Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, November 1, 2015

J. D. Schraffenberger, _Saint Joe's Passion_

A FIRST BOOK, frrom 2008, Saint Joe's Passion is a bit like a novel in sixty poems. Joseph Johnstone is a professional voice-over artist who discovers he has a throat cancer; the main through-line of the book concerns the diagnosis and his hospital stay for an operation, but some poems function as flashbacks to his childhood, young manhood, marriage (ended quite a while ago).

Some poems are in the first person, some in the third; all have a closed-form feel, but not fussily so. Schraffenberger seems especially attracted to a kind of unrhymed sonnet.

The poems are respectful of tradition, then, but in an unshowy way, tend to be plainspoken, rarely have anything very dramatic to offer, and in these respects they resemble the protagonist.  Joe is educated and appreciates the poems of Catullus and Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. He's a conscientious professional, but his career has lain in using his voice for words written by others, and we get the feeling that a lot of what was on his mind he never got to say. He tried to be a good husband and father but struggled to hit the right note.

He's a relatively ordinary man, then, but he is facing the final thing, so even the ordinary has a peculiar weightiness; parking in the hospital's lot, he wonders if he is unbuckling a seatbelt for the final time.

Saint Joe's Passion put me in mind of Tinkers by Paul Harding, or Ironweed by William Kennedy, understated novels that derive a lot of their strength from sheer quietness, from refraining from emphasis, whose characters acquire definition only gradually, but seem the more real for that.

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