No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012, by Michael Blumenthal. Etruscan Press, 2012.
Reviewed by Robert Campbell
No Hurry is Michael Blumenthal's eighth collection. Spanning 15 years of work according to the author's note, these poems enter into conflicting dialogue with one another and seem to conduct a sort of argument about the world-at-large: whether it is cruel or kind, whether it degrades us or sets us on fire, and whether the speakers' decidedly unfashionable ideals of “beauty,” “truth,” and “virtue” can be located within the bleak miasma of modernity's trappings and the pain of aging. Moral and religious undertones play against scenes that are decidedly secular, even profane, frequently full of loss. The poems in No Hurry are most enjoyable when they allow this tension to emerge full-force in all its naked complexity, using language that is polished, simple, and clear.
“Atelier Rheingold” reveals a sort of circus of human depravity around desire via scenes of prostitution. The speaker's subtle inferences in poems like these—often full of disillusionment or disappointment—are cause for thought. Why not look away? He seems at once disheartened and hypnotized by these scenes:
You can be
a beaten bundle of whimpering flesh,
a master, a slave, a circus of needs
that, for a price, some sweet young girl
will seek to satisfy, sending you home
to your ordinary life once more, a little
less needy, perhaps a little less in love. (5)
Blumenthal's smoothly cadenced lines are usually constructed to move the poem swiftly rather than disrupt. His forms draw on relaxed, conversational rhythms and a natural progression rather than the radically enjambed, fragmented structures popular with many contemporary poets. His syntax is plain—he means to say something once and say it well.
Nestled against these poems of dark sexuality sit spiritual pieces that return to nature's purity as a sort of holy book, as in:
...oh dear Saint John the Baptist, you knew of
the blessings of the fish, as did Saint Frances, who also
blessed the birds, and we should rest assured that everything
capable of swimming naked is blessed and ecstatic, so I
rip off my clothes and dive, daily, into the soothing waters
of the Balaton...(23)
Here I will admit to occasionally finding Blumenthal's meditations on nature both gorgeous and a bit tiresome. The speaker's sense of spiritual communion with nature is lovely, but not really all that interesting, and here it distracts from Blumenthal's impeccable use of imagery. The fish are “naked and oily and lovely in their happy element, as God intended for all of us to be, though we are not” (23). Though Blumenthal's reach for God in the natural world might not be original or innovative, it feels earnest, and the language itself is beautifully polished.
More interesting are the poems in No Hurry that cast doubt, of which there are many. In “Not the Soul,” the speaker is able to look upon an adulterated world with a sense of wonder:
Not, in all likelihood, the soul, with its many rallies,
nor the heart, with its dyspeptic series of fits and starts,
is exactly in charge of us, I fathom, but more likely the sins
of our fathers and the meanderings of our children... (35)
These “prospective failures” culminate in a world that is “if not our oyster, at least / our couscous,” a world the speaker is able to love despite its shortcomings (35). Blumenthal's “Homage to Hugh Hefner” and “Song of the Dow” explore the significance of the secular even further, a departure from the first section's moral and spiritual meditations. “Weeping at the Oscars” allows itself to wallow in sentiment in a way that feels fresh and unpretentious:
Sentimentality, says Stevens,
is failed feeling
and how often I have failed
as I do now
when Charlize Theron comes onstage
to thank her mother for making her
and her make-up man
for making her a Monster
and here I go again
crying once more, as I do
every year... (54)
When Blumenthal abandons stanzaic structure, he frequently extends the sentence, utilizing line breaks for pause and breath in lieu of punctuation. These loose, airy forms make his language sing and lend a sort of momentum that is really pleasurable. It's the sort of relaxed coasting that many contemporary poets avoid in favor of disruption and more innovative syntactic constructions, and it's a breath of fresh air when done well.
A few poems in No Hurry are really quite haunting, as in “The Past”--
The Past says, if it gets cold, I'll crawl
into bed with you. You say to the Past: Sorry, there's room
for only one in my little bed. The Past keeps trying
to touch you, the Past likes hugs and deep gazes,
it wants to know all about you. Oh poor Past, you say,
What are you doing here? (66)
The poems nearer the latter half of the collection are more stylistically interesting. This use of the second person and infused dialogue stand out here, and the conceit of intimacy with a personified Past is much more fascinating than some of the other poems in No Hurry. “I Think Constantly of Those Who Were Truly Great” is raw and complex while maintaining Blumenthal's characteristic need to ask questions of meaning and reconcile abstract virtues with the commonplace junk in which we actually live. “So many great ones!--libidinal heroes, / idealists, warrior-chieftains, revolutionaries” the speaker cries, “and who, / I ask myself, am I by comparison? Calmed / by Valium, urged on by Viagra...” (81). This is a speaker within, not above modernity, a speaker that I am able to care for and about.
A definitive moment in this collection occurs in “Abstractions,” when the voice becomes self-conscious of its tendency towards vagueness and addresses the issue openly, posing a thought-provoking challenge to those poets among us with a distaste for raw sentiment (myself, admittedly, included):
Love justice truthfulness hurt,
I say to my workshoppy friends,
in how many ways
would you like me to fill them?
And when I am done with those,
how many specific facts will you
still need, in what shape and size,
and for whose embarrassingly factual sake? (84)
What is interesting in this poem is the relationship suggested between the tendency toward concreteness and the urge toward confession. It's a worthwhile question. For whose benefit do we reveal the nitty-gritty? Do we not know what “love” means? Is there not one singular shared experience of suffering? The problems that Blumenthal avoids here are the same ones that make this review a mixed one: our postmodern skepticism towards the spiritual, our tendency to read unguarded sentiment as somehow cheap or simplistic, our indifference toward the search for a universal truth. These problems are real, but aren't they also a little bit sad? Wouldn't we rather dwell in that place of raw blessings or grief, but always of some earnest reaching? Are we too awake to fall for it, or are we too jaded to believe in it?
No Hurry achieves much, especially in its stronger sections, and most readers will enjoy the quiet, meditative nature of the collection. What these poems lack in originality they more than make up for in thoughtfulness and care. Blumenthal is not afraid to go against the grain, and his powerful control of cadence and rich use of imagery will make even those readers with edgier tastes pause and consider the quiet force churning behind these lines.