Duke University Alumni Magazine

The Collected Poems

By Reynolds Price '55. New York: Scribners, 1997. 471 pp. $37.50 cloth.

n 1982, Reynolds Price published an essay he titled "Love Across the Lines," which speaks of "a love, almost Wagnerian in intensity," of the novelist for poetry and vice-versa. As it happens, 1982 was the year when Price--already a renowned novelist--brought out his first book of poems, Vital Provisions, the forerunner of three volumes: The Laws of Ice (1986), The Use of Fire (1990), and (taking up the last hundred pages of The Collected Poems) The Unaccountable Worth of the World (1997). Now, with this whole rich trove gathered between one set of covers, the effect is to place Price himself within the rare company of distinguished poet-novelists, an avatar of Thomas Hardy and Robert Penn Warren.

     As with Warren and Hardy, the love triangle between writer, poetry, and fiction poses a question of status: If--as seems likely--the novel is the steadfast wife of this writer's youth, poetry is his mid-life's passionate mistress. As usual, the mistress has advantages the wife can only envy. Whether spontaneous lyric or Browningesque monologue, the poem is likely always to be turned out at her most fetching for a brief, intense encounter. But luckily, there's no law against literary polygamy; there is only the question of how well one may serve the twin muses.

     Heretical though it may seem--because Price has earned his world-class reputation mostly for his fiction--The Collected Poems may represent his finest achievement. Though it lacks the cathedral scale and design of his major novels, the poetry may (to paraphrase Robert Frost) make up in height for what it lacks in length.

     A highly erudite, esthetically gifted man--like John Updike, a fine graphic artist; like Joyce Carol Oates, a passionate devotee of music--Price ranges across a vast array of cultural interests in these 500 pages, which include narrative inventions based on Greek and biblical sources, graceful tributes to favorite singers (Leontyne Price, James Taylor) and movie stars (Vivien Leigh, James Dean), and elegiac memories of other poets (Auden, Spender, Frost, Lowell). Interwoven with these "public" poems are many devoted to intensely felt private intimacies, typically involving a parent, lover, or deceased friend, though he leavens the tone at times with affectionate poems about encounters with home-bound creatures--a heron, deer, or snake.

     To appreciate his verse, the best place to begin is with the book's preface, an elegantly written account of his long engagement with the genre as both reader and writer. Here he names his poetic forebears, which include the great lyricists in English (Dickinson, Frost, Eliot, Housman, et. al.) but also voices in other languages (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Rilke). Here also he defines his prosody, which tends to favor either pentameter or what he calls "the relentlessly powered four-stress line of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon survivals"--meters that he finds best suited to the storytelling thrust that carries over from his fiction to his poetry. And though he is silent on this point, many readers will add, emphatically, that another major affinity between Price's fiction and poetry is the profound evocation of character that makes many of the poems hauntingly unforgettable. Two most poignant examples call forth his parents: "A Heaven for Elizabeth Rodwell, My Mother" and "A Tomb for Will Price."

     One other essential resource for understanding Price's poetry is his 1994 memoir A Whole New Life, which recounts his nearly fatal battle with the spinal cancer that left him paraplegic thirteen years ago. Because of this crisis, the religious faith that undergirds all of his writing assumes enlarged significance in his later work, which includes most of his poetry. Other enduring features of the Price oeuvre are his deep filial allegiance and a powerful erotic sensibility, leading one critic to call Price's celebration of the human body the most convincing since Whitman.

     A perfect gem in the erotic mode (along with "Ambrosia," "Dionysus," and "Aphrodite") is "Juncture," in which "the use of fire" appears --the title for Price's third book of poems. Playing off Milton's description of how angels make love ("Easier than Air with Air, if spirits embrace/Total they mix,") it recalls an erotic interlude of virtually metaphysical intensity:

...that cellular
Transmigration when willing you
And willing I made of ourselves
One sizable brief kind holocaust
To be, in one dim rented room,
A speechless broad tall compound creature:
Fertile, fragrant, unforeseen
And soon extinct--its only future,
The white museum of these white lines...

     Among Price's many religious poems, which include vivid characterizations of the Holy Family, "Instruction," about the redemption of Judas, looms like an Everest of the Christian imagination. It and other longer poems like "Juncture" and "Jonathan's Lament for David" are Price's finest achievement; they afford him the space to develop character, theme, and narrative suspense while retaining the verbal elegance, economy, and imagery inherent in verse. But there are also countless brief lyrics here that may at random sink prehensile roots into a reader's memory. "Praise," the prefatory poem that addresses the Holy Spirit in The Laws of Ice, is one such marvel of compression, rendering the fiery ordeal he was then undergoing with haiku-like brevity in its middle stanza:

Holy flame
By any name--
Creator, Terminator,

Receive this praise,
The due of days
Of hobbled terror, healing:

     "Thanks," like "sane" and "dream," is a frequent motif in Price's poems, commonly appearing in love poems but also, as above, in tough-minded poetry of loss. "Farewell with Photographs" makes a similarly upbeat epigram out of the ravages of time:

Time is mainly pictures,
After a while is only pictures.
Five years, for instance--all but
     two thousands days--
Will resolve to a few dozen
     pictures in time:
O which, if ten give long-range pleasure to their
Thanks are due.
Thanks then for time--
Deep-cut pictures,
Mainly delight.

     It is a hopeless task to do justice to Price's resplendent oeuvre within the span of a brief review, but lack of space is not the final problem. In the end, his artistic power simply overwhelms the reviewer's craft. We can only say that with its near-perfect mastery of style and its deeply meditated thoughtfulness, The Collected Poems is a marvelous tribute to his boundless talents. If he had written nothing else, this book would assure Reynolds Price a distinguished place within the annals of contemporary American literature.

--Victor Strandberg

Strandberg is a professor of English at Duke. A version of this review appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer.

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