Review by Arthur McMaster
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Hardcover, 112 Pages
The observational skills of Stanley Plumly are surely at their sharpest in his new volume, Orphan Hours — the small hours, often ignored, the quiet hours we all must come back to. Here, Maryland's elder statesman of American Letters offers forty-five poems to underscore the undeniable blood and gristle of our mortality. A close reading of the volume suggests that the poet feels a close link to ideas of others, to those who have taken up just these tasks before him: to Walt Whitman, to his fellow-Ohioan James Wright, to Ted Roethke, and to the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry.
Let's start with the poem, "Cancer," naming, at last, what must be acknowledged:
"Mine, I know, started at a distance," Plumly writes, / "five hundred and twenty light years away / and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth, .../ yesterday, at birth, at that time when I was ten..." With that reflection we are given to ponder what little can be done about the vagaries of fate.
The poet is interested not only in his personal vulnerability to the chaos of the stars, to the whims of the implacable gods, he looks carefully as well at the uncertainties of life for those close to him. In the very long poem "Lost Key" we learn: "My mother would sit for hours inside silence, / who also loved windows and the picture / of the world outside them, especially those / distances that start out, in Ohio, as fields / unmarked with fences. . . the snow piling up in waves against the rails / not far enough and too far away." Plumly intuits correctly that we are all mesmerized by what passes, by "the sunlight sleeping on the air." What a marvelous image that is!
Let's skip ahead to several more poems that seem, to this reviewer, to signal the strength of the volume as a whole. Many of the man's poems speak to the ineffable nature of death in families. Well, pretty much all poets dwell there, now and again. Some get stuck. Plumly couples the inevitable demise of all men with what moves the soul: art, music, foreign travel, dear friends, ancestors—most especially great grandfathers.
Consider this excerpt from the title poem, "Orphan Hours," where he looks to long-ago moments shared: "Or my mother's mother's father, even older, riding down / a hill with me strapped on his back, as if the bike had wings, / then standing, holding me, in front of history, to have our / picture taken." Immediately thereafter he has taken us to the Paris of his early adulthood, where one man who left a lasting impression on him is said to live, like Proust, "walking the Marais . . . testing his memory of a madeleine dipped in a well of lime-blossom tea. . . ." Hence, the power of man's involuntary memory. His musing then moves us to a deeper consciousness, to something almost melancholy: Hen
Everyone I knew from then is gone, gone years ago, the
line extending miles. My father died on his knees, half a
man, my mother a machine until I had to choose to turn
The reflection on his parents, and especially so his ill-fated father, is strong in several of these poems, and more so in the man's larger body of work. In the poem "The Best Years of Our Lives," Plumly recalls sitting in the movie theater with his mother, she in tears, "my father at the front doors / taking tickets to earn what he can / cutting lumber." The reflection to follow the moment in time is particularly rich:
The wisdom of being nine is knowing
feelings, and I can feel something on the screen
pouring out inside the cone of light above us,
scattered in the space here and there, as if
what we're seeing is more than what we're seeing.
Beyond family, among the several exemplary images and reflections we also share with the poet, are the feel of the winds and mists of Dartmoor, in England's Devonshire. Plumly spent time in Europe, on a Guggenheim fellowship, from 1973 to 1974. It was while he was there that his father died of a heart attack. Maybe this is in part why the poet seems so alert to the presence of ghosts. He mentions them enough in the volume to suggest that they are especially meaningful. "The ghostly Alps." The arcana of pockets, of "photographs and wedding rings. . .no one but the ghosts know where or who from whom—the kinds / of things you keep in drawers until the day someone finds them . . . ." Find this volume of poems today and be richer for the time you will likely spend thinking more about what you have kept close and maybe what you have not.
Arthur McMaster's poems have appeared in such journals as North American Review, Rattle, Rhino, and Subtropics, with one Pushcart nomination. He has two published chapbooks, the first having been selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission's Poetry Initiative. His author page is arthurmcmaster.com.