Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bradford Tice, _Rare Earth_

ONLY VERY RARELY these days does a book of poems put me in mind of James Merrill, but this one did.  The social milieu evoked is very different--there is a poem in here about driving around in the back of Tice's dad's pickup, on the lookout for aluminum cans they can sell for seven cents per pound, a circumstance one can not even begin to imagine the young James Merrill in--but there is nonetheless something of the pre-epic-ambitions Merrill here.

There is the iambic pentameter cadence, for one thing, that lingers even though the poems tend not to be mechanically metrical.  There is the elaborate syntax, packed with subordinate clauses and absolute phrases. There is the attention to the play of light on surfaces, soft and glowing on woven ones, gleaming on metallic ones. And there is the music of the lines, a sound that gets through to you sooner than the sense of the lines does, and stays with you longer:

           the fields are banshee-dressed;
ice glinting in the ape of stars.


Along this spine of iron, slag glistens in lots of stone--
cinder-like the waste of earth when everything of use 
is melted away.

Rare Earth is Tice's first book, and a lot of it is about classic coming of age themes: memories of his childhood, of his parents and grandmother, of discovering his sexuality, of falling in love. One highlight is "Silicone," a sequence of ten sonnets juxtaposing the speaker's accompanying a transexual friend to the Silicone Ball with his reaching a watershed moment with a lover who insists, "Even gay men / should act like men."

As with Merrill, one sometimes begins to feel that the poems may be a little too civilized, a little too well-behaved, but as counterweights we have ten poems, each of ten unrhymed couplets, in the voices of various demons and devils. In the devil poems, which are spaced throughout the volume, Tice conjures up a voice startlingly different from that of most of the other poems--older ("I was here at the beginning"), wickeder ("I have slept with all of your women"), full of ominous announcements ("Once I was unique, // and for this I was wronged") and curt, mystifying imperatives ("Send me back").

There's a richness in Tice's language that we get too rarely in these austere, low-cholestrol times. I hear Merrill, but perhaps the truer source lies farther back: "In the summer of my sixteenth year, I fell in love with Auden." I was twenty-eight when it happened, but I read that line and thought, "Me, too."

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