It All Came Apart: After West by James Harms

After West

After West
BY James Harms
(Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2008)

The photograph on the cover of After West shows an old car and a caravan crossing a plain before a mountain range. The dark and light pattern of the landscape — snow-capped mountains, forest below, silvery grasslands in the foreground — recurs on the vehicles that are crossing it: light-coloured panels separated by a dark mid-band. People in their machines have long sought integrality with this landscape in a great movement toward the American Southwest: “The people in flight streamed out on 66, sometimes in a single car, sometimes a little caravan” (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath). But dreams can mislead. A quotation from Walt Whitman opens the collection, the poet self-deceived: the object of his search remains elusive and “unfound.” In Harms’ poetry, this integrality has been rent.

After West is an elegy, a Miltonesque tragedy: glimpses of a fall and the futility of hope that comes from existential disillusionment: from “too much nothing” (from “Isn’t That Enough,” p. 62) after a human utopia has gone to ruin.

The book is divided into three sections. The first creates a climate of foreboding; the second, comprising the poem “After West,” (pp. 39-48) describes a rift; the third deals with pain and fear after the end of a marriage. The sections are simply numbered “One,” “Two” and “Three”: life, they seem to say, can change as easily as that.

The opening poem, “Pisgah Church Cemetery” (pp. 13-14), introduces the theme of death, which recurs throughout the book. The first line, “They came down to the shore / in wood-paneled Fords” recalls The Grapes of Wrath. These strangers, the “drift of labor,” with their foreign cultures, their “plastic pink flamingos” would fill the graveyards with successive generations, until we “stack the dead” and thus risk forgetting those on the lower strata. If “tomorrow” no longer “lie[s] down on today,” will we, dead and unremembered, cease to exist?

After West is an elegy, a Miltonesque tragedy: glimpses of a fall and the futility of hope that comes from existential disillusionment: from “too much nothing”… after a human utopia has gone to ruin.

Death is ubiquitous. It appears in “On Beauty and West Virginia at the Blue Moose Café” (pp. 15-16) as a bird’s wing tattooed on half of a boy’s “scalp and face.” Metaphorically, the boy has scalped himself, knowing the tattoo has “limited his life,” just as the narrator scalps his marriage by letting himself become fascinated by a woman at a party, who, like a dark angel, disappears, leaving on him an evanescent shadow of missed opportunity. As Milton wrote, “govern well thy appetite, lest Sin / Surprise thee, and her black attendant Death” (Paradise Lost, Book VII). This was “the year before it all came apart,” and as we move toward this moment in “Your Favourite Things” (p. 17), time is relentless: the fireflies come “[t]oo soon,” even though spring, a calming influence after winter, is attending to “all the wounds half-healed.”

In “Held Down” (pp. 18-19), a boy is murdered by suffocation, and we are arrested by the alliteration and assonance of the “t” and “s” sounds redolent of breath and struggle. The pathos as the child in hand-me-downs expires:

There goes
the gravity
And a little boy too thin
for his cousin’s old jeans
is released from the rules of standing still,
… the warped seconds
wrinkling the air like heat
above the tarmac, the boy rising,
a plastic sack inviting the wind,

falling back at last into
his body, his body blue
from the hands tightening, holding him down.
Who do I ask?

— “Held Down,” p. 19

The question is poignant. Not a shriek, just a question to humanity: who is there?

This child strangulation is followed directly by “Breakfast in West Virginia” (p. 20), introducing us to the poet’s young children: Walt and Phoebe. They eat milk, cereal, and peeled apples, looking out on a suburban porch and garden. This is the Eden that will fall after divorce. Already, the children are subdued and the scene is being erased; they “chew silently, snow / filling every opening in the earth.”

There is no escape from death. In “Comedy: Morgantown West Virginia” (pp. 23-24), the “cost” of comedy “is regret at best, or loss, sometimes sadness: / the happy fool trails a ghost.” There is nothing enduringly funny about the “mad chef” in “Like Mercury, the Monongahela” (pp. 21-22), who butchers the town’s ducks to make his fare; laughter has a shade called sadness, and in “Nothing New but Everything” (p. 25), our prayers, “like small snails loose in the wind,” are pathetic and ineffective. In our human pathos, we can also die for small vanities, like the “signalman” in “Tribe and Country” (pp. 26-27) who, “remembers his baldness, / clutches for his hat” and “tumbles into traffic.” “Statistics” will register this death as any other. A woman hears the news and makes to yawn, but “surprises herself by screaming.” We suffer suppressed emotion; something will give. We need to ingest the landscape as a cure, as in “Landscape as the Latest Diet (Southern California)” (pp. 28-29). But when engaging with this landscape, travelling across it, as in “If I Could Break Down Anywhere it Would Be Halfway to Todos Santos” (pp. 30-32), it remains difficult to relax, to come alive. When the old car breaks down, the narrator says, “I didn’t drink and drink / and drink for days though I thought about it.” Letting go remains a phantasy while breakdown threatens. Only at the end of the trip is there “gold tequila” with friends, “in ranks on the bar”: enough to get drunk, to escape existence.

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