by Christopher Buckley.
Tupelo Press, (2008), 99 pp. $16.95
Reviewed by Catherine Keefe
If each book has a corresponding wine varietal, then Christopher Buckley’s Modern History: Prose Poems 1987-2007 is an Old Vine Zinfandel, a nuanced and intense California delicacy produced from the sparse fruit of aged gnarled vines.
Modern History, Buckley’s 16th book of poetry, begins with bold tones. “No one says I look 55,” then blossoms in little bursts on the tongue like “pear-colored afternoons, in the pepper / scented mists of eucalyptus,” finally mellowing on the palate, “We have our images of ourselves, like the full gold moon floating / on the surface of the sea.” Its substance is clear from the opening, “Eternity (being a condensed spiritual and aesthetic biography).”
What if, on the practical side, the universe—and so time-space—does curve back on itself like a huge quesadilla? We’re going nowhere.
Buckley’s triad of reflections, queries, and elegies is scented and scored by surf, fog, “umber hills,” and “yucca blooms.” It moves forward while simultaneously turning back on itself, as if the poet peers into the elongated rearview mirror of a “metallic-green ’58 Chevy bellowing up East Valley Road,” his own reflection superimposed upon the receding landscape.
This morning, I’m taking time off from the world toI’m not calling Buckley an old poet. “Turning 59” would argue chronologically against that. But in Modern History, Buckley considers his legacy within the universe and Poetry, “write something someone will want to read before they die,” while taunting a lifetime of studies. “What earthly good is any theory, all of it so hypothetically referential.” Mortality roars.
be in it, to turn back—in star time—an instant, to 50 years ago when
my mother took me after a nap out to the free, green republic of the
park, from our turquoise stucco apartment...
The only way to the proof is through the EXIT—like all the principals at the end of Hamlet strewn across the bloody stage—an outcome that will not in the short run advance your station in life—all the physics at work, visibly and invisibly, strategically opposed to your extended stay on this mortal coil.Modern History is Buckley’s quest for a place within “the incomprehensible all about us,” filtered through time and memory with a coda of uncertainty. But then again, it’s as much about the ubiquity of Brylcreem and Duck-Tails on postwar American male teens, the pleasures of surfing, Santa Barbara, stars, academia’s tedium, Pythagoras, and logic meditations.
Our unsanctified bodies, long past their sell-by dates, will flake awayBuckley asks straight out, “Outside of Time, will poems matter?”
like chalk across the blackboard, working through their numerators or
denominators, accounts overdue—dry as the dozen magnolia leaves
scuttling across the patio like crabs.
After reading Modern History, one can answer “yes,” and accept “the blue and silver stars pasted on my stiff collar” for getting it right. The true gravitas of “words whose sum total equaled beauty” is the vintage of the poet who understands that “God’s not sitting in the back room waiting for us to produce another theory.”
Catherine Keefe teaches at Chapman University in Orange, CA. She is the editor of the soon-to-be-lauched journal dirtcakes. Check back with First Person Plural on Friday as she discusses the journal.