Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On the late Paul Petrie

At the post office this morning, I found a card signifying that I had a package too big for my little box. It came from a woman named Sylvia Petrie, with a return address to a town in Rhode Island I didn't know.

The parcel was heavy, and when, full of curiosity, I opened it, I was surprised to find a heavy volume, the Collected Poems of Paul Petrie, published by  Connecticut-based Antrim House, founded by the gifted and indefatigable poet and– what? poetry missionary?– Rennie McQuilkin.

What a handsome volume it is, and how gracious of Petrie's widow (a painter and printmaker whose cover image is part of the collection's beauty) to send it my way!

Mrs. Petrie had written a very cordial letter, and with it enclosed a copy of one I had written to her late husband many years ago, in which I praised his 1984 volume, Strange Gravity. (The author had sent it my way immediately upon publication, as an unncessary but welcome thank you for having published some of its contents in New England Review, whose editor I was at the time.)  I spoke in my note of the collection's wonderful mixture of "deftness" and "grace." By that, I am quite sure I meant how taken I was by this writer's capacity to use both the most constrictive sorts of formal verse and free verse with equal agility and to equally moving effect.

I mentioned too that I was pleased by his gift of the book to me, because, "as I'm sure you know, it can get lonely in the House of Verse, especially when, like yours and mine, that house is located out of the usual way for 'career advancement.'" I was vain enough to imagine, that is, that by being ambitious for my own work, as Petrie clearly was for his, rather than for its promotion, I might produce verse that followed its own star, that I needn't get hung up on being a star myself. Paul Petrie, clearly, was not obsessed with reputation; and yet he consistently produced writing that was, to my mind, far superior to that of many contemporaries who were, at least in their time, more celebrated.

Petrie's collected poems, as I say, make a large volume, and I won't pretend at ten o'clock in the evening of the very day when I received it that I have managed more yet than to browse around, which I have done at some length and with the constant, sure sense that I found myself in the presence of genuine mastery. In due course, I intend to go cover to cover, more than seven hundred pages worth.

And all this for free. Mrs. Petrie mailed me a book whose cover price is $40, and I paid not a cent. Let me, however, assure readers that so far as I have seen, both from prior collections I knew and from what little I have gleaned from this one,  the volume is worth every penny of that and you'll do well to buy it.

I am grateful to Sylvia Petrie, and grateful that the world of letters included her husband's canon, into which I give the merest glimpse by reproducing a poem chosen more or less at random.

The Great Depression

Mid-day, mid-week, and father
stretched on the living room couch,
half staring up, half dozing–

and my aunt in the spare room weeping
behind closed doors
with harsh, convulsive sobs.

Consultations– late-night whispers–
two voices, tense with the clinking
of nickels and dimes, the computations of need.

Long lines edging the streets;
workmen loitering, begging
like off-beat Santas with black

stubble beards;
and in the factory on Livernois
the army of the great drill presses
hanging on air.

More stews, more ham-bone soup
laced thick with rice,
and waking long past midnight,
the whir of the sewing machine
stabbing into my sleep.

More hand-me-downs, more quarrels,
more fights at school–
Something hanging over the house
like a huge black veil–
at whose edges we played.

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