A Working Life
Paul Kane’s Work Life. (Turtle Point, 2007). 99 pp. $16.95
2007 was a fine year for poetry in the United States, and Paul Kane’s Work Life is among the reasons why—this poet’s plain voice resonates uncannily with a poetic effort sustained across many generations in this country. As a teenager, I read William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”, and realized for the first time that in poetry the characteristic U.S. modes of plainness, directness, pragmatism, clarity could equal a unique sublimity:
As the long train
Of ages glide away, the sons of men,
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron, and maid,
The speechless babe and the grey headed man–
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn shall follow them. (66-72)
These are the dead that a young Bryant studies, his word “train” is plural and from a time before railroads in this country. Bryant’s verse speaks to a disarming set of emotions, grounded in the nobility the poet sees in virtually everyone’s life. Importantly, for all the Wordsworthian virtue of Bryant’s verse this passage also presages Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe among many many others, even Bryant’s suppressed, humble stitching of rhythm and syntax reappears at subsequent points among a diverse array of poets of later generations. Kane’s scholarly work on Ralph Waldo Emerson and the poets of the American Renaissance suggests a conscious intent of laboring within this homegrown verse tradition. (Though this same scholarship is global in its purview, encompassing the literature of Australia and that country’s struggle with colonial identity and development.)
Work Life’s dedication is “For my Teachers,” and it deserves mentioning that at Vassar, Kane was one of mine. The epigraph, taken from Emerson “But do your work, and I shall know you” speaks to what links literacy to both moral obligation and integrity in education. The title, dedication, and epigraph add up to one of the major themes of this book: the work of learning. Early in the book, it shows why our democracy must value this work:
who write also read the history of their
conquests. Will they read this: that we who
began with the word liberty in our mouths
ended with blood on our hands? That we
who surrendered freedom for security
lost both? That we fell into line with
history, and like others before turned brutal
with wealth and power and self-interest? (7-15)
These lines are from “To Make a Desert,” a title drawn from an ancient comment on the so-called Pax Romana, but the lyric asks about a Roman peace in post-9/11 America. This poem’s difficult questions for its readers no doubt simmer with urgency. Yet the urgency of these questions is that they first require considered thought, asking readers to engage the poet’s criterion of value before imposing their own: “There are those alive now who will die of us, // each canceling out a sacrifice / by one who fought to save us from empires” (16-18). This Roman peace is a nightmarish Pax Americana, and also Pilate’s Jerusalem, and perhaps contemporary evangelical politics as well. Work Life is a volume of questions as much as anything else. Not all of them are political, but most of them imply the moral commitment in measured and earnest response, the mutual commitment of learning.
As the title implies, the work of learning is for life and not only for the nation: adolescence, art, history, jobs, marriage, mourning, politics, travel, etc.—such topics recur, and characteristically signify some further role of the work of learning. We learn to live with ourselves as much as with other people. The value of labor, the multiplicities of work; coming to grips with the passage of time, appreciating change—the work of learning affects each of these. I am not suggesting, however, that Work Life reduces to but one theme. Indeed, the volume’s long poem “Psyche” is an astonishing accomplishment of complex, learned poetic writing because it, by turns, is many things: a naturist journal, a meditation on Apuleis’s tale of Cupid and Psyche, an essay on metaphors of the human soul, intellectual history. We who know Kane’s work already can thrill to see his gifts on display in another volume, while new readers no doubt will be taken by this poet’s compellingly poised combination of mind, voice, religiosity, and imagination.
Reviewed by Milton L. Welch
Milton L. Welch is a faculty member at NC State. He has completed a dissertation on representations of lynching in modernist poetry, and has reviewed poetry for numerous publications.