Continental Shelf: Shorter Poems 1968-2020 and Restoration Day by Henry Gould: a Review

Continental Shelf: Shorter Poems 1968-2020, Henry Gould, Dos Madres Press, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-953252-66-1, $21.00

Restoration Day, Henry Gould, 2022, ISBN: 9781387635634, £15.00

For a poet like Hendy Gould, who works mainly in long form, there’s a tendency to think of their shorter works as incidental. With that in mind, it’s interesting to have this selection of short works, Continental Shelf, to test that assumption. In addition, because of the time range covered, the book offers a chance to trace the development of one of the more distinctive voices in contemporary American verse.

The book starts with a short section of poems from the 1960s, ‘Baby Steps’, which show the promise and pretentions of youth, and an interest in experimentation: the first poem is a found/visual piece called pastoral, while the longest, ‘Blake School Chapel Speech owes much to Allen Ginsberg, I think. This prelude is followed by a selection of ‘Early Poems’ from the 1970s, coinciding with Gould’s move from his native      Minnesota to Rhode Island, where he was to spend the next 45 years. This tension (perhaps not quite the right word) between the Midwest and East Coast is central to much of what follows as twin poles of his poetic world.

Why are the plains like memory,

and the sea like a daydream

where the sun breaks in pieces

of old musicals, blind summers?

[from ‘Poem’]

The next section, ‘Reagan Years’ covers the 1980s, a decade dominated by the titular president. The tensions between the ideal America of vision and the reality of bad government that informs the Ravenna Diagram emerges here in embryo:

A president steps out carefully
from behind a palm tree in Hollywood

Reciting his lines in his sleep
Crossing the Delaware, crossing the Styx

Overhead in the gym George Washington
Looks on transfixed in heaven unable to move

While a voice oozing with milk and syrup
Embalms the children with unctuous praise

The geographical poles are central to the next three sections, which are not tied to specific decades. The first of these, ‘Way Stations’, opens with a longish poem sequence called ‘Ocean State’. Here Gould’s mature voice is fully present:

The poet is monotonous, his head

resting on her empty sleeve,

his voice out of the mineshaft

muttering rumours of precious gems.

Somewhat confusingly, the next section is called ‘from Ocean State’, and the third is ‘Midwest Elegies’ and consists of poems of youthful memory and the emergence of the hobo figure and Gould’s Ravlin ancestors that are central to Ravenna Diagram. There are also hints at the reasons for his long ‘exile’ on the coast, as in the opening lines of the section’s title poem that place the central landscape on the liminal margins:

On infinite plains,

among seedy barns leaning

on edges of small groves of oaks

just off quiet roads, there

everyone knows, serious life

is elsewhere.

A seventh section, ‘Byzantine Sketchbook’ rounds out the 1990s, a most prolific decade, with poems addressed to other poets (Brodsky, Crane, Elena Shvarts) and formal experiments with the Ballade and Chant Royal forms.

The last two sections, just under 40 pages, covers work written in the new millennium. The title poem of ‘Dove Street’ is a sequence that plays with the seven-quatrain form of the Ravenna poem, while placing us clearly in providential Rhode Island. Elsewhere Nicholas of Cusa makes an appearance with a line that could stand as a summary of what Gould is about:

our proper study is, to understand our ignorance

Then the handful of poems that make up ‘Late News’ return us to the landscape of the Midwest and then to Paris, first locking back, then forward:

Autumn was on its way. And we wondered when

some douce enfant might pirouette again

across the umbilical rainbow of her labyrinth.

In Restoration Day, Gould returns full on to his great theme of America as an immanent earthly paradise, with Rhode Island at its core. This is a single long (330 page) work comprising 252 numbered untitled poems in four parts, also unnamed. The first poem is dated (in the American style) 2.13.21 and the last 6-27 – 7.1.22, representing an extraordinary rich output over just under 17 months.

There are many ways into what Gould is after, but the first door that fully opened for me came at the opening of poem 56:

The 5th day of the fifth-month, like lilac,

quintessence of a Jubilee, I married Isis

on the 5th of May, sang the Iron Range bard

with rusty voice. Osiris sinks to one hard

scruffy penny, yet she’ll weave him back

to Ithaka, Penelope – axle of the house she is.

