Stanley Plumley sounds more like a Yorkshire shop-keeper than an American poet, but names are deceptive. He’s one of their best. Plumley is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and published by CCC - an imprint of HarperCollins publishing. Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me is a collection of new and selected dating from 1970 to 2000. It’s arranged in reverse chronological order because the publishers want you to read from the new poems back to the ones he started out with. I tried to read it like that, but found myself giving up and going to the back of the book, reading through his life from young man to old man (he was born in 1939). My favourite poems are from the early period - his first collection ‘In the Outer Dark’.
Many of the poems are autobiographical - which is probably why it makes more sense to start at the beginning. His relationship with his mother is told in personal, affectionate detail as in ‘My Mother’s Feet’
‘How no shoe fit them,
and how she used to prop them,
having dressed for bed,
letting the fire in the coal stove blue
and blink out, falling asleep in her chair.
How she bathed and dried them, night after night,
and rubbed their soreness like an intimacy.
How she let the fire pull her soft body through them.’
his alcoholic father,
‘I watched you humble a man in a fight once -
he went down like an animal whose spirit
world has suddenly collapsed and all that’s left
in the wounded moment after is not quite
animal nor man. He was big, which made
his humility that much larger, and there
was blood but so little that it seemed less like
a fight than a conversion. You had his right
arm at the wrist in your right hand and simply
turned him down onto the floor, which stank of wear
and sawdust. I’d seen you break the back of wood
like that. The man wept, he was drunk, you were drunk
and at the same time sober. He was my size
now. And in his eyes I could see his children .......’
Many of the poems are personal observations of the relationships around him - trying to make sense of them.
‘People are standing, as if out of the rain,
holding on. For the last two blocks
the woman across the aisle has wept
quietly into her hands, the whole
of her upper body nodding, keeping time.
The bus is slow enough you can hear,
inside your head, the traffic within
traffic, like another talk.’
There are prose poems, and beautiful exercises in observation, such as ‘In Answer to Amy’s Question What’s a Pickerel’
‘Pickerel have infinite, small bones, and skins
of glass and black ground glass, and though small for pike
are no less wall-eyed and their eyes like bone.
Are fierce for their size, and when they flare
at the surface resemble drowning birds, .......
But through all of it, the poet’s voice, with a quiet tone of enquiry and exploration, is steady and consistent and extraordinarily likeable. My favourite poem, even after I’d read the whole collection, remains the title poem ‘Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me’.
We lie in that other darkness, ourselves.
There is less than the width of my left hand
between us. I can barely breathe,
but the light breathes easily,
wind on water across our two still bodies.
I cannot even turn to see him.
I would not touch him. Nor would I lift
my arm into the crescent of a moon.
(There is no star in the sky of this room,
only the light fashioning fish along the walls.
They swim and swallow one another.)
I dream we lie under water,
caught in our own sure drift.
A window, white shadow, trembles over us.
Light breaks into a moving circle.
He would not speak and I would not touch him.
It is an ocean under here.
Whatever two we were, we become
our falling body one breath. Night lies down
at the sleeping center - no fish, no shadow,
no single, turning light. And I would not touch him
who lies deeper in the drifting dark than life.