|A Travelogue from the Imagination
David Shumate. High Water Mark. University of Pittsburg Press, 2004. Paper, 69 pp., $12.95.
Prose poetry, I was recently informed at a party, is the new black. It is no longer rare to see prose poems mixed into collections with lineated poetry—in Robert Hass’s Human Wishes, for example, and more recently in books like Sarah Manguso’s The Captain Lands in Paradise. An entire collection of prose poems is still something of an anomaly, however. David Shumate makes a powerful argument for dedication to the form in his debut volume, High Water Mark. His prose poems range from imagined interviews with the famous, and not-so-famous, to scenes in which a metaphor seizes control and carries the speaker and reader into its realm.
Shumate manages to strike a balance between playfulness and insight that is absent far too often from first books. But his real strength is this: his willingness to jump into an image and not leave it. For example, in “Mushrooms,” the poem begins describing mushrooms, when and where they appear. Then a simile is introduced and Shumate runs with it.
There is something pleasantly unchristian about their pres-
ence. Like gypsies who show up at my doorstep smelling of
the Old World and claiming to be my kin. I invite them into
my home. Soon their belongings are strewn everywhere.
Their children are playing with mine beneath the trees. Our
wives are laughing in the kitchen. The old man approaches,
takes my head in his hands, kisses me on both cheeks. A
gesture I will not soon forget.
Shumate uses syntax in place of line break to guide the reader’s breath and pace the poem. Rather than connecting the simile of gypsies to the previous sentence with a comma, Shumate breaks them with a full stop forcing the reader to pause and comprehend “There is something pleasantly unchristian about their presence” before moving on to the gypsies to whom the mushrooms will be compared. In another poem, a line break would accomplish this effect. Shumate, however, uses the tools allotted to prose. The poem ends with the narrator ambiguously musing on either the gypsies or the mushrooms. This dedication to a metaphorical image, of letting it live and breathe rather than merely using it as a descriptive aid, is refreshing, and an area in which another poet might hold back and play it safe. Shumate embraces his metaphors, makes illogical conclusions, breaks open our awareness of the world.
The interview poems are some of the strongest in the collection. They are interspersed throughout the work, which is heavy with character sketches of a variety of people from Hitler’s barber to an acerbic literary critic. The interviews, however, concentrate the power of Shumate’s character description because they are the moment in which the speaker appears on stage. Another way of thinking about how Shumate inhabits a metaphor is that he lives in his imagination. Again this is not merely a tool he uses to approach a theme, a lyric meditation, or a personal revelation. He is in his dream world and writing us brief travelogues of his experience. In “Custer,” the narrator interviews George Armstrong Custer in a steak house. People in the place recognize him as they would any other celebrity and ask for his autograph. The speaker questions him about Little Big Horn and his military career. Shumate manipulates the scene to muse on power and inevitability.
But when he gets to the part about Sitting Bull, about Crazy
Horse, he develops a twitch above his right eye, raises
his finger for the waiter, excuses himself and goes to the
restroom while I sit there along the bluffs with the entire
Sioux nation, awaiting his return.
The poet here is provoker and witness. An imagined interview shifts into an imagined confrontation, and into a defiant stand-off, an occasion when those who are usually the victims come out as victors.
The character pieces and interviews of famous historical figures set the stage for the excellent father poems, “Visitation” and “Graveyard,” in the last section of the book. In “Visitation” the narrator imagines sitting down for morning coffee with his father. The poem mixes the calm of the dead and the agitation of the living. The first half of the poem describes the serenity the father has now that he is a ghost. In the middle, there is a turn and we are made aware of the steady decline of the living.
He has lost that nervous edge. The tremor in his voice. As
if we grow younger with each year of death. He senses
something unsettled in me. That gnawing the dead know so
The dead grow younger with “each year of death,” as if death is a state in which you count years. Just as we read and accept this, we know that the living grow older. The years gnaw. The interview format is so effective here because the reader makes these connections at the same moment as the “I.” Shumate exploits the real-time quality of an interview. The poems have immediacy because he directly involves the reader in the experience.
“The Art of Forgetting” follows the father poems and addresses the same themes of death, past lives, and memory. Once again, Shumate grabs an image and spins it out into a live metaphor. Here, a house expels its contents through the windows, just as you might weep to excise the grief from your body. The poem begins, in a rather passive, meditative voice; the “Art of Forgetting” is “nothing like the ancient art it once was.” The quietness of this beginning is reinforced by the way the title seamlessly feeds the first line. Shumate relies on punctuation to order the rhythm of the poem. The full stop acts as a pause and creates as many fragments as it does full sentences. By the sixth of these “sentences,” the main simile is introduced. Forgetting is:
Like cleaning out a great aunt’s house. She’s dead now.
You’re all she had left. You rummage through the debris of
a lifetime. Her ceramic dolls. Her collection of bells. Piles of
tattered books. Her musty wardrobe.
The rhetorical strategy of lists is important here, as is the use of the second person. Shumate’s “you” most often seems like an “I,” but one that implicates the reader and draws him or her in and opens the poem up to a number of readings. The poem escalates into belongings being thrown out of the house’s windows:
In an hour the room is empty. You look around. You wonder
how the place would look with a coat of yellow paint.
When first reading this poem, it’s hard not to think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” in which “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” But Shumate is not concerned with an art of losing that spins out of control, “losing farther, losing faster.” Here, the art of forgetting is the art of throwing things away and imagining something new. With this in mind, we can read this as a poem in the tradition of Wallace Stevens’s “Man on the Dump.” Shumate labels the modern process of rejecting stale images as “crude.” It might start slowly or carefully: “One thing at a time goes into the trash. Some into storage.” But this method isn’t effective enough for the narrator. It’s getting him nowhere. So “You find yourself opening windows. Throwing out sofas.” For Shumate, to create something new, you have to toss things from windows, imagine a layer of new paint.
As excellent as High Water Mark is, it is not without its flaws. There are a few poems that do not have the scope of others nor do they add to the themes of the collection. However, Shumate generally paces this collection very well, a particularly important consideration for a collection of prose poems. He entertains his reader with his odd and original images, then a poem like “Coronado Rises in the Stirrups” stops the reader in his tracks. The poem uses a beautiful repeated line “Coronado rises in his stirrups and looks out over America” and ends with an astounding, behind-the-scenes insight as Coronado decides to go home, “tugs at the reins of his horse and wheels it south again while all around him, silent in the grass, the breathless Indians exhale.” It is these poems you will walk away remembering, but all the poems, even the light ones, are doing work in the collection. As you read the book, Shumate teaches you how to read his work. He familiarizes his reader with his syntactic and rhetorical tricks by using them consistently in all his poems. The lighter poems serve to persuade the reader of his style, setting you up for the big payoffs in the more resonate ones. Through the lessons provided by his own work, Shumate teaches his readers a thing or two about the thrilling possibilities of prose poems.