- The World Pushes Back by Garret Keizer, Texas Review Press, 96 pages. $16.95.
Until recently, Garret Keizer hasn't been lauded for his brevity. Instead, he's been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and appointed contributing editor at Harper's Magazine for his expansive prose about big ideas. Over his literary career, the Vermont writer has pondered the concept of aid in Help: The Original Human Dilemma, delved into ire in The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin, taken on noise in The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want and considered privacy in Privacy.
Keizer's essays are equally exhaustive — such as the 5,000-word piece he penned for a 2017 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, where he's also a contributing editor. Readers are treated to a smorgasbord of thoughts pertaining to the theme (and title) "Facing North: The Perennial Pull of a Mysterious Direction."
After mentioning that he grew up in a north-facing house in New Jersey, Keizer lets his imagination strike out in several directions, discussing stories of Arctic explorers, ancient human migrations out of Africa, the beliefs of Norse people and Native Americans, and the search for the Northwest Passage. In passing, he mentions his current longtime home in northeastern Vermont.
Keizer's debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back, won the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize from Texas Review Press. Fans of the writer's nonfiction deep dives may wonder: Is this another epic foray into a single topic? It is not.
On the contrary, Keizer's poems seem like necessary by-products of the work of serious sense-making. One imagines him producing them at his desk among the drafts of prose manuscripts the way a furniture maker might pause in crafting a chair to fashion an exquisite spinning top from a chunk of leftover wood.
Consider an excerpt from a 47-word poem that shares the book's title. This piece suggests a playful, succinct riff on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with its famous "eat me" and "drink me" instructions. The speaker heeds the call of two seemingly voiceless objects: "Lift me, says the suitcase / and makes my hand / magnetic with the ground. / Pull me, says the starter rope, / and pulls me yet again / out of the mind's dark well..."
On the surface, Keizer's poem simply records what happens: A man pulls a cord and the cord pulls back. Yet this becomes a motif that reverberates in the collection. As in his nonfiction, Keizer grapples here with the abstract, be it inertia or God or deceased geniuses like Samuel Beckett. The collection is riddled with moments in which ideas appear to have an agenda that works on the poet even as he works on them.
Still, if Keizer's book has a thesis, perhaps it's stated in this line from opening poem "Traveling Light": "The older I get the less I'm bothered / by seeming incongruity."
Just as John Keats celebrated "negative capability" (which he defined as "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason"), so Keizer writes of his increasing tolerance for incongruous pursuits. In the modern poet's case, that means reading the Gospel of Mark, which recounts the life and death of Jesus, while listening to Billie Holiday sing "Trav'lin' Light," a song about being raked clean by loss.
"Traveling Light" also serves as a preview of the verse packed into this book. Many of the collection's poems argue or play with patriarchal Christian ideas. Many also invoke the muse-like presence of a woman, occasionally singing; many sketch a sense of place.
In the poems about Christianity, readers will recognize one of Keizer's preoccupations, especially if they're familiar with his memoir A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry. In "Waiting," for example, the Second Coming pops up as an almost ho-hum event: "Sometimes I am in my backyard waiting /... / ... for the burgers to brown, / and it strikes me how... / the dead may be raised incorruptible, perhaps / for no other reason than that people were waiting for it, / that a second coming will seem no more than medium / rare..." This almost comical image serves as his counterargument to Beckett's absurdist vision of Waiting for Godot.
The machines of modern life also earn a place in this collection, as does inescapable mortality. In "All I Know," another of Keizer's tiny specimens, the speaker expresses the sweet oncoming regret that one day "I shall no longer / drive a car / with my right hand / resting / on your cool, bare thigh." The lines suggest that Keizer's heart is the muscle pushing into The World Pushes Back.
I always go to town, loving
to go, when blizzard is predicted.
The milk of human kindness glistens
on the nipples of disaster.
No one shows up at the lost and found
to claim his enemy.
Deep down we are all preparing
to meet our Maker, no less
poignantly than our hibernator's panic
empties the supermarket shelves
of toilet paper, candles, milk, and wine.
Never mind that they'll have it all plowed in a day —
some old wrinkle in the brain keeps whispering
Ice Age, while the winking stem
goes into heat. You will remember
the famous New York City Blackout,
how nine months later the maternity wards
were crowded as a rush-hour train. Just think
of all the babies that will start tonight
with the snow already starting to fall
like the sperm of angels, and it looks
as though more than one is getting through
to the egg. Forget biology, man;
this is metaphysics. This is the eve
of our great North Easter, when the world
awakes inside the hillside petals
of a single gleaming lily, dusted
with the pollen of the risen sun.