Review | From the Book of Giants , by Joshua Weiner

“Style,” wrote Robert Frost, “is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. It is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.” As a stylish statement, those sentences suggest that Frost took himself as a pithy speaker dizzied by circuitous thought, steadied by belief in progression, poem by poem. If we take Frost at his word, then every choice of subject, phrase, rhythm, and tone hinges on self-regard.  We may or may not admire the projected person and his or her values. The important consideration is how well the poet’s stylistic choices deliver a complete vision of experience and its relation to the imagination. All too often we hear critics dismissing the work at hand on the basis of tone or theory alone.

In Joshua Weiner’s From the Book of Giants, self-regard is a preoccupation and a conveyance, as well as the source of his elegiac and odic tones. Here, one’s acts and those of others are weighed, critiqued, celebrated, or dismissed. There is an insistence on decency, on self-containment that faces outward, and a rectification of perception. Weiner’s style is inquisition: the past is picked apart, motives uncovered. Confidence and restraint, conjoined formally, shade the self-regard. The confidence is required to speak in the voice of one who evaluates, sometimes severely; the restraint charms the reader with its modesty and uncertainties. “The condition of things, I believe, and not the circumstance, is what colors the American elegy,” asserts Stanley Plumly. Weiner, packing a psyche with a passport, attempts a broader consideration of circumstance and condition. The qualified response demanded by classical and English elegies and odes merges with the self-invention more typical of the American versions. The result is a complex venture, rare among younger American poets, a deliberately rigorous style won by rejecting facile alternatives.

From the Book of Giants wastes no time in establishing a chastening tone. In the opening poem, “Bocca della Verità,” the image of a human face on a Roman draincover criticizes us all; a crack at the corner of one eye stands “for giving in / to anger, the pleasure you feel / drawing bristles over a rash, / for your cheapest satisfactions—when you cut / someone off, miss another call, / forget yourself; when you hold / back from an easy true compliment and jump / to take offense.” The reader is quickly subjected to an unsparing universal profiling: one small cheap gesture and you’re busted. Weiner then begins the artful process of alternating moderation and penetration that shapes the book’s movement of thought.

“Twister” is posed as a letter (think of the Roman epistulae) spoken to a poet-acquaintance who has importuned him about a teaching job:

After a long silence
    another letter asking my help
while insinuating my quisling
    guilt for having secured a position
from which I could aid you.
    Through such twisting
if I succeed in opening your way
    the folded arms of sponsorship
I will have testified against
    myself upon your urging.

Here in the opening of the poem is the self-regard in high relief. The response to the implied insult seeks to instruct in nuance, since to position one’s rabid need (for employment, recognition, vindication) above the equanimity of others is to force them to testify against themselves. This may be a rather fine moral distinction (the annoying person needing a job has sent a letter, not a death threat). But the situation is intriguing, since the speaker not only uses it to edify, but also to make a case for his own character. The disaffected acquaintance feels victimized, but the speaker responds, “Where are we free of systems?” and points to the necessity of “adjustment, accommodation, collaboration.” After a reminiscence of their days in the poets’ workshop (“All of us a year together in the designated room”), the speaker describes playing Twister with his six-year-old son, showing him some moves “to gain some leverage / and squirm his way on top.” This episode amplifies the complaint with his friend: everyone seeks an advantage, but there is a decent, straightforward way to strive. Finally, he envisions his grown-up son, “on the El alone,” reading his friend’s poetry, “to bend and send him, fill him up / and empty him so he never / feels too full enough, by a poet / he thinks I know, that I must know, who / in truth I never knew.” But we, of course, now know the speaker who worked for and perhaps has earned our esteem, a complement to his self-regard.

Just as poetry lets us sense our capaciousness while the poet himself may behave badly, history and national politics diminish us while the world itself suggests some new potential. To make this suggestion, Weiner employs the same appraising tone and perspective of “Twister” to current events in “2004.” The opening lines:
“How was it I felt nothing / that last Ides of March / in the busy downtown square / of Largo Argentina, / where Caesar felt the determined / point of conspirators?” The city pauses for five minutes to honor those killed by Islamic fanatics in Madrid. Enacting the preservation of one’s self-regard and dignity, the poem pretends to be unable to answer the question it raises.

Then five minutes were up
and we heard the children shout
from across the ancient square
and release their bright balloons
into the afternoon air —
red and blue and gold,
they rose above all things
ruined and not yet ruined,
perfected in themselves
disappearing from the world,
manmade yet natural shapes,
fresh as the painted birds
fading from Etruscan tombs
escaping the hunter’s net
also depicted there
in the living necropolis.

