Even In Quiet Places, by William Stafford
It is apparently a common thing in poetry publishing for a series of chapbooks to be turned into a mainstream publishing book, and so it was with the last series of chapbooks to be written by William Stafford during his lifetime. The poems themselves are surprisingly punchy, demonstrating that William Stafford had not mellowed at all in his old age and that he was still remarkably fierce as a writer. This particular set of poems was lovingly collected by the late poet’s son Kim, who wrote the afterword to this book and gives some explanation about the provenance of the book and his decision to have the book published by a regional press in Idaho rather than by a larger mainstream publisher. Presumably that means that these poems have reached a smaller audience than earlier Stafford books or his more popular compilations , but these poems are still the same sort of poems that one would expect from a late William Stafford collection, and if you are a fan of the poet that is a good thing, and makes this work of a bit more than 100 pages an obvious and relatively quick read.
This collection of poetry is divided into four sections. The first three sections are based on chapbooks that Stafford had written in the last three years of his life, ordered from the most recent to the least most recent: Who Are You Really, Wanderer?, Holding Onto The Grass, and History Is Loose Again. The last twenty of the poems are ones that were written by Stafford for the Methow River project, where Stafford submitted twenty poems, of which seven were chosen to grace signs in a national forest, and which had never been published before this time in any form. From the beginning the reader can witness the political nature of this poetry, with the author praising a “new language” that is without pretense, and many of the poems within show a similar political edge. Stafford plays with the thought of obscenity in “My NEA Poem,” where he points to the way that claims of artistic freedom often result in the proliferation of profanity. Other poems deal with identity politics, like an interesting all-verbs poem that is written in the vein of translated Navajo. Another poem gives well-meaning advice for the chairman of any committee that Stafford is on giving his perspective in a pithy and effective way. And so it goes with reminisces, a look at the author’s life as an old professor, and reflections on issues of family and creation.
This book is certainly one of the more pointed books of poetry in the Stafford oeuvre, but it demonstrates that Stafford was seeking to challenge himself as well as his audience through the end of his life. The poems reveal some interesting tensions, with a heart and mind that clearly wanted to grow and develop even as the author was nearing eighty years of age, and a body that seemed to be slowing down dramatically, which is sometimes exhibited in poetry that reflects weariness. Yet until the very end of his life, Stafford continued writing and continued struggling against the violence that was all around, and this poem is testament to his opposition to warfare, renderings of traumatic bullying, nightmares, declining morality, and even the violence one can find in creation with bitterly cold winds symbolic of the horrors that people feel the need to share. Stafford’s work leaves the reader with an unsettling simplicity that hides layers of possible meaning.
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