Calling Home

by Richard Sanger
ISBN: 1550651684

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A Review of: Calling Home
by Chris Jennings

Unlike some poets' work, Richard Sanger's poems push displays of pure skill down the list of priorities. Sanger, playwright and poet, builds poems around incident and action, even when that action is the passage of time and the incident a shifting memory. Formal decisions structure dramatic exposition.
Some of Sanger's poems offer a desired kind of closure. "Blaze", for example, plays with the clich of an old flame rekindled, and the final line's "Smouldering again" seems predictable from the attentive gaze of the opening lines: "A glance you gave, a spark / Tossed deftly off as you rose / Tomboyish, sovereign / From the table." The poem does more than argue toward the clich, though. The suggestion of "calamity" in images of a real fire gives the incident a depth that is one part dramatic irony and one part philosophical reflection on rekindling old loves.
Much of the first third of Sanger's book circles around nostalgia, and nostalgia often risks pre-emptive closures because the perspective of looking back implies a rosy interpretive distance between the scenes described and the moment of description. "Paper Boy" compares the homecomer to a newspaper delivered to the door full of news of the wider world. "Law of the Local Rink" compares teenage flirtations to pick-up games (the comparison only seems obvious when put that way). "Gap" describes a decade-old memory of a brief sexual encounter. Of these poems, though, only "Gap" uses a traditional stanza, a loose version of the short ballad stanza. It is also the hardest to reduce or paraphrase-the encounter takes place in the Alps, when the speaker was seventeen, and a roadsign read "Bienvenue Gap", "Her name was Beth Foley, / or Folly, or however it's said." The less-ambiguous the poems' emotional content, the freer Sanger's forms. The back cover copy on Calling Home flags the other side of nostalgia in the book as the way "home itself can be a calling." Several fatherhood poems ("Malcolm Rex", "Inscrutable One", "Lullaby") clarify the comment and, with the exception of "Inscrutable One", continue to match free verse to intimate lyricism.
By contrast, the poems about writing tend to be the most formally controlled. For example, "His Old Olivetti", in a variation on terza rima, looks back to a son's perception of his newspaper-correspondent father in "Dispatch", making the typewriter an emblem of the now-absent father. The change in poetic, from the long, free-verse lines of "Dispatch" to the controlled rhyming intervals of the terza rima mirrors the way the later poem compresses and complicates the emotions described in the earlier one. "War Hero" extends the idea. Based on Brecht and formally resembling an inverted sonnet (sestet first), it describes a procession of war veterans honouring one of their fallen until they are beaten by riot police. Presumably, they are German veterans ("The Fatherland for which he died..."), and this funeral procession easily mistaken (or not mistaken-the poem, I think wisely, refuses to clarify) for a political statement. The police who "kicked in their heads" surely echo the violence of war and are the muscle behind a nation's attempt to forget. Among the poems exploring childhood, sex, marriage, parenthood, this is a disturbing poem, in part because its emotional direction is unclear.
The four-sections of a poem in tercets (really, terza rima sans rima) that act as the cornerstones of the book are the best example of how Sanger pairs formal and emotional or conceptual complexity in Calling Home. They divide the book into quarters and sketch out its field of inquiry. The first poem builds on the idea that being in love strips you of words-like "No Rosetta Stone"-but being with the person you love restores words and spurs them into "new arrangements, in purple and gold livery, / Bolting like greyhounds forth, or like rabbits, / To describe great arcs in the field you watch. / This is new. This is something. This is you." The similes are vital not as comparison but as simile-the perception of similarity. Both the earlier dumbfoundedness and the new burst of words are stages as love changes the lover and the lover's perception.
Each of these sections is a bed poem'; they all take place largely in or around the couple's bed, and the scene reflects the poem's play with the effects of intimacy on personal identity. That sounds grander' than Sanger makes it. The play rests largely in minor incidents and small turns of phrase: "Who was that? I ask. You've been gone for ages. / Like the phone you've just returned to its cradle, / I lie in bed alone. Everything changes." The same is true of the relationship between these cornerstones and the book. In the final section, the caller implied above returns as "some boy I knew, a long time ago," giving earlier nostalgia a self-aware nod. The nod becomes an all-out wave by the end:

Say (you say) it was you who called,
Or someone called you, but you years ago
Before all this...Say this. Say that. No, say

There was a morning of rain and general languor,
An old apartment, a bed, a bath, a phone,
There was a woman to be sung,
And someone called Richard - who? - Richard sang

For a book often marked by reserve-not repression or caution but something like measure-this would be audacious even if it were not in the book's final lines. It rather openly explains the title, refers back to earlier sections of the cornerstone poem ("But let's describe her...," "There was a woman to be sung"), and offers a final riddle on the poet's name. Combined, it suggests not only the alchemical mix of personal and professional that grounds many lyric poems, but also the effect of making art out of the details of life: writing as self-recreation. Perhaps most tellingly, the dramatist manages this demonstration without telling.
.. . .Sanger naturalizes the traditional influences in his poems so thoroughly they are almost covert. This gives the poems an inner voice running under the colloquial surface and suggests an attitude toward consciousness in a lyric poem as interesting as the dislocated subject in disjunctive poetic fragments. . .

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