The immediate reference is, of course, to Bob Dylan’s ‘Isis’, but that’s really just a starting point: what we have is Isis/Penelope and Osiris/Odysseus exemplifying the poem’s central concern with Love (the start date of St Valentine’s Eve is not an accident), specifically the love that makes whole. These figures and this theme recur throughout, as does the image of the penny, the Lincoln penny, to be precise, as a symbol of democratic inclusion, the coin that is in every pocket bearing the image of the president who abolished slavery. Lincoln is another recurring figure, especially in the conjunction Gould calls the Federal Trinity, along with JFK and Martin Luther King. These three men represent both the best of America in and of themselves, and the worst of the place, in the manners of their deaths.

This Federal Trinity has its counterpart in the foundational trinity of Roger Williams, his early mentor Edward Coke and George Berkeley as the forces of law, generosity and idealism that lay behind the foundation of Rhode Island, the Ocean State (another recurring phrase throughout the book), although for me Berkeley, as a slave owner, makes a somewhat uncomfortable hero. Williams was granted the charter for that foundation from Charles II, whose birthday is the Restoration Day of the title, and, as it happens, that date, May 29, is also Rhode Island Statehood Day.

In addition, the famous Royal Oak episode from that king’s story lends into multiple oak/acorn references in the poem, and these in turn inform, by way of a kind of visual pun, the acorn/mandorla/almond iconography that clusters around Gould’s vision of love as well as chiming with a number of oak-built ships, such as the Constitution, that recur and are echoed in William’s use of canoes. The shape is a twinned catenary, the arc of history bending towards justice. These strands, and many others, all help shape a timescape in which, say, Penelope, Williams, Lincoln, JFK and Henry coexist in a timeless time as composite selves: ‘You, my beloved, are a plurality of yourself.

Despite his vision of Rhode Island as a template for a model America as a kind of earthly paradise, Guld acknowledges the fact that the dream has become a nightmare:

America was just a trial run, rough sketch, improvisation,

Providence a mongrel colony — castaways, Narragansetts.

Its charter a patched-together, half-breed, homespun

contrarian quilt.

[from ‘Poem 129’]

The reader is reminded Gould is writing in the shadow of a very particular threat to America:

Last year, in January, they

besieged the Federal Triangle – assaulted Lady Liberty

with every stratagem of fraud, & vicious perfidy.

I thought about the ghosts of Abraham, JFK,

& MLK – watching, watching yet

[from ‘Poem 179’, dated 2.7-8.22]

As 2022 progresses, from our TV screens, a new hero emerges:

There is no Z in Zeno, ominously. & the four Y’s

in Volodymyr Zelenskyy crypt a grail-King in disguise.

Despite, or perhaps because, of these developments, there is a clear movement as the poem enters its final section, away from paradise as a political and physical reality and towards Nicholas of Cusa’s ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’, so attributed in ‘Poem 40’.  As the shadow of the war in Ukraine hangs heavy over the poem, the realisation that ‘we started out as compromised’ adds complexity to Gould’s understanding of his own and his Ocean State’s history a state in a country riven down the middle by partisan politics. But this serves to focus the poem more on the need for reconciliation, forgiveness and love.

There are multiple other strand that could be followed, if I were writing a book: Ariadne’s thread that Penelope spins; Spenser’s Fairey Queen which, I think, lies behind the flexible 6/7/8 line stanzas that form the bulk of the book (with some quatrains, triads and isolated single line stanzas thrown in for good measure; the importance of time and place, with the majority of poems opening with specific reference to the poet’s immediate surroundings at the moment of composition; Jonah, who is Henry, and Oblomov, who is too; the poet/narrator’s intimations of his own mortality; the quiet, resisted presence of Ezra Pound, whose farfalle signal moments of clear, fleeting vision.

What carries the reader through these multiple, multidimensional spiral threads is the unique syntax and sound of Gould’s verse, the patterns he weaves hold the disparate elements in a coherent continuum, as in this stanza from the penultimate poem, 251:

You saw the shape far off, at the line of the sea.

It shifted & banked, like a sea-bird trying to fly –

puffed & collapsed, as windward turned lee.

A sail… it was a lost sailor, come home to die:

perhaps Odysseus, or some other weathered salt.

Ashore, you watched its flickering semaphore reply.

I am your spouse. Penelope – patient to a fault.

With Ariadne’s wool, I wove you back to me.

My rose on dark sea-bed shall be your vault.

Here rhyme, assonance and consonance combine to unite observation, the idea of homecoming, both for the reader/poem and for Gould, back in Minnesota to live out his final years (of which one hopes there will be many more), the mythological labyrinth that is his vision of the ideal state, Roger Williams’ as voyaging visionary, and the ‘flickering semaphore’ of the poetry in which all these things are expressed.

There is a sense here, perhaps, of a vein exhausted; I find myself wondering where Gould will bring his unique gifts to next.