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Friday, January 11, 2013

Book Review: Waxwings by Daniel Nathan Terry

Lethe Press, 2012. Poetry.
Review by Debrah Lechner

When I first opened Waxwings by Daniel Nathan Terry, I found this poem, accusing a moon of ill intent:

            Winter Moon,

Because you wish it
the sun sets and the wind lifts
the wings of weary birds.
You are the roost in the magnolia’s
thunderhead of shadows.
You are why, half-hidden
by storm-black leaves,
the birds become silver prey
to waking owls unless they remain
more silent than stones
while they sleep. You are to blame
that strong men, tucked under
the roof of night, imagine faces
the long day helped them forget.
And it’s your fault
that they enter a sleep cluttered
with impossible,
beautiful reunions.

This deeply-felt song of protest against a restless night was recognizable to me at once, and immediately moving. “Pretty good start,” I thought. Every poem in the collection lived up to this auspicious beginning.

Waxwings draws a portrait of a gay man that spans childhood, sexual initiation, lovers, coupling, the death of family and spouse, and meditation on what living will bring in coming years. It does so with breath-stopping beauty.

Content dealing with homosexuality in serious literature sometimes is minimized in reviews, the idea being that this material explores the same universal themes that everyone encounters and everyone can identify with, and that certainly true of Waxwings. For me, though, and for many other readers, it is an extra pleasure, and worthy of calling attention to.

In this context, the portrait of a homeless gay youth in the poem “Since they put you out” is notable:

No chair receives you,
no bath invites you,
no stove pot simmers you
to supper, no mattress
gives to cradle you,
no down rises to fill
the empty spaces
your spine leaves behind
in the back-bending nightmares
you’ve suffered since
you got the shove. Since
you got the boot, no door
thuds protectively behind you,
no hallway echoes
without reminding you,
your feet fall too much

Notice, though, that even for this child for whom a closing door can never again mean the protection of home, but instead means rejection, alienation, and disposal—even so, the weight of this loss is back-bending, not back-breaking.

There is melancholy in these poems, but there is also a strong spine, a will to move on. There is   loss, but there is also love.

When you touch me

you lay hands
on the bones of lovers
I lost long ago.
You conjure desires
not entirely
my own.

When you stroke
my thigh, your hand
is guided by the hands
of these others—
a Ouija scrawling

the answer to the question
that still roams
the dark husk
of our house: love you?

we love you.

This linkage of lovers answering their desires is reminiscent of the beautiful imagery in the titles poem, in which the speaker as a child observes, in a line of 37 waxwings. The first bird plucks a red berry from a bush, passing it to the next bird, who passes it to the next bird, and so on. The first bird returns to retrieve berries and pass them along until all the birds have been fed, and then  the last bird in line picks a berry to feed the bird that had been harvesting for the flock.

In a very funny passage of this poem, the boy thinks about what his world would be like if this generosity of spirit possessed the kids he goes to school with. They break into song:

and dance like fools in an old musical. The camera records it
from the rafters, all of them holding hands—
Jack the football star, Shannon the beauty queen.
Ronny the bully, Todd the unattainable, the distant,
the secret, the wrong—joined together in a star of arms and legs. . .

Yeah. Let's leave room for the possibility of that. More of that.

Do not miss this gorgeous book of poetry.

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