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Middle Distance, Stanley Plumly

September 10, 2020

It’s not often that one of the icons of your youth gets to say goodbye, but that’s what it felt like, reading Stanley Plumly’s last volume of poetry, Middle Distance.

I’ve been staring off into the middle distance since reading it, thinking about the poet, about how Stanley Plumly loomed larger than life over a student in a workshop who had dared to object while his own poem was being praised, booming “shut up and take credit!” Thinking about the teacher whose letter of recommendation I found in an old pile of papers this spring, and how re-reading it brought back so much of his generosity and humor. I still tell my students stories about him, like the time he told me to read all the poetry of Edward Field and when I’d had enough I came back and said so and he said good, now I understood how the tendency to a quick quip could wear thin on a reader after a while. I think of him often because I live in Ohio and he loved so much about Ohio.

What would he have thought of this covidtide, this great pause? He described the delights of pausing, but not as it is now, more as a wish:
the autumn, the best time, the big sycamore-
size leaves drift down everywhere—onto
the slate slabs and cobblestones of the square,
onto the glass tables with their plates
of breads and cheeses and cheap white wine,
onto the heads and bodies of the bishops
and the lions—then the wind kicks up.
I’d have walked the late afternoon through
the well-ordered, well-kept green
gardens, have found a table near the front
of where the fountain was, and watched
the evening turn blue and dark and darker.
No one died, nor was ever going to die.”

Plumly, as always, writes about parental love in a way that brings it home:
“When I was angry and spoke in anger as a child and told my mother how much I hated her, she’d help me pack and fix a lunch to carry on my bike as far as daylight would take me. Not far.”

The virtuoso performances of this volume are the two poems about poetry, “As You Leave the Room” and “Crepuscular.” Being so particularly fond of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, I took Plumly’s poem about him as a special parting gift. I especially like the bit where he describes the physical being of the poet and how little of the relationship between poet and reader it reveals:
“even I have doubts
that this fat man in a suit is really
real or that when I also leave the room
he will care or even know I was here.”

“Crepuscular” is the perfect literary farewell from a being made of words:

That late poem by Housman, Roman numeral
XVI, where the sun is rising “beautiful to sight”
and falling “into the west away,” where “like a bird
set free,” it soars “from the eastern sea,” only
to end up stained with blood “ensanguining the skies”
before it becomes “hopeless under ground”—

that poem whose middle stanza, between the rising
and the falling, takes the pledge that the poet,
on this day, “shall be strong,” and “no more…yield
to wrong,” indeed “shall squander life no more”
and keep this “vow/I never kept before”—
that poem of “days lost, I know not how,”

that seems so perfect, personal, and vulnerable,
so English in its resignation and elegant in execution
like that poem that finds a home at last in Larkin,
an aubade of the end, where he’s awake in
“soundless dark,” standing at “the curtain-edges”
waiting for industrial dawn to break open in a room

of “total emptiness for ever”; or like Hardy’s
“Neutral Tones,” where the “God-curst sun” is
winter “white”; or Dickinson’s “Twilight long begun…
Sequestered Afternoon,” where “The Dusk drew”
early on—after “The Morning foreign shone”;
or that final “still dark” stairway poem by Bishop,

in her last, Geography III, where she’s exhausted
“Five Flights Up” from climbing one more step,
just one more step from the “Enormous morning”
and its “ponderous, meticulous” / “gray light streaking
each bare branch, / each single twig, along one side, /
making another tree, of glassy veins”; or like “Epilogue,”

by Lowell, who underneath the “plot and rhyme”
of drugs, is always asking “why not say what happened”
since we’re “poor passing facts,” facts, he says, that give
“the grace of accuracy,” even if they’re “threadbare”
in the eye, facts like the kind “Vermeer gave to the sun’s
illumination/ stealing like the tide across a map/

to his girl solid with yearning”—the sun itself ending
the day with longing, “not further to be found,”
as Houseman puts it, except again and again, “past touch
and sight and sound” only to emerge in the new day
dawning “heightened from life, / yet paralyzed by fact”
as “something imagined, not recalled” (Lowell).

It’s rare to get to know one of your idols as this poet allowed his students to know him.

The tall man with a beard has left the room. Now when I reach the age he died “I have permission” to follow but for now am left with this volume, this place where we can gather in his words regardless of whether “he will care or even know I was here.”

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2020 8:55 pm

    Putting Plumly on my ptbr: poetry to be read. What an awesome name, too! “Stanley Plumly” awesome. Thank you.

  2. September 11, 2020 7:54 am

    What a lovely remembrance of him. He sounds wonderful.

  3. September 11, 2020 4:32 pm

    Beautoful tribute, Jeanne. Thank you for sharing your connection with him and his poetry.

    • September 13, 2020 4:00 pm

      My pleasure.
      As if there was some kind of crazy poet energy created by writing about Stan, I learned last Friday that Broadstone Books is going to publish my volume of Postcard Poems!

  4. September 14, 2020 10:15 am

    Stanley Plumly, sounds wonderful. How lucky you were to have known him, and what a tribute. I feel the need to read more of his poetry.

    • September 14, 2020 10:17 am

      I was lucky.
      My favorite of his volumes is probably Out of the Body Travel.

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