John James’s debut collection, The Milk Hours (Milkweed Editions), can and will be read as elegy. After all, the collection’s first poem, its titular poem, includes the epigraph “for J.E.J., 1962-1993.” The poem has thirteen lines, one curious line short of a sonnet. On the surface, you can liken the absence of the fourteenth line to the absence of the epigraphed father, but, while obvious, this would be too easy. Given this, the poem and the collection interrogates loss only obliquely, something I did not expect. That is, there is grieving, but it rarely comes in the form of blunt poetic declaration and confession.
You could read James’s collection as a response to loss through its employment of recursive, cyclical time, its undulation between the local and universal, or plenty of other poetic strategies. But here, I would like to look closer at how James explores loss via image. We are not given images of interactions between father and son as we might expect, as might be more poetically obvious or available. Instead, we are witness landscape, flora, fauna. We recognize, as the collection’s blurb-writers have recognized, that James has an eye for the natural world, how it works on us and in us, how it both absorbs our projections and instructs us otherwise. The poems suggest a way to mend ourselves after loss—after a barrage of losses—through our relationship with the natural world.
James’s poems implore us to observe our surroundings and let that seeing guide our thinking and meaning-making. They, in fact, model this for us time and time again. Take, for example, the third poem in the collection, “April, Andromeda” in which the poet takes on the impossible Where the hell am I and why am I here question. The poem begins:
I am in this world, not self, not seed, not stamen-dusted
pistil flicking in the wind—the eye sees past its limitations.
Crushed petals in the dirt, I’m courting a horse with an apple
watching its white tail swish along the fence. Somewhere,
the galaxy spins. I smile at the cloudless sky.
Syntactically, these lines and statements are clear, but untwisting the semantics to arrive at a philosophy is a different story. There is a doggedness in the poem’s resistance to extrapolate or metaphorize the self. I read “self,” “seed,” “stamen-dusted pistil” as potential symbolizations of the “I,” though, of course, there could be other readings of this catalog. Instead, the “I” defines itself by action. The speaker smiles, the speaker is “courting a horse with an apple / watching its white tail swish along the fence.” This passage anticipates a clearer statement of its philosophy in one of its later sections, which I summarize as: We must first define ourselves in relation to the body and its senses, its tangible possibilities. Observe first, then think. Not the other way around.
This thesis—if you will allow me to call it that—directs our attention as we move through the following poems. For some readers, this may force us to revise how we read. This, to me, marks one of James’s accomplishments. Not only do the poems illuminate the speaker’s philosophy (attend first to the tangible—what the body can see, touch, taste, hear—before making meaning out of experience) but it forces readers to perform this philosophy themselves. That is, we are made aware of our preconditioned methods of reading, comprehension, and analysis.
The seventh section of “April, Andromeda” reads:
from my palm. Horse’s muzzle,
its silken touch, teeth against the skin.
The eye sees the mind sees
crushed petals in the pestle
There are stops and starts everywhere in “April, Andromeda,” whether it be punctuation, section breaks, or italics marking quotation from source texts. So when we come across the peculiar phrase, “The eye sees the mind sees,” we notice its lack of punctuation. We must take notice. And we should take notice, because the poet is revealing a bit more of the aforementioned philosophy. By eliminating punctuation, the poet manages to slow us down. This is (usually) the opposite reason of why a poet would strip punctuation. This technique is commonly said to speed the reader up.
Furthermore, there is a congruence between the poet slowing down our reading speed and the way the speaker slows down to recognize universal in the local. In the poem’s ninth section, we read:
See kale, see
rows of collard stalks—think
The poem seems to be saying if we slow down and notice what is in our immediate surroundings, we will find reason to contemplate the unfathomable. See, then think.
Let’s pivot to consider a variation on “see, then think.” More specifically, I want to formulate this mantra as thought lying under the observable. There is image and under-image. If we apply this formulation to the collection’s titular poem, the poet’s grief are expressed as observations of his surroundings. Some descriptions include: “We lived overlooking the walls overlooking the cemetery,” “Cattail, heartseed—these words mean nothing to me,” “From our porch I watch snow fall on bare firs.”
But there is a more fruitful example in The Milk Hours with which to explore the subterranean: “Chthonic.” The title itself suggests underneath-ness, and its form performs burials. The poem’s lines alternate between left-justified and single-tabbed left justification. Thus, its even-numbered lines feel buried underneath its odd numbered lines. The poem, content-wise, showcases the speaker’s awareness of the under-workings of objects much more obviously than other poems, like “Delaware I-95,” which is comprised solely of image and assumes a speaker as only an observer of objects. “Chthonic” differs, because we see interpretation (read: thinking, meaning-making) of images by the speaker. Here is the second half of the poem:
On the edge where
my mother sat reading
a bright picture book
something has taken
her place. My father’s
mouth, which I lost
years ago, speaks
from a jar on the shelf.
I ask my mother
what she did with the light.
She says it’s
under the bed. I ask
my father why
he can’t hear. He tells
me he’s underground.
A subterranean anxiety or paranoia simmers beneath these lines. The beginning of “Chthonic” reveals a speaker in bed in a dark room with eyes closed. Thus, the conversation and images in the passage above are mirages in a dark bedroom where, we might assume, everything exists underneath a blanketing darkness. The speaker does not just present us with image. The speaker does not frame image in this poem as literally what it is. The bright picture book is not just a bright picture book. Under the gaze of the speaker, it transforms into a light in the mother’s hands. Presumably, a searchlight. Even in this poem, James does not abandon what I believe to be his greatest strength as a poet: description.
Here, James intertwines image with figurative language much more so than in other poems. This foregrounding of a speaker who is able to intertwine image and metaphor startled me. The first word in “Chthonic” is “my,” after all. The first words of the poems I have previously discussed here expose the speaker as well. “The Milk Hours” begins with “we.” “April, Andromeda” begins with “I.” But these poems are the minority. Not surprisingly, when we read the beginning of “Chthonic,” we take notice again. Rightly so. This poem is more forthcoming about the speaker’s relationship with his father. The poem demonstrates the potential psychic effects of his loss through moving away from image and toward conversation, declaration, and questioning.
In the end, we can envision the speaker eager to follow his father’s voice only to meet the bedroom floor. Yet another thing to be felt, touched. It is impossible for us to witness the speaker’s reaction to this dead end, because the poem ends. But, if we have learned anything from James and this stunning debut, we have reason to be optimistic knowing that thought and meaning will begin with that touch.