It is a rare American poem, this late in the 20th century, that dares to be understood. Jane Greer’s slim volume, Bathsheba on the Third Day, is full of such poems, which give this first book a mature heft and solidity.
The maturity should not be surprising. Jane Greer is the founding editor of Plains Poetry Journal, and her own poetry reflects the high standards she has set for her nationally recognized journal. What marks Jane Greer’s writing is its sureness in handling poetic traditions for her own purposes and effects—themselves highly personal and original.
The strength of individual poems in this collection is matched by their organization into a book with the old virtues of a beginning, middle, and end. The unifying topic is love, as the allusion in the title poem suggests. But this most traditional of subjects—Robert Graves called it the only subject of true poetry—is also the most difficult to handle successfully, that is to say, with economy and effect. The title poem is a good example of the novelty of approaches Greer uses to handle the oldest of themes:
Hot, hot, hot
is all those spooky crows
can think to say. We ought
to have some people over,
take in a funny show,
redecorate this tent.
Aren’t you listening, lover?
We’ll just have to invent
our own fun, take a course
maybe, in the fall, and then . . .
Oh, please, babe, not again]
We never talk any more.
The contemporary and satiric tone is one of the many registers found in the book. Here the banality of desire and modern “concerns” undercut one of the oldest and most powerful stories of sexual temptation, sin, and death resident in Western culture. The poem achieves its effect by ignoring the moral burden of the biblical locus, and dares the reader to ignore it, by giving a voice to the naked body seen that spring afternoon by King David.
Allusion is one of the most traditional of poetic tools, to be used lightly; and, consequently, a very different kind of allusion is present in “Pastoral”:
There is a primly tended park
where, in the noon sun,
there is a muddy blood-warm river
murmuring lies from dark to dark;
and, in between, a snarl of grass
the mowing man, in the heat, forgot.
Knee-deep, waist-deep, steaming in hot
sun, it lets no lovers pass.
Young men and women shed their clothes
without relief among the trees;
Ardor is dampened by degrees.
But in the long grass something grows
importunate of appetite
and roots its deepest self in mire,
waiting for those whose fresh desire
will fell them, fell them, come the night.
The use of allusion lies in its title, the pastoral form being one of the oldest classical poetic traditions. Unlike the specific, contemporary diction in “Bathsheba on the Third Day,” the language in “Pastoral” is consistently generalized and timeless, as is its setting. The “park,” the “noon sun,” the “grass,” the “mowing man,” the “young men and women”—the images and language of the poem evoke a universal world in which all the details take on mythic and parabolic weight. Part of that weight comes from the pastoral tradition, where love exists idealized, and “universal,” side by side with death. The pastoral is, in other words, a “fallen” world.
More impressive even than the traditional craft of the poem is the raw fact of it having been imagined. Comparisons with certain English poets of the past come to mind, but the poem does not need them—it exists, in its perfection.
The range between “Pastoral” and “Bathsheba” shows something of the variety of the book. The poems in this section deal with love carried to fulfillment, even satiation, with either tragic or banal conclusions. Another exceptional poem in this section is “Rodin’s ‘Gates of Hell,”‘ too long to quote here, inspired by Rodin’s sculpture based on Dante’s Inferno. Poems alluding to or adducing works of visual art are as common as they are difficult to bring off: This one is spectacularly successful.
Confident, vigorous, various, Bathsheba on the Third Day is a book that offers surprises and pleasures on every page. Strong as individual poems are, they gain by their organization into a book which, when the last page is turned, leaves the reader looking for more.
In an era of desk-top publishing and laser printers, Jane Greer’s book is a rare reading event in another sense. Bathsheba on the Third Day was chosen to be published by The Cummington Press of Harry Duncan, who himself set up the book in type. His printing skill, along with the high quality of the paper and binding, make the book a tactile pleasure best appreciated in strong, “raking” daylight. A fine intaglio print by Priscilla Steele serves as frontispiece, signed and numbered by the artist.
Bathsheba on the Third Day is a book not just for readers of “poetry.” Anyone bemused or bored by what passes for modern poetry should make a point to read this first book of Jane Greer’s, and hope there are more to come.
[Bathsheba on the Third Day by Jane Greer; Omaha, NE: The Cummington Press]
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