Expelled with Adam and Eve, flying with Daedalus and Icarus, or tunnelling under with Orpheus, we leave our Garden, even if our Garden never quite leaves us. So Kenneth Sherman reminds us in Clusters, his eighth collection of poetry, which concentrates on mid-life musings about the break-up of a long-term marriage. Set in a real and mythic garden, the twenty-four segments of the central poem, "Clusters", call to mind Eliot's Waste Land or Pound's Cantos-without their high modernist Greek or Latin complexity; Sherman's poems are more direct.
"Clusters" opens in slow motion, the poet languorously stretching out his favourite long "o" sounds to copy nature's springtime opening:
What will open and close: doors,
days, eyes, valves, and ventricles.
A canticle then for the impermanent
and what will be repeated.
Poetry of hints and hinges, much more will open and close than the five items listed, though in themselves they would be sufficient, for the doors of perception open on time, much as our valves and ventricles measure the beating of sound, of heart, of bodies in tune with nature. Not the heavy Poundian canto, but the lighter Sherman canticle to a humbler muse to mock modernist permanence; instead, the eternal return of forms of Eden resisting openings and closures.
The hinge of alliteration in doors and days, valves and ventricles, as well as end-line and beginning of line positioning, repeated in the rhyme of ventricle and canticle, prepare for "Spring" in the second section, with its hinge of predictable and potential. Part of the appeal of Sherman's poetry is that for all its accessibility we know that just beneath the surface lie hidden meanings and the allusiveness of Mandelstam, Rilke, Milosz, Cavafy. Like Frost, the poet rakes clear the blockage of winter and shifts from the personal to the "shoots' perspective" where clods and pebbles become planets and boulders.
But now they're here,
a row of underworld couriers,
your grape hyacinths-
After this clearing, the early and late arrivals appear bearing their messages, delectable clusters that are sexually and verbally charged. While D. G. Jones's "A Throw of Particles" is potentially a more exciting phrase, Sherman's "Clusters" resonates with its stirring of nature, phonetic clusterings, and cleavage of design.
Each section highlights the tenuousness and fragility of clustering between poet and nature, poet and loved one, past and future. The lyrical poet prunes his detachment even as his beloved's departure signals the impermanence of a latter-day Adam and Eve. As language itself begins to break down, he speculates on the loss and diminution of love with the passage of years, and tries to define absence, breakage, the vanishing of identities. "Is this then our lives, this/ charted lot, this set survey?"-questions to be answered by the paradoxical "while we stay the same shade/ moving ourselves closer to shades."
Just when the mythic element seems to dominate in the twilight of clustering, Sherman returns to the mundane as it appears in his neighbours: the Wilsons, her garden, his elaborate feeding system for birds. Seasonal passage from spring to autumn to winter, and the death of Mr. Wilson sharpen the growing apart of the younger couple, themselves aging.
Beginning with section 10, the repeated keyword "things" strikes a jarring note; it is precarious for a creative imagination to rely on this word. The figures in Sherman's treacherous ground threaten to turn more prosaic than poetic. "You were good at growing things" is followed by "I sometimes barge through things." Just as the poet watches an indecisive bee zigzag so he zigzags from his personal garden to Voltaire's philosophic meanderings, and back to the chiasmus of couples: "what I saw into,/ you saw through," "not enough risks (`too many!' you'd say)," "While you were arriving, I was leaving," and "My attraction to what is lost, broken,/ yours to what is starting up, settling in." Gone from the garden are the astonishing metaphor.
The hinge of things resumes in lines that won't converge: "Difficult to know where things end, begin,/ and even these words, perhaps an evasion." Despite deepest digging, blood droplets of hyacinth, and stirred regions of Bombay, we return to the neighbouring Wilsons and ordinary earth-"So long as things were growing" and "was it `things' that came between us?" "I said you had other things to do." Between the tedium of the eternal and the excitement of the moment, too many "things" come between the reader and a poet who has been too generous in his accessibility:
And things feel incomplete.
It is like a late conversation
broken off in mid-sentence
while some winged thing insists
against the midnight screen.
These "clusters" capture the verse in conversation; they are indeed incomplete and cyclical, for the closing words, "And now/ we have all this finishing to begin," revert to the beginning of the poem. Bravely, Sherman looks at Rilke's flowers and shares his regret.
In contrast to these clustering absences, "Presence" focuses on a tighter lyricism, a snapshot of permanence in the face of the fleeting:
Night sky, scent of the staring
blackberries, and your voice
breaking as from a dream
over the lake's slow lapping
against rock. To be here
at this moment
at the centre of a stillness
that defies all forms changing,
Here, the poet's voice addresses the other voice in fearful symmetry: the opening monosyllables, internal rhyme, alliterations, and synaesthesia capture the nocturnal scene. Nature and the couple are perfectly poised in the nine lines evenly and seamlessly divided into two sentences, balanced by enjambment. Stars are within staring blackberries, even as voices echo the lake's lambent rhythms. Presence shifts surprisingly to rhymes at the beginnings of lines (at, at, and that), until the final commas retard the momentum to freeze the moment.
If the novel is a mirror along the roadway, Sherman's lyrics are an ear on the lake, a still voice in the waves. "The Public Pier" appropriately opens this collection and occasions private reflections on a public monument that has disappeared. Dominant "o" notes open the poem with "blond" and "lovers", as Sherman develops a dialectic between evanescence and endurance. The "primal crib" supporting the pier is also the birthplace of sunken memories and boulders where the poet dives "to find blurred bottles, fish hooks,/ lost sinkers, lures, and disconnected lines." With Yeats and Cohen, Sherman takes you down to discover truth in the water's detritus, in the disconnected lines between past and present. The poet returns to the scene of his childhood to find the pier gone, "a blue vacancy, a gross and gaping space." The lament of loss is picked up again in the "o" sounds of toddlers in strollers (not far removed from the primal crib):
(their young mothers swaying
to static-riddled love songs
from the transistor radios)
were all only sunlit ghosts.
Having traced past and present, Sherman concludes by drawing a moral from his observations:
All things under the sun perish
but under the surface-
broken claws of the crayfish,
the great, moping bass.
Perhaps these lines hold the key to much of Sherman's poetry, which seizes upon mutabilities of absence and presence, of what surfaces offer to the senses, of what truths the sunken evoke. That great, moping bass speaks and is silent, caught in the poet's steady line and voice: a voice that is accessible without being simple, mediated with "flashes of consciousness in the oblivion of days", and articulating "the inarticulate other".
Michael Greenstein is the author of Third Solitudes (McGill-Queen's).