Proust wrote, in Time Regained, that “Style is a question not of technique, but of vision.”  Technique may be said to inform and undergird the style, but the artistic vision has priority: It is the style.  In Charles Edward Eaton’s recent collection, his 17th, comprising new verse (some published previously in Chronicles) and a generous selection of poems from earlier volumes that appeared between 1991 and 2002, a controlling artistic vision is everywhere.  Immediate topics, or pretexts for the poems, vary greatly, but the vantage point on experience, or style of mind, is identifiable throughout, conveyed by a mature voice using a range of suitable tones, or hues, of expression.  The collection adds impressively to Eaton’s distinguished achievement as an American (and Southern) poet and prose writer, in a career stretching over more than six decades.

Eaton’s early writing was shaped by his studies at Harvard with Robert Frost.  A 1955 collection attracted praise from William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Robert Lowell.  James Merrill wrote to the author:

With the death of Stevens it seemed that no one would ever again command that vital intersection of thought and sensuous beauty, but you are there, with your own rhythms, and the effect is spellbinding.

Others have connected Eaton’s writing to the Metaphysicals—Donne and Herbert.

Mention of such names remains apt,
particularly that of Wallace Stevens.  Eaton’s most characteristic form in this collection (additional forms include quatrains and eight-line stanzas) is the three-line stanza that Stevens used in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and countless other poems, short and long.  With no fixed measure or fixed line length—Eaton’s lines tend to be long, sometimes wrapping over—the form is very flexible, allowing for chatty diction and extended probings; yet the condensed stanza shapes, or reveals the shape of, the poet’s reflections or musings.  He prefers end-stop lines and often adds rhyme (lines one and three of each stanza rhyming), another way of holding the verses together.  Space between the stanzas affords a kind of diastolic moment to the poetic systolic pressure of the compact tercets.

So what is the poetic vision of The Work of the Sun?  It is marked by imagery in both senses, mental (usually visual) and rhetorical, but is not that of an Imagist, since Eaton is not loath to go beyond his figures to their implications, which, in his world, are everywhere and multidimensional.  He wants, as he says, “a thing to be itself and yet come at me like a sunburst” (from “The Swan at Sunset,” a beautiful poem).  One of the most striking veins of the collection is fantasy and whimsy, reminiscent of Stevens’ in, for instance, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”  Sometimes this whimsy is wistful—one thinks of Verlaine (Eaton mentions him in the title poem, and Harlequin and Pierrot appear)—elsewhere cruel, as in Laforgue, or cubist or surrealistic, with oneiric perceptions (opened shells reveal ears instead of oysters) and strange juxtapositions, as in the poetry of Apollinaire and Eluard.  Another vein is painterly—tableaux or delicate watercolors in which Eaton’s preferred palette of summer colors, blue, gold, and rose, predominates, though a discordant red, often in the form of blood, may be interjected.  Sensuousness, even sensuality, constitute a third vein, conveyed often by the first two, with the full range of the senses utilized.  Through these strains runs irony, occasionally personal (an older man looking at himself critically), more often general.  Reaching out tentatively with a surmise or a question, drawing back, half-serious, half-teasing, making verbal pirouettes around the subject, Eaton plays in his various registers to make subtle connections between experience and world.  Often one small conceit supports, like a pivot or pedestal, a broad or high-flying insight: “I pick a straw as if it sipped my life” (“Last Straw”).

The connections critics have identified between Eaton and the English Metaphysicals are thus justified.  He sees, as did they, “How incurably physical we are, / and how incorrigibly of the mind” (“The Cane”).  The world and the human observer are nearly one: Eaton speaks of “our inner sea” (“The Junk”), notes that “somehow sea and summer match the heart” (“The Vise”), and asks, “Was the sun at last, in fact the sunset in his head?” (“Asbestos Book”).  Almost anything can be a pretext for a poem, or, if one prefers, be a poem—tweezers, zippers, a goblet, a mandolin propped up with a nude.  Sometimes the analogue—conceit or metaphor—reveals its subject and meaning explicitly, as in “Roof Garden”:

How did we think of planting gar-
dens on a roof,

The ornamental trees, the glitter-
ing fountain and the flowerbeds,

As though of our ascent from some
superior somewhere we gave liv-
ing proof.

Elsewhere, the distance between analogue and subject may be considerable and the figure obscure, if pleasingly so.  Consider these lines, from “Sword of Damocles”:

The lissome leg slides from the slit
ball gown,

A moustache looks silvered with
the blade’s sweat—

I come out of all this dreaming

With a small, wavering point of
knowledge . . .

Or these, the opening and final lines, from “Untitled Picture”:

Now you have nothing left to

That last camel with his eyes like

Left the canvas into a world which
radically incloses

Things you cannot quite contain
within an artful scheme.

. . .

But when a camel wearing roses
like sunglasses

Comes home, the sheerest edges of
the dream extend.

All these figures and countless others convey what Eaton, in “Chuck Wagon,” calls “a steeped, concentrated sense of life,” the perception that “it seems almost mystic to be here, not somewhere else.”  The temporal mode is the ephemeral—a wave breaking, light fading on the sea, sunset turned to ash; but Eaton sees their “joyousness of tint and tone,” unlike those who cannot feel “the calculations, calibrations, spent on passing things, / Thinking that eternity is only found in stone” (“Afternoon in a Yellow Room”).

These are not poems to be memorized; few lines will remain in a reader’s mind, partly because, other than rhyme, sound resources (rhythm, alliteration, assonance) are not utilized much.  But through their striking images, often gorgeous (especially perceptions of the sea) and repeated just enough to complement one another, the poems leave a dominant impression like that which one gets in a well-lit gallery displaying paintings by a single artist in various tones—in this case, an impression of beauty and serenity, mixed with modern whimsy and a wise irony, pointing to themselves as self-conscious art, and yet beyond.  Like the sun, “a vast impressionist,” the poet “mixes palettes” and “loves the still, ardent, and the physical” (as the title poem puts it).  Drawing out color and form from shadows, looking behind phenomena, Eaton acts as a magician, the revealer of being, “leading us through vistas opening, concealing depths” (“Dutch Interior”).  Full of vitality, marked by beautiful coloration and fanciful figures along with occasional sourness from life’s dregs, The Work of the Sun is as bright as the title and, as “The Towline” says, “tows the cosmos back.”


[The Work of the Sun: New and Selected Poems, 1991-2002, by Charles Edward Eaton (Cranbury, NJ: Cornwall Books) 304 pp., $25.00]