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Renewing the Vows
By Peter Schmitt ’80. Cincinnati: David Roberts Books, 2007. 69 pages. $17 paperback.
Review by David Sofield
In Peter Schmitt’s first book, a poem addressed to a niece notes that “we are always / too close and never / close enough / to our parents.” Renewing the Vows, Schmitt’s third collection, offers half a dozen fully realized examples of how that complicated truth requires a poet who normally writes in the autobiographical first person to contend with
The titles are indicative: the poet’s parents depicted “Renewing the Vows” seven months before his father’s death; “Thanksgiving: Visiting My Brother on the Ward” after his brother’s breakdown; writing and many months later slightly revising, when occasion demanded, “My Father’s Obituary.” This last, as it were, answers death and its consequent grief in a muted tour de force of a difficult formal task: very short lines fully rhymed, off-rhymed and para-rhymed in couplets. No one does this better.
It is syntactical dexterity that structures “Trial,” a single 24-line sentence in unrhymed couplets presenting a succession of MRIs as a “dress rehearsal” for “the crematory’s flames, / busy, thorough, trying to / take their full measure of you.” Not all analogies in the collection are in this key: amusingly, soft contact lenses are “grapeskins of rubbery jelly”; they come with a doctor’s instruction “to blink more, keep the tears / coming. It shouldn’t be hard to comply.” It is as if the deftness of art is one response to the pain that these poems acknowledge again and again. The benefit is ours as well as the poet’s. To read this book is to renew, if not one’s vows, one’s recognition that it is in a poem that a writer’s felt engagement of sorrow can become a reader’s.
What makes these evocations of personal experience affecting is the presence of many poems that direct attention elsewhere. A poem as light on its feet as is its subject, “Cat in a Hurricane,” ends by addressing “two-year-old Chelsey” in these italicized words: “Oh sweetheart, you’re right: / there’s so much more to be afraid of now.” One of its seven resourceful sonnets, the book’s final poem, “Missionaries in Oman: Collecting Shells,” concludes by playing on the words carved on Emily Dickinson’s gravestone: “And we can call ourselves home, finally.”
Renewing the Vows, then, conducts itself in an appealingly unassuming language that owes something to three writers alluded to more than once in Schmitt’s work: Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Donald Justice, the poetry director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when Schmitt was a student there.
The most attractive poem in a collection that is never less than highly accomplished may be “Field Guide,” in which “we” work through the relevant Peterson volume only to find that once the “positive I.D.” is made and the observers look up from the book, what they—indeed, what we—see is the great creature “beating away / with dinner flapping / in his talons, / leaving us his name/ in a wake of spray—osprey!—/ ‘whose dive,’ / Peterson advises, / ‘is steep, feet-first, / spectacular.’” This typically supple sentence-making, witty to excellent purpose, glances at Bishop’s “The Bight,” then spectacularly recasts the conclusion of Frost’s “The Most of It.” Not buck but bird, momentarily present, yet, the poem admits sanely if ruefully, elusive. A very good book.
Sofield, the Samuel Williston Professor of English, taught Schmitt at Amherst and is the author, most recently, of Light Disguise, a book of poems.