War Bird by David Gewanter
The University of Chicago Press, ©2009. 72 pgs.
Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri
Poetry is a way of duplicating experience. The experience is only as good as the poem. The value
of the experience determines the value of the poem, then it becomes a referendum for readers. The
poem is made by putting one word in front of the other. How is all this done? These are thoughts taking
measure of a book that seizes our attention, attention that’s always wanted elsewhere. Why we stay
with a book of poetry has to do with the marvel of craft and the emotional intensity of the poet.
Reading is a kind of resonant state, staying in time, and escaping from time. That is the pleasure of War
“In again Out again” is the first poem in One: Day Book. The poem’s analogy is basketball, and
the subject is race and brotherhood from ‘a winter locker room.’ Well it seems this way but it’s really
about change, the past and present converge with fierceness and tenderness:
Put words on the move,
on the make, make
your body move in hard play,
of hoops, or sex, the low post
reaching in, going back door,
up and down, the double pump –
The poems are often playful, with boyish vision, but if Gewanter doesn’t want to tell you he’s deadly
serious, I’m glad to say it for him.
“Break-Up Café” is a sweeping scene in a restaurant. Stenciled onto this stage set is sinewy
writing, keenly registering the world. The author’s saying that unless he gets it down in a poem, there is
no second chance – we get the urgency – and this in itself is a moral stand. Gewanter’s visceral form is
driven by emotional writing—the broken lyric – the jagged moments of exhilaration. We have only to
enter the booths in the cafe and there is a textual explanation of relationships in a writer’s life and
beyond. Jaunty enough to give pleasure, there’s a tremendous intelligence in creating characters with
ridicule and forgiveness.
Back Booth … so why do we call them “practical jokes” anyway –?
– Practical, that means, it needs an action.
OK, but only guys do practical jokes, ok…but not girls. Except for Sandra;
if you piss her off, she’d super–glue your door lock;
she hated her neighbor’s wind chime, and cut out
the clapper. Guys loved telling tales
about Sandra, but would never date her –
–Of course not. Why seduce a girl who loves revenge?
In the narrative form, Gewanter goes straight-ahead in sharing what he knows of those he loves.
It seems his best in-depth personal look takes place inside of narrative. “Three At 4:43” (for Thom Gunn)
is one example, (Gunn never lived to read it.)
And here comes my friend, limping on
his heavy boot, the heel come off. A cobbler’s shop
appears, and I buy the black nails,
the dwarf’s hammer, glue and strapping.
I work hard on it, bending there
until he speaks, and walks on.
But as he is dead, his voice and step
make no sound.
And a favorite of mine “Baudelaire’s Day Book” is about a father’s dying; the stanzas are made respectively with bravado and fervency.
My father dying. When I saw him at “The Home,” part of his
face dropped like soft clay under heat, his cheek a dented
pepper. I stepped back and clutched the wall– It was my face,
my drip of lead above the brow.
One of Gewanter’s keynotes is to find an overarching subject as repository, then make a story
within a story, a knot inside the ribbon of thought. It is a fine way to layer circumstance and
consequence, character and story. We see the technique in this above poem and throughout his other books
The lyrical assumption is that originality is where vibrancy comes, and vibrancy is a rousing of
the spirit. Gewanter is calling us to arms on every page:
BOOK OF THE BLURBERS
Their caravan never came to our village.
Still, there was evidence: a mica sheet
for a mirror, a hollow shell
to carry the voice between towns,
the mutilated scraps of paper
wheeling at our feet . . . that was all
we found of the traveling Blurbers,
though the boys ran up
waving bits of cloth,
“we saw them this time, Uncle, we did!”
The desert is a gritty sea,
the wind scours a rusty gun turret
to silver, then drowns
the next gun in a tide of sand –
our island is this brackish water hole.
Later in the poem,
whose covered Book, our grandfathers say,
carries our wisdom throughout the world.
Its letters are traced by a bayonet
dipped in the bowl of the brain:
THIS IS HOW TO BRAID BREAD.
THIS IS HOW WE VEIL THE BRIDE.
THIS IS HOW LAVENDER IS GROUND.
THIS IS HOW WE VEIL THE WIDOW. . .
TWO: AMERICA INCOGNITO is systematically political in the Gewanter style: Part sci fi – part
50’s movie – obsequies to the stupid who cause death among us. The most dynamic poems appear to be
improvisatory but the mind sees the architecture in its legitimate phrasing. This is no beginning poet centering
his lines. This is a literary mission on the page to make rhetoric precise and eloquent without seeming rhetorical.
Poetic commentary makes arresting social commentary in the poem “Mobius,” a chilling look at
clouded sky floats below the ocean,
then we jolt awake –
But this is not her dream, not water or land.
Tell me again, what illness do I think I have?
Gewanter’s work is implicitly a respect for the past, all of ours, the grief is there, the truth not always
pretty; it is solemnity belied by humor, always humor keeping us reading. Wryness doesn’t work on the
page unless there’s a muscularity forcing lines to a conclusion. Gewanter is good at taking us to a lyrical
summit, then shooting it down. The concealed idea explodes into the poem.
in the tints of the sky, yet like a stopped
clock,right twice a day
Now ma’am can you remember the name of
the President who was shot in the 60’s
And if the names had sunk beneath the sea,
rolling hump and hollow,
leopard spotted foam – surgeons would haul up
the big sharks and club them silly, knife off a fin,
then drop them
bleeding onto the docks of Alcatraz,
Later in the final part of the five page poem:
Can you tell me what day this is?
– You mean now?
The brush like an oar rinses off its paints;
a filmy rainbow
upon the waters, coils and ribbons
you trace In your own sweet time.
The third section is one poem, “War Bird,” and it is the book’s title poem, so we naturally read
wanting to know its purpose. The poem is an unalloyed strike at the past failed presidency. Gewanter
sets up the scene and keeps us circling back to a history worsening, the desolation caused by a leader
who will not appear, the delivery of 3000 antiwar poems to the White House gate. In order that the
story does not become a dinning of words/event/words, the poet rearranges the poem’s perspective.
Antipodal thoughts careen together, synchronized ultimately, to make a long poem into a safe harbor.
Here is War Bird in the beginning stanzas of its 6 pages:
WAR BIRD: A JOURNAL
Poets' Anti-War Rally, 12 Feb. 2003
The massed and pillared wings of
the White House never fly—
.......whitewashed yearly, they stand
to hawk and dove, and red armies
of ants. Only the halting squirrels
.......investigate, creeping past the arrowhead
gates to scratch
.......the Midas lawns
for treasure—On the street, commentators
wander like boys in a story too simple
.......to explain. The political message,
.......punched inside out:
once, the Nazis got word that Churchill
would visit Roosevelt "in Casa Blanca":
.......U-Boats bobbed near the Potomac,
waiting for him…
as he said, was sailing to Morocco.
Reagan protesters splashed the Pentagon
.......walls daily with cow blood—
In this book the peaks of history are attacked from all angles, sometimes with dash, sometimes
more vulnerably. Gewanter’s facets are eclectic and buoyant inventions. He concocts combinations that
dare us to be happy so we will not be destroyed by his truth. This is when humor becomes craft. It lifts
us up while slapping us down. David Gewanter is tortured by love for the world. His remorse for that
same world summarizes his poems. He is Mick Jagger and Seamus Heaney in a style well achieved,
original and true.
David Gewanter's previous poetry books are In the Belly and The Sleep of Reason (Chicago.) He
is the co-editor of Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (FSG & Faber.) He is Professor of English, Georgetown
Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.