloquent description of personal illness could elicit pathos in a reader, putting the context at the fore and recessing the self, the poem takes on an expansiveness that transcends personal experience.

His description meanders like the title, giving off a lyrical and dreamy beauty- “…each divided limb finding / shape / inside the air, like this rain slip-slipping down the window, / capillary, fragmentary, / bled and bleeding out , a kind of river delta, spreading…” But Plumly is not content to meander for the joy of wandering in wonder. He is mindful that a memorable statement needs a sense of urgency. Deftly and subtly, he finds the proper frisson and transforms the subject by heightening our understanding of the object-world. Here is an excerpt from “Meander:”

my heart, my spine, my cloud, the X-rays coldly spiritual, the
invisible made visible.
Of the six shapes in nature, the oval, the circle, and the hexa –
gon all close,
suggesting symmetry, endings as beginnings, the egg the
moon, the perfect snow,
geometry and physics of completion, symbols of certainty, the
formal beauty of arrival.
That loving shape of the limb on the dying elm, how far from
where it started,
still growing, even now, toward ending, the way a river and its
runoff end.
(Old Heart 58)

Plumly expresses the understandable ache of disease and mortality, while in the same instance he finds room for vitality and invigorates us by illuminating the process with crystal clarity. Such specific detail indicates a commitment to his subject that can be best described as tender and opens the mind to respect the underlying opinion of the poet. It also evokes a sense of orientation, here the wonder at being part of a mysterious and ancient life cycle. Often Plumly will not introduce the first person voice until almost the end of the poem; he carefully prepares the environment and then humbly, places himself in context.

Plumly’s fascination with airborne creatures spans his career, and at this point they are symbolic icons in his work. Birds and butterflies are abundant and represent a desire to overcome the limitation of death, or understand beyond this world into an afterlife.

In a way, the desire to break such boundaries harks back to that object-world Plumly is aware of. The fascination with flying creatures is a way to break these walls of context into transcendence.

There are numerous poems about birds or poems that incorporate birds into their imagery. Two poems about blue jays, “Missing the Jays” and “Still Missing the Jays,” where birds are symbolic of a vitality and energy: “Blue breaking the gray-white-black / of stillness, habits of silence— / what’s missing are their fierce / collective tempers.” and “Such obvious, quarrelsome, vivid birds / that turn the air around them crystalline. / Such crows, such ravens, such magpies! / Such bristling in the spyglass of the sun.” (Old Heart 30, 32)

Birds represent the desire for flight and freedom from earthly tethers. They represent inexplicable beauty and mystery. Most importantly, flying creatures represent movement; that internal movement Plumly wants to stir deep within our gut.

In a poem “Audubon Aviary,” (82) Plumly describes artist and ornithologist John James Audubon’s paintings and journal entries. The language is lyrical and specific-“to watch a spectral whooper /lift into dance, or a rare / snowy owl glide among the trees / is to almost miss the moment / and have to bring it back / diminished as a memory.” It is apparent that Plumly has gone to considerable lengths researching the object and its world in this poem. The study of ornithology, or artistic dedication to a subject, is conveyed with deep understanding and in great detail. Art is seen as a way to record memory or, that memorializing can be turned into an art-form. The poem articulately expresses a fascination with mortality, and man’s desire to capture the transient and exhilarating moments of living beauty; “Art, again indifferent to the life inventing it” and “nothing will hold the moment / save the kill. Audubon’s silences, / his dark articulate stillnesses / are what we have against what / we’ll remember…”

Consider a poem such as Butterflies. Here, delicate creatures take on the impossible task of living, surviving, and being reborn. With gorgeous and minute detail, Plumly expresses purity and specific language. The attention to the subject conveys a mood of such tenderness that it disarms the reader with its raw and natural beauty. Here again, Plumly places the “self” in perspective- the “I” is set aside and not apparent in the voice of the poem. The precise placement of the self, (both the poet’s and the reader’s), allows the metaphor to appear in stark relief. His control of lyrical language is subtle and deft, and buries the metaphor in its lyrical qualifiers. We hardly notice a thing before we are taken:

Inevitably alchemy, the lesser into the greater,
morphing to the pupa stage, the chrysalis,
but faster, the cuticle of skin sloughed off,
regrown, and shed again, each larval, instar
meta phase passing through more molting lives
than saints—five, six times before the final birth,
then into the light, like eyes wadded up, then slowly,
with the blood, wings opening. Opening and closing.
For those that fly like birds, at least four inches
tip to wingtip, continent to continent, Emperors,
Monarchs, Giant Swallowtails, large enough to feed
like leaves along the branches or be the blown leaf
drinking from the dung pool hoofprint in the mud—
size the compensation and camouflage for color.
For those that fly the garden, in graduated light,
like those that live inside us, smaller, different
distances, in colors just arrived at by pigment
or reflection, tiny scales of forewings and hindwings
overlapping, colors the secret shadings of the sun—
dawn yellows, blood oranges, fritillary reds, gentian
blues, each slighter than a whistle blade, like
hummingbirds seen through, Flame Coppers, Streak
Indigos, White Bruise, intensity at once-in-a-
lifetime brightness, Brightness at the flower
finding food, inside the maul and marl of the mouth
— (Old Heart 17)

We are aware of how fragile these creatures are, their tentative existence, and their impossible survival. Plumly builds the imagery with cunning, the description is so sensually overwhelming it acts as a decoy that softens the mind to discovery. Luminous detail is a segue for the reader to consider the underlying belief that there does exist an afterlife (“regrown, and shed again, each larval, instar / meta phase passing through more molting lives / than saints—five, six times before the final birth”), and secondly, that pain can be a glorious necessity toward transformation (“…White bruise, the once-in-a / lifetime brightness, Brightness at the flower / finding food, inside the maul and marl of mouth—”). This is the trickiest sort of writing, but Plumly presents his underlying opinions without rhetoric or argument.

Plumly’s handling of the first person narrative, (persona or personal), makes a comfortable environment for dialogue and diminishes that instinct to validate or judge the authenticity of the poet’s voice. Leaving the self at the side of experience, the voice is less “self-important,” and counter-intuitively, carries more weight, authority and confidence. The disappearance of the “I” intimates a universal condition, set in a universal context. Plumly earns our trust because he doesn’t assume intimacy with the reader; he is aware of how context interacts with subject. Using the second person voice can feel presumptive, intrusively intimate and can alienate the reader. Plumly’s sense of self creates a voice that is sensitive and does not take its position as a poet for granted. There is a supremely intelligent and humble mind at work here and Old Heart is much wiser for it.