It is fitting that two of these outstanding volumes of poetry (Taylor’s and Weider’s) gather work from over 20 years of the poets’ respective careers; fitting because all three collections exhibit a concern for the passage of time, both its destructive power and its capacity to inspire wisdom and love. In contrast to poets who pour forth prose masquerading as verse—work so solipsistic as to be virtually meaningless—and poems hobbled to a political (predominately leftist) agenda, these three poets whose concern is to capture the human condition in words and forms of lasting beauty have produced some of the best that contemporary poetry has to offer.

James Applewhite’s new collection reflects his home state of North Carolina and is laced with stories of local inhabitants past and present, their trials and joys. A sense of history informs many of these pieces, such as “Among Names of My Fathers,” in which Applewhite meditates in the family burial ground on the vicissitudes of time; however, it is a history that seems remote. A “dark identity” connects the poet with his ancestors, men whose lives seem “fabulous” to him. Yet even as he disapproves of certain aspects of their lives (e.g., their owning slaves), he also sees himself as one with them, both in his genetic heritage and in his common mortality. “Making Tobacco Money” looks at the past and celebrates the hard labor of farmers who cultivated the land and made it productive, a time when “folks identified themselves not by wealth on paper but / by visible achievements of their hands.” The same backward glance to an earlier era marks “The Cemetery Next to Contentnea”; here Applewhite ponders the hardiness of farm families, their realism, and their perseverance. Other poems focus on the conditions of contemporary farmers who, like their forebears, are swept along in the river of time and change. For instance, the persona in “A Wilson County Farmer” muses on the difficulty of finding field hands, on declining tobacco prices, and on his own lonely existence. A similar situation is reprised in “Accident of Inheritance,” in which a son who has inherited his father’s farm wonders if rural life is worth the struggle.

The poignancy of change is touchingly rendered in poems such as “The Rest Home,” in which, after witnessing the pitiable condition of the institutionalized elderly, the narrator comments, “It’s a shame / We say, feeling ourselves creatures / Together in this small world of time.” Life’s ineluctable progression toward death makes us feel our vulnerability. Several poems sound this same note. But temporality and mortality do not have the final say. The last poem in the collection, “Light’s Praise,” is a paean and prayer to the glory of sunlight: “Light, existent from the start, not to be / extinguished by my or anyone’s exit, circle / on yourself oh self-subsistent seeing. . . . ” The hegemony of time is challenged as well by human love and togetherness, as in “The Ridge on the Edge of the Day.” The poet watches the sunset and feels the passage of time but comes to this conclusion: “Tonight I am content to be a creature lent / this riding with the movement of the planet since / across the noise of water is my wife, whose / kiss will ease the mystery as we face the night together.” Love does not conquer time, but it does make it bearable.

Henry Taylor’s book consists of two previously published collections, The Horse Show at Midnight (1966) and An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards (1975), the former showing the promise of a young poet, the latter the power of a more mature one. Traditional forms and meters abound in both collections and are executed with skill and flair, though some of the pieces in the earlier volume are a bit too whimsical for my taste.

The insistent theme of time and history is present in many of these poems. In “Harvest,” for instance, the poet describes a return to his deserted home:

Every year in late July I come back
to where I was raised,

to mosey and browse through old farm buildings,

over fields that seem never to change,

rummaging through a life I can no longer lead

and still cannot leave behind, looking for relies

which might spring back to that life at my touch.

One can go home again, if only in memory. Still, in spite of mental homecomings, “time marches / in a double column, double time,” and loss is one of the few certainties in our frangible lives. From the death of a boy’s pet toad to the burning of a dead horse to the aging folks at church, “the old / insistent rituals of decay unfold.”

However, like Applewhite, Taylor finds cause for celebration and joy, as in “Canticle of Created Things” (from a prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi) and “Buildings and Grounds,” with its lesson of the need to cultivate the place that has been given us: “I will still make something / to sustain me here in this alien land.” Applewhite suggests that various strategies—prayer, love, work—can help us endure and prevail.

Laurance Weider inhabits a cityscape remote from the world of Applewhite and Taylor. Weider portrays eccentric characters whom one often associates with large urban areas; his world includes, among others, a foot fetishist and a waitress whose bedside weapon is a hammer. Some of his characters, however, are more disturbingly familiar in their middle-class attitudes, like the husband and wife in “Gertrude and Samuel,” Hungarian immigrants whose obsessions with material goods and social status are satirized (but in a way that leaves their humanity intact).

What Weider has in common with Applewhite and Taylor is his focus on temporal process—”the yellow bone of time,” as he refers to it in one poem— that subverts both physical continuity and epistemological certainty. Loss and mutability are the subjects of several poems, whether these concern lovers who separate or parents who must negotiate middle age and modify their ideals. In spite of pain and ruin, however, one must still choose life: “Though I knew / there was no love / without parting, I chose you.” Our saying yes to life allows us the possibility of finding “the higher / Joys, which live quietly, in gratitude.” Time not only kills but gives us the chance to sing our songs of belonging. The poet effectively makes this point in “Water Is the Mother of Ice”:

I keep the dull and weekly hours.

Record the natural equations, and decorate

The earth with songs to draw the strings

Of my relations, which tie me to other men.

To the earth, my own body, and the stars.

Though he faces realistically mankind’s foibles and the pathos of our mortal condition, Weider joins Applewhite and Taylor in celebrating our “relations” that transcend time.

These three poets thus share a sense of the contingent nature of human existence which is counterbalanced by an appreciation of life’s richness. One comes from reading these volumes with a heightened awareness of our common limitations and possibilities, and the welcome recognition that good poetry can still be found even in the cultural wasteland of postmodern America.


[A History of the River, by James Applewhite (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 49 pp., $15.95]

[The Horse Show at Midnight and An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards, by Henry Taylor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 137 pp., $19.95]

[The Last Century, by Laurance Weider (Sydney, Australia: Picador Press) 140 pp., $12.95]