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Looking closely with Allan Peterson.
Allan Peterson, As Much As. Salmon Poetry, $21.95 (paper)
What if all that mattered in a life, all that stuck in the mind or pulled at the heart, were the well-defined events and decisions: where to live, what to do for a living, when to get married, whether to go to war? What would we miss? Almost everything that makes a life worth living. We want not just actions and consequences, victories and defeats, but dragonflies and paperclips, daydreams and counterfactual syllogisms. And perhaps poetry—that verbal art form without obvious consequence, whose shapes are not the shapes of events and plots—best suits those apparently negligible phenomena: if it cannot preserve them, it can at least show how we care.
That is not the only goal for poets, nor is poetry the only art that adopts it (Virginia Woolf to the white courtesy telephone, please). But it is a goal that many poets take on, by precept or example, and there may be no better example right now than Allan Peterson. No other poet—to judge by this third book, As Much As—focuses so fully on the inward effects of apparently inconsequential observations; no other poet makes them speak so well. Though he entitles one poem “Pure Description,” Peterson almost never describes scenes literally and at length; poets who do so can lose a lopsided contest against the resources of visual art, as Peterson must know (until 2005 he taught painting and ran the art department at Pensacola State College in Florida).
Instead, Peterson uses what he sees as a starting point for effects of inwardness, of ratiocination, above all of analogy. His title means that anything can matter as much as anything else, approached rightly, but it also means that he will use as much of “as”—as many similes—as he can. Unmoored from action, without preset pattern— no rhyme schemes, no New Sentences, no Oulipian bravado—his relatively short poems add to the world they explore by webs of simile, by like and as and so. “Docks along the coast looked like a thumb piano. / I listened.” “One harebell starts the yard in its frenzy / of reexplaining. / What takes its place appears lovingly / like caressing a pet.” Bird song consists of “short notes like dog names, / one or two syllables, something unmistakable.” Wrong numbers on a telephone exist “within hearing but unheard / even when you hold them to your ear / the way people will touch a photo / in a private ritual.”
Such quirky, ramifying similes cherish the evanescent, the fleeting, either in optics or in human behavior: phenomena slip away, and the poem races after them. Twice Peterson compares his art to a search, in high grass, for a cheetah, and once (in a poem called “Cover”) to the gaze of a hunting dog:
Sometimes I look at the landscape the way our spaniel stared
at the wall like an idiom,
a meadow of stickpins and seeded fields hiding lovers
whose eyes glow red in the distance.
In his happiest moments, Peterson, like Woolf, may vanish into his impressions: “I forgot for a moment what I intended. / I turned like birds, like a knife in the light, and disappeared.” Such times, such “hours . . . so taken with themselves,” feel
like writing a new love’s name all over your notebooks—
the only instance of making a word more solid
by repeating, when ordinarily it dissolves—
clinging expectantly to the surprising irregularities
as door glass holds houseflies.
Peterson’s visual gifts—so attentive to freshness, so careless about decorum—can make most other poets seem like they aren’t really looking. He uses those gifts to hint at an order in nature, explicable, if at all, by the natural sciences, without first or final cause:
Leaf, whether gold or hickory, glitters like Las Vegas.
Foil, whether beaten sheet or a hastened plan thwarted,
gleams as if fresh from the photographer’s sinks,
and anvils of vapor rise above the island like distractions.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Peterson’s world has grandeur, but no God. Elsewhere he makes gentle jokes against seekers of bulwarks, “form in poetry, god in the bread, / the old unchanging—all confirmed in the thirsty nervousness of sleep,” that is, not confirmed by the continual, small-scale surprises of waking life. “No Gods Needed” begins, “Saying bird is too big”; even “swallow” and “syrinx” attract suspicion, being names for classes, human impositions of human orders, rather than single things found and described. But suspicion does not mean rejection; against simpler poets’ claims that we should never generalize, Peterson acknowledges that we do—otherwise we could not speak at all. The best observers test their generalities against experience, seeing how much they can hold: “We consult the table of breaking strengths. We generalize wildly, / hempen or wire.” So “Pure Description” ends.
Allan Peterson can make most other poets seem like they aren’t really looking.
