The Poems of Edward Thomas
Introduction by Peter Sacks
Handsel Books: 180 pp., $17 paper
At this troubled juncture in American history, when a deeply divisive war remains front page news, the restoration of Edward Thomas’ poems to print is worth noting. It is, as poet-critic Peter Sacks makes profoundly clear in his deeply respectful introduction to this collection, the return of a quiet poet very much in the English tradition -- a plain-style tradition running from Chaucer to George Herbert, Wordsworth to John Clare to Thomas Hardy (to name only a few).
Thomas was not a recognized “war poet,” like his contemporaries Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, yet the elegiac gravity of his voice, addressing a disappearing world, and the circumstances of the brutal end of his life conspire to place him somewhat in that tradition. In just two years, Thomas generated a body of major poems (many written on the front lines) before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in April 1917.
Thomas was not a nature poet, though nature often was his subject and moved him deeply. His voice sounds “posthumous” even as the poems engage the reader in their vitality and musicality -- and the sense of life being over, even as it is experienced, is strong. His stylistic choices give us this resonance. Sacks notes that Thomas wrote not in the service of “the poet nor perhaps even of poetry” but rather of elements of the “turning and returning world.” This grasp of the limitlessness of life, even in its mortal limitation, permeates the poems:
I sought then in solitude.
The wind had fallen with the night; as still
The roads lay as the ploughland rude,
Dark and naked, on the hill.
Once the name I gave to hours
Like this was melancholy, when
It was not happiness and powers
Coming like exiles home again,
And weakness quitting their bowers,
Smiled and enjoyed, far off from men,
Moments of everlastingness.
These “moments of everlastingness” (like Wordsworth’s “spots of time” and Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being”) provide something beyond insight into the ontological state of solitude. These moments are sculpted by gifted poets into living language and are the cradles of what Keats called “soul-making.”
Though they may seem in places slightly antiquated, Thomas’ poems are not. Their timelessness is connected to their unforgettable rendering of the only world we can name: death and renewal, disappearing before us.
Mariner Books: 90 pp., $13 paper
Erica FUNKHOUSER too finds inspiration in the natural world, but like Thomas, she is not a true nature poet. In “Pursuit,” she pursues (as per the book’s title) questions of mortality and the mechanics of desire -- in a style of inquiry that can focus on the gentle, domestic and the natural (“Among Lilies,” “Harvest Mouse”) then turn shock-sharp:
After he’d shot up and released the strap,
Arthur sat back and let himself be flooded
with a torrent of passivity
I’d never seen in any animal.
A sheen came over him as he lay there,
a white ruin, like a whole pinon trapped
in the river, season after season,
worn down to its skeletal origins.
These seemingly domesticated poems, often with familiar interiors, take strange yet credible turns. Funkhouser’s voice exudes a canny confidence that carries her deep into the lives of creatures and objects with an intensity gathered from the force of her powers of observation. She looks at the death of a homeless man, someone connected to her life: “He comes from a long line of people / who tried to get one thing right,” echoing an earlier line about a garden mole:
You and I come from a long line
of animals that use the world
in order to escape it.