Many new books of poetry are interesting. Some are entertaining. A handful are really memorable. But how rarely a new book comes along that is so exciting that it leaves one slightly dizzy. Nothing in Radcliffe Squires’s first five books of poetry will have prepared readers for Gardens of the World. Somehow at the age of sixty-three, long after the point when most writers settle into comfortable repetition, this little-known poet has focused all of his talent into one stunning and original collection. Not that Gardens of the World is a perfect book. It contains some poems that seem stiff and mannered. But the good poems are so strong that one forgets the momentary lapses, and the best four or five poems rank, in my opinion, with any new American poetry of the last ten years.
Most collections could not survive an opening this powerful. Everything else would seem anticlimactic.The first poem in the book, “One Day in Salamanca,” lets the reader know that it will be no ordinary collection. The poem describes a strange incident in a Salamanca café where a young beggar threatens to crush a captured sparrow unless an American tourist buys its freedom. Squires turns this anecdote into an amazing parable. The scene, the characters, the action are all brilliantly described. Most collections could not survive an opening this powerful. Everything else would seem anticlimactic. In Gardens of the World it sets a high standard that is matched many times. It also establishes the strange tone that dominates the book, which unexpectedly shifts between gentleness and cruelty.
The poems that follow are set mostly in the dry, empty landscapes of the West. Born in Utah, Squires sees the plains and deserts with the unromantic eye of a native. He can masterfully re-create the exact look and feel of a place, but he is not content merely to describe. A landscape exists only insofar as someone sees it, and Squires’s Western poems explore the relationship between the human viewer and the inhuman terrain. He understands how people cannot watch a place without somehow transforming it, however subtly, into subjective human terms. Squires’s landscape poems are his most openly personal ones. By defining his relation to the natural world, he defines himself. In “Chasms” the landscape becomes a symbol for human imperfection and mortality:
I wonder why we come again and again
To these places where footpaths suddenly end,
And beneath us lies a chasm. Sometimes it is
A sea like a vast grapevine.
We watch, its veined, overlapping leaves
Shifting out of phase until they break at the horizon.
Sometimes we come to these great holes
In the desert where nothing shifts at all,
And, it seems, will never shift again and yet
Remains all unfinished.
In passages like this, one hears Squire’s unmistakable voice. It is calm, insistent, and authoritative. The rhythms are strong but conversational, and no matter how complex the syntax, one never loses track of the sense. Though there is often a subtle metrical system at work (the passage above is based on a four-stress line), one rarely notices it since the rhythms follow natural speech patterns so closely. Metaphors are used sparingly, but when introduced they are carefully placed and elaborated. One always has the sense of a single, insinuatingly familiar, and worldly voice behind the lines—the voice of an old man without illusions but still sensual and alert.
The last section of Squires’s book is a series of nine interrelated poems each re-creating a visit to a mythological garden. On the basis of these pieces alone I feel that Squires deserves consideration as one of the finest American poets writing today. They are overwhelming. Packed with so many arresting scenes, images, characters, and ideas, they are impossible to take in all at once. Reading them, one experiences a sense of excitement mixed with awe that one rarely gets with contemporary poetry. No, they are not quite a masterpiece. They have occasional flaws and miscalculations, and after a dozen readings, I am still not convinced that they form an integrated sequence. But at their best, as in “The Garden of Medusa” and “The Garden of Hecate,” they are among the finest and most original new poems I have read in years.
Each of the Garden poems presents the end of a journey—a journey inward climaxing in a mysterious confrontation. The form of the poems is quasi-dramatic. Written in the present tense, they project the reader into the scene and force him through the action of the poem. While each garden is similar in that it becomes the scene of the action, each has an appearance and atmosphere different from the others. The garden of Hecate, for example, is a quiet, untended spot haunted by an undefinably sinister force:
The gate is heavy and the hinge stubborn, but
It is not locked. Lean on it with all
Your being. It will give just enough
For you to enter and pass under the white popular tree
From which albino worms descend on glittering threads.
Each garden is not just a landscape but also a troubling symbol for memory and imagination. If it can be visited, the arrival is not without risk. Squires explores the fine line between self-discovery and self-destruction. What one sees in the mirror may be more than one expects. The vision of one’s destiny may be of death. And yet even death may become an alluring temptation, as in “The Garden of Medusa” where the dead champions, who have looked on the Gorgon’s face, acquire a terrifying beauty:
. . . where those who were turned
To stone still stand. How beautifully they
Have weathered. The grasp has run from the hands.
Frail honeycomb of limestone shows in the hollowed
Cheek. And the eyes, hardly eyes now,
More nearly birds’ eggs nested in stone, are all
Turned calmly in the same direction. It is as if
Sunlight had broken through the roof of the
Underworld, and all the dead had forgotten
Their living sins as wind and rain moved on them.
You may, after all, choose to forget the mirror and
See what the face really looks like.
These lush, mythical gardens stand in contrast to the dry, open landscapes of Squires’s Western poems, and in some ways they represent the two sides of his imagination—the visionary and the realistic, the Western American and the classicist. There is ultimately no dichotomy, however. Each type of poem makes the same journey in a different direction. The desert poems, which begin so realistically, typically end in a quiet visionary moment, just as the gardens for all their intricate fantasy often turn out to be inhabited by worldly individuals. As different as they seem on the surface, both types of poem confront the same question—how does man, who is created by history, escape from it? Squires has written critical studies of two American poets who have little in common except their position as dark, philosophic loners—Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers—and he, too, shares their determined individuality He is a philosophic poet who has no need for easy answers. And like Frost or Jeffers, he is complex without being difficult, serious without being pointlessly depressing. It has taken him a lifetime of experience and forty years of writing to translate his vision as successfully as in Gardens of the World. This is not a book to ignore.
First published in The Hudson Review (Winter, 1981-82).