The line-up is Pompey, Il Duce, and Berlusconi versus Senegalese immigrants, feral cats on the travertine, and a gypsy family. The speaker sniffs at the power brokers and observes the slow process of ruination, but refuses to denounce bluntly. In a 1982 interview, Larry Levis said, “There’s something elegiac in the whole fabric of our time, about which I can do nothing. The time in which I am born is something done to me. It creates a particular style of thought, and a particular violation of the self, about which one can do nothing.” For Weiner, the five minutes of silence, equated with an urge to exploit through emotion, send up the red flags of self-regard. The giants look down on a fallen world where self-regard is one’s guarded recourse and best defense.

“The soul exceeds where it’s confined,” writes Weiner in “Found Letter.” The confinement here is often thematic and tonal, while Weiner’s narrative form may expand into discursiveness, exploring on an ample tether.  Poems working epigrammatically like children’s rhymes (“Hanging Mobile,” “Games for Someone,” “Out of Range,” “Cricket”) reel the reader back in to confront tactical timing, delayed or withheld significance, the lesson in the stance of restraint itself. Rich in its variety of narrative and rhetorical values, eclectic in its choice of materials, From the Book of Giants keeps watch over a coiled self at its center, unwinding only in due time. Its perspective spreads out to cover a world, while the sense of itself is gathered in. Once we accept and enter into the rhythm of argument and answer, our own self-regard is also calibrated. This is Weiner’s unabashed agenda.

We follow the inquiring voice in “Mosaic,” an elegy: “Will we remember you, / child we never knew, never saw, / never touched.” The poem, turning on the question of how to remember and consecrate what never lived, must revert to self-examination since there is no spawned life to answer, nor any sufficient traditional response (just as no such response sufficed for Ben Jonson in “On My First Son,” which comes to mind). Weiner chooses here to allow his lines to drift and separate like the broken chromosomal sequences that caused pre-natal death. But the poem never surrenders its clarity, even while sustaining its agitation:

                                                             Yet when I say “you,”
          the peak of energy in utterance spikes to question elements of who
                                      who died by this mosaic of a gene,
                                                      (mosaicism, pathogen’s crooked path
                                                                                             to crippling deviation)
                        who did we burn to ash, whose ashes
                                           did we carry to the coast,
           whose ashes did we set down on that rock
                         above a sea repetitive as a lullabye,
                                       it was that quiet, barely
           a breeze to carry further the remains . . .

The pattern of “Mosaic” traces the shape of the father’s struggle, a test of his ability to resist conclusive sentiment. Weiner provides just enough difficulty for the reader to keep up among the leaps, queries, and sensual shocks. The father, about “to make from my breath a single strong current” to blow the cremated ashes into the sea, breathes in, “swallowed some ashes.” For Weiner, every occasion is an opportunity to prod the very nature of language into insight.  Here, the genetic phrase, a death-word, is taken up to yield meaning—and breath becomes what it is, a vital force of continuance:

A mosaic now of unborn possibility: the future
             had breathed like a muslin veil we peered through

                        to see ourselves                     with you

           in another life (in the nucleus),

of the new, nut meat
             hungered for as we prepared to pass through
                           curtains puffed with beckoning

From the Book of Giants is Weiner’s second book. One of my favorite poems in his first, The World’s Room (2001), is “Market Day.” In this poem, the speaker recalls his job as a clerk in a grocery store where a deaf old man in torn baggy pants comes for hand-outs or to steal. Unwilling to use the occasion to feel virtuous by indulging in the cheap satisfaction of valorizing the victim, the speaker is “so impressed // with his own cheap cunning / I wanted to knock him down, / take away his prize and eat it.” Ever the careful formalist, Weiner is very much aware of the cunning in his own reserved constructions. The old man exiting the store shows “in each grimace, each halting step, / the effort of it all revealed and hidden.” There is no better description of Weiner’s accomplished method. The quality of his own self-regard, which is also a self-consciousness about his style’s (all styles’) sleight-of-hand, allows Weiner to keep his eye on something more serious. In “Lament from the Book of Giants” he writes, “From the Book of Giants / grew the frond of an old understanding; / its claim rooted in my soil / gathered strength there— // Then why did I resist?” But resistance, both an aesthetic and a moral value in From the Book of Giants, makes for irresistible poems.  

Joshua Weiner is the author of The World's Room (2001) and From the Book of Giants (2006), both from University of Chicago Press.  A recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and The Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, he lives in Washington DC and teaches at the University of Maryland.