Isaiah Vianese’s Stopping on the Old Highway
(recycled karma press, 2009)
In a recent article for the Poetry Foundation online, Matthew Zapruder clarifies the role of poetry critic. More specifically, he clarifies useful distinctions for a critic to make when discussing a work under review. No longer useful (or perhaps never useful to begin with) are the old signifiers used to lump together schools of thought in poetry:
So if not abstraction and representation, and if not narrative and lyric, what would be an example of a useful distinction? I propose the following: Does the poem have a single, particular, specified consciousness, speaking in a relatively identifiable situation? Or does the poem have a less defined consciousness, speaking without need of or reference to a particular situation?1
I found Zapruder’s distinction useful when reading Isaiah Vianese collection Stopping on the Old Highway (recycled karma press, 2009).2 Zapruder’s two distinctions, seemingly in opposition to one another, are both present in Vianese’s work.
Many of Vianese’s poems in this 45-page collection, a mix of prose poems and lineated free verse, have a narrator planted firmly in familiar settings. That is, setting is clarified as the speaker(s) describe and comment on the surroundings. As this happens, the location (sometimes named in the title, sometimes now) slowly becomes familiar to a newly arrived reader.
We often find ourselves inside a home, in a domestic space surrounded by female relatives, or outside in a rural setting. Here, in this well-known place (Zapruder’s “identifiable situation”), the speaker may sit with a relative, to “watch the last / of the mothers nest in the brush” (“The Mothers”, 6) or
wake up early to hear
my father slump down the creaky stairs,
my mother calling the dog out to pee
in the cold, then starting the coffee. (“Our Tradition”, 13)
Soon, however, Vianese’s speaker reflects from within these familiar settings with what Zapruder calls “a less defined consciousness…without reference to a particular situation”. The speaker begins to transcend the prescribed setting by conjuring either the ghosts of other poets and poems or setting new conditions for the manner in which the speaker will seek spiritual enlightenment from the natural world.
In “Burying the Queen”, the speaker observes a beekeeper worried over the job of removing the dead queen bee to bury it. Because of the ceremony of bees inside the colony, the speaker first understands that “this is not normal procedure”, as the burial could very well disrupt the planned ceremony (35). In the previous poem, “Our Secrets”, the queen bee acts ceremoniously, as “she accepts offerings, fat on royal jelly, her brown sack turning out each gentle egg like a spell” (34).
Here, I recalled Robert Frost’s “Directive” and the goblet in the children’s playhouse. Frost’s wooded setting protects the magic of a child’s playhouse and reveals the earth’s ravenous appetite for the playhouse and its belongings only to an attentive and meditative speaker, just as the deceased queen bee will not reveal its mystery to just anyone.
The influence of Frost can also been seen in “Stopping On the Old Highway”, a lament and celebration of a year’s end and homecoming. The poem ends with “and there are miles yet to drive— / an hour or two before I can sleep” (19), echoing the penultimate (and ultimate) line in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
Vianese invokes another well-loved modernist poet, William Carlos Williams, in “The Wheelbarrow, The Plum”. Here, the speaker decries the stuffy and controlling directive that prevents the collective “you” from writing “about love” by allowing only a written account of such things as “the wheelbarrow full of stones, / the plum wrapped in maroon skin like a heart” (15). Here, the poem moves to deepen and make explicit the longing for love touched on in Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This is Just to Say”.
Vianese’s poems, in whatever register, always delight in the mystery of the natural world. This world is not tarnished by overly analytical labels or digression. The tone is always hushed and reverent, even when urging action (for when you are quiet, people must listen all the more intently to hear). It is a celebration Vianese consistently maintains, even as the speaker navigates around a “car covered in shit, leaves, frost” (9) or a clearing inhospitable to new growth (25). After this, the speaker is left to find cousins gathering twigs—in the poem “Currency”—“that we would ignite with a Bic Lighter / and then recite false incantations, / ask the stones to speak”.
1. Zapruder, Matthew. “Show Your Work!: A poet calls for a new kind of poetry criticism, and a new kind of critic.” Poetry Foundation online. March 2009. 16 April 2009
2. Full Disclosure: As an undergraduate at Elmira College, I had the fortune to meet Isaiah Vianese, a fellow student, through shared involvement in extracurricular activities that included the literary magazine, Sibyl, the newspaper, The Octagon. We were also both students in poet MaryJo Mahoney’s stellar modern poetry course. I hope these facts serve useful for the reader to understand my appreciation and understanding for his craft—and my observation of the possible sources of its genesis.