Review of Short Houses with Wide Porches by Christopher Watkins, Shady Lane Press, 2008.
By Meghan Brinson
I was surprised to see the short list of journal acknowledgments at the beginning of this book of poetry. After having read the previously unpublished work in Short Houses with Wide Porches, I’m a little sad that Christopher Watkins didn’t give Hayden’s Ferry Review the opportunity to read more of his poems for issue 42; there are a number that I liked even better than “The University of Iowa Sunset Village Quonset Hut Haiku Blues,” which we accepted for that issue. This lack of previous publication gives the reader who gets their hands on this book a real bargain, though, a collection of long poems, haiku, and short subtropical vignettes by this emerging poet that none of their poetry-reading friends will have seen in a magazine.
Watkins comes to poetry from the world of music, writing and performing as Preacher Boy. He also participated in a Kerouac Project residency, and these two factors intersect to make this particular book of poetry. This isn’t a book of song lyrics parading as poems, but music and musicians are one major obsession of this poet, and their lives are the basis for several long poems in the collection. Florida also makes a big impression on Watkins, serving as a landscape for the majority of the poems and also, I suspect, informing a fascination with the elderly that drives the collection’s major preoccupation, time.
Watkins has a number of forms appearing in Short Houses with Wide Porches, long poems comprised of numbered segments which describe linked vignettes of blues musicians or art pieces, blues haikus, which are a haiku form which repeats whole lines from one stanza to the next, and sometimes even whole stanzas, as well as open forms and more traditional haiku groupings. The music of the poems features assonance and consonance heavily, but the steady strings of long vowels, approximates and sibilants means that these repetitious sounds aren’t heavy-handed. There seems to be two movements weaving through Watkins’ poetry: a poetics of stasis and a poetics of movement. The long poems “Elephant Graveyards,” and “Thoughts On A Minor Collection of French and American Barbizon and Impressionist Works at The Orlando Museum of Art Written During the Final 20 Minutes Before Closing,” both illustrate the conflicting impulses of the poet. While many of the poems in the collection suggest that time is short, the work of the poems seems to either fix moments like flies in amber or to chronicle a tempo of life that is leisurely and meditative, full of humidity and seascapes. In “Elephant Graveyards,” the poet uses dashes to separate short episodes, all of which rush conspicuously to the grave. In “Thoughts,” the poet creates a stanza for each of the named works, each a completely static object. Yet the weight of time, appearing in the title as the museum closing, creates an increasing urgency in the lines, a crescendo of directness.
Urgency is certainly part of the poems “Squall” and “Watching Seals,” both of which feature frailty and impending death. “Squall” describes a heron dying in the miserable heat before a Florida summer storm breaks and the speakers’ guilt over his helplessness to do anything other than observe it:
“In the street, a severed tendril lies sodden,
Boneless in that way of water suicides,
And I see again the dirty heron
That was gasping by the freeway
Feel my heart ache hard to touch
Something too slight
For the loose sieve of my life.”
In “Watching Seals,” an elderly accordion player on a family trip to the ocean plays the final note of the lament that is one of the leitmotifs of Short Houses with Wide Porches:
“This is what will be
his last time at the ocean.
All have a turn, him last.
He doesn’t say to anyone,
The time’s run out,
I can’t see anything.”
What does the poet do in the face of this forgone conclusion? He sees as accurately and as much as possible. The counterpoint to these poems where time is running out is the haiku lyrics such as “Florida Storm Haiku,” or “Lake Adaire Haiku,” where moments are fixed in form with precision and humor. In “Florida Storm Haiku,” the speaker describes a lizard as an anxious jackhammer in the same poem where he notices more traditional haiku objects like dew, grass and shadows. The joy of these haiku lie in their Zen-like embeddedness in the moment and their descriptions, detailed with unlikely metaphors: “Lizard doing push-/ups on the side of an oak/ pooching out his throat,” and “Morning birdsong; bright/ hues and brittle pitches of/ a toy xylophone.” In “Lake Adaire Haiku,” the speaker realizes:
“A dog acquires in
one crisp sniff more than my whole
life’s cache of knowledge.
Across the lake, I
see brake lights flash on and off.
I miss the fireflies.”
This world too is haunted with loss: loss of what has been observed, and loss of the observations that will never be made. But the joy of being in the moment, the relish with which the language of these poems captures and caresses the seen world is a reminder that though there may never be enough time to experience every detail of the ever-changing world, there is, however, enough time to enjoy it. Get a copy here.