Finding music and meaning in daily life; The Morning of the Poem, by James Schuyler. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $10.95.
Poet James Schuyler finds the risk of time -- of mortality -- too awesome and dangerous to tolerate with conventional resignation. New ways must be found to make the present a potent realization, even while allowing each moment to slip naturally away.
Yet for Schuyler the lure of tradition is strong; the desire for a compassionate divine spirit, for reasoned wisdom, for ultimate salvation within an orthodox framework brings a difficult but valuable tension to his poems.
His poems are movingly straightforward. Their themes revolve around the events of the day -- watching the weather, meeting a friend, confronting regrets and losses, sleeping, waking, dreaming. These themes are reassuring precisely because they are the essentials of any given day; they gain depth and beauty from Schuyler's clear appreciation of their importance.
The events that Schuyler records are not frozen in amber; they are not meant to be taken out of time, to be rearranged in a way that implies to ultimate powerlessness of change. Schulyer's technique -- particularly in the long title poem of the collection -- is to connect events and thoughts in an easy progression, capturing the continuous flow of life while exalting discrete moments: . . . today is a year, a morning, this Morning was a year, I got up at six? six-thirty? on the grass there lay one Streak of morning light: the days and their different lights: when I Was a child in Washington they took me to the theater . . . and when the curtain went up on the second Act my breath caught: it was the light: I'd seen that light before in Chevy Chase: an empty living room with chintz: An old theatrical effect: then someone entered: left, right, center? Who Cares? It wasn't the play I liked -- too young to know what it was All about -- it was the magic of the rising of the curtain and the slanting In of dusty golden autumn light.
Schuyler's poetry rejects the conventional sense of time as a winding-down of human life. his moments sparkle with vivid, examined experience -- thoughtful, sometimes funny, often compassionate. This experience cannot simply be labeled past, future, of impossible. It carries with it a wholeness that cannot be perceived if one counts the moments; yet the wholeness cannot exist without these moments. For Schuyler this paradox of time and experience is both realistic and liberating. It is realistic in that it does not seek to escape time; it is liberating in that in recognizes the blossoming and mingling of thoughts and events beyond the stiff limitations of moments.
Despite this paradoxical view of times, Schuyler remains attached to the linear progress of human events -- a progress ending ultimately, and traditionally, in God's salvation: And yet I am religious: I believe implacably in the perfectibility of man: to me, we are at the crux, the most exciting moment in the history of man: . . . it has been found by profoundest prayer that God will grant me grace . . .
This traditional element is by no means obtrusive in Schuyler's work. Its presence reflects the central fact of progress: the new or unexpected perception revising traditional wisdom, while maintaining the archetypes of truth.