Peterson’s lines are a mess, or they look like a mess: never songlike, thickly chromatic, preferring the rhythmically or syntactically awkward to the cleanly predictable. Movements from the literal to the figurative, or from sight to emotion and thought, serve almost like changes of harmony, changes of key. (The poems rarely resolve into tonic or even dominant; they do not end where they began.) In his mix of apparent ungainliness with precise attention to his own ideas, Peterson shows the benefits and the risks of a style developed in relative isolation. “I have no training in writing. I have taken no courses, attended no workshops,” he told an interviewer nine years ago. Though he began to write seriously in the 1960s, he did not start publishing verse until twenty years later. Apparent inattention to tone, to audience (as in Marianne Moore, as in A. R. Ammons), itself becomes a tone, a slightly antisocial, or nerdy, focus on the recording of thought, on “seeing the smallest thing.” The poems bear the marks of a visual artist, but also (as with Ammons) the impress of the natural sciences, attracted to counterintuitive, carefully evidenced claims about nonhuman life: “millipedes scattered, earwigs / applying their calipers to gravity,” “the mapping gnats, the dry and polished swallows,” “magnets’ spinning and clicking little dogs.”
To see things clearly is to see them change. The title poem examines “undergrowth,” where “what looked alive was alive”: “It would take days of naming to begin / to announce my visitors, / seeing within seeing like Hooke or Leeuwenhoek,” pioneers of microscopy, “while spider silks tell the wind / better than the nylon sock or brass chicken on a rod.” Wind changes that web, as all things and all scenes change in time:
Nothing is motionless, not the painted portrait
blinking while you’re away,
whose acids are discoloring buttons, whose frame
is oxidizing while moistening its eyes,
or the uneasy sky pieced together from brushstrokes.
That painted portrait (like a person, it seems to blink) and that sky (it looks like a painting, with clouds as brush strokes) both show how the world is in flux, prone to “so many accidents.” Even the atoms dance, as in Lucretius, and animals, too, become their own temporal traces: “Its very tail makes a river of the fox, / raccoon a sleeping creek in the leafed trees.” A secularist and a devotee of brief phenomena, Peterson cannot help seeing details (and thinking about how we see them) so finely and oddly that his world seems about to dissolve into patternless flecks.
And yet Peterson does not let his poems dissolve; they come back not just to things seen, but to things said, to claims about how we understand, or cannot quite understand, “the whim of minute,” the passage of hours or years. His poems can begin with perception but end in metacognition, thinking about how we think, how our thoughts go astray. Anonymous Or (2002) and All the Lavish in Common (2006) came close to the semi-sense, the evaded sense, of an Ashbery, asking us to suspend our disbelief, and suspending their own syntactic endpoints, almost indefinitely. As Much As never gets so intricate. For one thing, it’s more insistently visual, and for another, the poems don’t have the room. It is, though, just as idiosyncratic—you may have to reread before you can know how one notion, one comparison, leads to the next within this unusual mind.
Though he does describe extreme events (for example, a hurricane), Peterson remains a poet of the emotional middle range, of careful fascinations, domestic affections, ill-managed fears. His inner quarrels vex him, but do not turn violent: “I argue with my hands as if they were airports, / waving at arrivals, sad at departures”; “my window . . . is my sane partner though its dead calm / grieves me.” Yet once you get used to reading him you can find anger, even despair, especially when he contemplates the environment. “No Uranium” shows no love for that fissile element, but it could not be chanted at demonstrations; rather, it tries to imagine the calm, apolitical state of mind that its topic has ruled out, “quietly reflecting the grief of phenomena ecstasy / as if visiting Montana / believing the fiction of pure water”—that is, ignoring the damage the mines have done—“with no obligation / but to say this is thinking see how exquisite / And then the gold alone.”
Nor is that poem alone. “Pillow of Stones” views a planetary future so far away that the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, and therefore the height of the ocean, goes back down: “Sometime the sea will lessen / and there will be cliffs like Dover / carbon will tell you how heartless we were.” Most of that poem concerns a burnt (carbonized) skeleton excavated at the Mayan city of Tikal, “a burial with a necklace of dentalia / dust in his eyes.” Our human sacrifices are not so elegant, but the Mayan fate may be ours, too. This least urgent, least moralizing of recent styles turns out to bear an ethical charge after all: to look at the scenes outside us and around us, so potent with prompts for moment-by-moment imagining, is also to wonder what we will do to them, how they will—as we will—disappear.
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