Review | Westerly, by Will Schutt
Yale University Press, 2013
Throughout his debut collection, Westerly, selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2013 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, Will Schutt explores the imagination’s power to both clarify and distort the past. In “Strange Giraffe,” he observes how “perspective, put one way, is invitation to accident.” Yet Schutt also acknowledges that accidents and errors in one’s angle of vision might lead to unexpected insights: when “hunting for the long-ago life in my own life,” he discovers how “a mistake” in perspective can bring illumination, like “light behind the wattle.” Schutt further examines the shifting dimensions of recollected experience in the final stanza of “Strange Giraffe”: “The past, in hindsight, appears / clearly, riddled with wrong measurements: / elongate arms, a sun describing orbits around earth. / Out in the square, someone clears his throat / to phone home: ‘I can hear you, can you hear me?’”
The past’s ability to appear “clearly” and “riddled with wrong measurements” at the same time captures a paradox central to Westerly. Schutt’s poems reach toward contact with “the long-ago life” like the man in the square phoning his place of origin, asking into the void: “I can hear you, can you hear me?” Westerly draws distinction from the striking ways in which Schutt registers the ever-changing conversation between the past and the present. In “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929,” the speaker examines his personal lineage through the lens of cultural history. He sees his father reflected in an image of Peter Lorre:
Momentarily he’s my young father
refusing to break the news he’s been laid off
and lay the groundwork for divorce. It’s difficult to explain.
The mind rehearses, playing dress-up with a life.
When the speaker interrupts himself amidst his own projection—“it’s difficult to explain” —he acknowledges the imagination’s unaccountability as a filter for the past. Such recognition comprises a defining feature of Schutt’s oeuvre. For Schutt, rendering the “long-ago” in language means admitting to playing “dress-up” with others’ lives and with previous versions of his own life. In “Louise’s Story,” a poem in which he describes an elderly woman named Louise, he allows that his perception of her may amount to little more than “merely several / platforms of imagination, that shunting faculty that props / a scaffold on the face of things and says Beware.”
Certainly Schutt does not stand alone, among either his literary peers or his poetic predecessors, in this commitment to exploring the imagination’s slipperiness as a register of human experience. What distinguishes Schutt from many other young contemporary poets is that, despite the “Beware” he views as inherent in the relationship between imagination and written language, his work demonstrates a genuine belief in poetry’s ability to approach truths—whether literal or figurative—about actual, lived experience. As Carl Phillips notes in his introduction, Schutt’s voice offers a “persuasive insight” into “the lived life.” A useful comparison can be drawn between Phillips’s assertion about Schutt and Mark Doty’s observation, in his preface to the 2006 anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, that many younger contemporary poets “are not, by and large, much interested in the representation of experience. . . . Either they don’t share my generation’s belief that narration might lead to insight, or else they think we’ve worn out that idea.” For Schutt, the representation of experience and the use of narration, far from being worn-out poetic tropes, define and enrich what it means to be, as he phrases it in the poem “Rock Maple, White Pine,” a “time-comprehending creature.”
Schutt’s interest in representing and narrating lived experience takes many forms throughout Westerly. The narratives he offers sometimes spring from his own childhood and sometimes detail the dreamt-up lives and afterlives of others. In “The Farther Veil,” he imagines the life of a Japanese woman from a remote seaside town, and in “Dante’s House,” he animates Dante’s ghost as he returns from the dead to his home in Florence. In “Transparent Window on a Complex View,” when Schutt describes the aesthetic approach of painter Fairfield Porter, he states beliefs that underlie his own poetry:
To him, what was solid was miraculous:
planes of light, day-old eggs on a white dish,
objects taken frankly by the hour on their own.
No one is especially pretty or monstrous
posed on his lupine and dandelion couch:
Running socks. A red hat. A rocking horse.
That which was real, and changing, and light.
Schutt’s poetry thrives in the space between the solid and the changing, between the human desire to observe, name, and hold onto concrete reality and the human inability to stop time’s passage; as Schutt says in “Beach Lane,” a meditation on his boyhood, “years go by and all we’ve done is stare / at the ocean from one end of a mile-long lane / with our human eyeballs subject to the brain’s commotion.” For Schutt, the eyeball’s focus on the external world— “objects taken frankly by the hour on their own”—can never exist without mediation from the “brain’s commotion” of memory, imagination, and longing. In “Beauty Spot,” Schutt explores that commotion through the narrative of a man named Roberto:
Roberto sat in the same
spot by the Arno every afternoon for a year with a broken heart.
Later, he met his wife there. So now that place
in his mind is crossed with pain and happiness, which in many
people’s books make beauty. Like staring out
at the gulf of Populonia while feeling the Etruscan necropolis
at your back.
In these lines, it’s hard not to hear an echo of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” Schutt’s poems bristle with “time’s wingèd chariot” at every turn, a savoring of the present (“staring out / at the gulf of Populonia”) always tinged with knowledge of the past (“feeling the Etruscan necropolis / at your back”) and an awareness that the future can lead only where the past has already been. As Phillips points out, the word Westerly “has a doubleness to it, meaning both toward the west, and from that direction.” Schutt’s poems move simultaneously away from and toward mortality. In “After A Silvia,” Schutt addresses a friend who died in her early twenties:
some narrow sickness buried you.
Whatever boyhood I had
fate hijacked too. Old friend, is this that
world we stayed awake all night for?
Truth dropped in. Far off,
your cool hand points the way.
The cool hand that points the way invites Schutt and his readers on a journey, recalling a journey that appears earlier in the collection; the book’s title poem brings us to “Westerly, / Rhode Island, where nirvana is a long time / coming, or untidy, unresolved, / the way stupid hope won’t shut up.” If Schutt’s work shows the disparity between the imagined world of youth (a world worth staying “awake all night for”) and the reality of life once truth has “dropped in,” it also registers the persistence of hope. For Schutt, that hope comes from language itself, from words’ ability to merge our inner and our outer realities in the context of a time-bound universe. Westerly marks the debut of a poet whose skill on the page will continue to point our way forward.Will Schutt is the author of Westerly (Yale University Press, 2013), which won the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. Schutt is the recipient of fellowships from The James Merrill House and the Stadler Center for Poetry.