Garret Keizer's poetry has been in major magazines such as The New Yorker and Ploughshares, in small, curated literary journals like the Alaska Quarterly Journal and the Hudson Review, and nearly everywhere in between for more than 30 years.
He has finally gathered 59 of those poems, 18 of which have not been previously published, into "The World Pushes Back" (Texas Review Press, 2019).
Publishing two poems a year and one's first book of poems at age 66 may suggest a rather measured pace — the result of living in the quiet, rural setting of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom — but think again.
Keizer, a 1978 University of Vermont graduate, is the paragon of the focused, hard-working, wide-ranging and productive Renaissance man. While publishing his poems in quality literary journals, he was also an Episcopal priest serving a small congregation in Island Pond for 10 years and a high school English teacher for more than a dozen years at Lake Region Union High School in Barton. During that time, he wrote and published eight books, including a young adult novel, and nonfiction books on various topics, including privacy, noise in our environment, the enigma of anger and the concept of help. Keizer is clearly a man of broad interests, intellect and energy with a strong sense of moral responsibility, community and concern for his fellow human beings. Those ideals expressed over the last three decades in prose are also evident in his first poetry collection.
Though I am often skeptical of the back cover blurbs written by other authors, in the case of "The World Pushes Back," I think the praise of three outstanding contemporary poets is indicative of the high regard in which Keizer's poetry is held by his peers. Major Jackson, professor of English at the University of Vermont and a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle poetry award, praises Keizer as "a passionate witness to a remarkable life made holy by his spacious intellect and adventures in song." Sydney Lea, a past Vermont Poet Laureate, observes that Keizer "unflaggingly offers things that matter: love anger without facile judgment and with earnestness and wit." Stephen Dunn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of 15 volumes of poetry, writes that Keizer "takes us on a journey through mystery from travail toward understanding that leads us back to mystery." High praise indeed.
For those readers who shy away from poetry as too complex or too fey, "The World Pushes Back" is an excellent way to get engaged with this ancient and beautiful literary form. Keizer addresses all the big themes — history, nature, love, mortality, family. He provides the reader with many "a-ha" moments, those times when poetry provides us with a feeling, a memory, an understanding of ourselves and the world that may have been there but had gone unrecognized.
The first line of the first poem welcomes the reader thus: "The older I get the less I'm bothered/by seeming incongruity ... Eventually you find the rhyme/for every word. The night/is coming — perhaps that's why — /the color that goes with everything." Entire books about aging are being written for the Baby Boomers and Keizer sums it all up beautifully in a few lines.
Whether he's writing about the horrors of World War I in "1917" and the inhumanity of man converting the beauty of "simple machines" into instruments of torture, or about the quotidian details of his morning routine ("Everything is better in the morning,/the first pretzel/and the first written word,"), Keizer's work echoes for me the famous quote of Coleridge describing poetry as "the best words in the best order."
It was difficult to choose my favorite among the poems in this collection, but I finally settled on three that conjured up the Vermont I love.
In "The Neighbors," Keizer's narrator complains about people who build a house on the hill above his home, "thus ruining/forever the satisfaction I took/in seeing no house but mine/in any direction./I felt cheated and bitter." Time passes, they become dear friends, and the poem's final stanza summarizes the change: "So I live at the foot of the hill,/and any bitter man who would climb it,/meaning my neighbors harm,/must first get past me."
In "Cooking in Reverse," Keizer writes a love letter to compost, one of my favorite garden elements. He writes, "With every heaping shovelful/the crooked coils of last season's/cucumber and tomato vines compress/like bedsprings." The poem ends with "Come spring I'll dish it out/in lavish, loamy helpings,/another matter of reversals — feeding/the garden that feeds me/its first and final meal." Perfect.
Finally, commenting on the oft-experienced power failures in our rural setting, "Now and Then" finds the beauty in the latest event. "The power's been out since four a.m./when a thunderstorm ripped over our mountain./All morning long I've been aware/ of the silence in the house ... I think that sounds were sharper/against that stillness,/bird songs and piano chords,/the voice that called your name."
In writing the biweekly BookMarks column, I have found it more challenging to review poetry than novels, short stories or nonfiction. The latter writing modalities have a core unifying element — a plot, setting, group of characters or a clearly defined topic. Poetry is different and writing about it is, to use a widely quoted phrase, like dancing about architecture. So it was with some difficulty that I have tried to fully capture the quiet beauty in Keizer's writing about everyday rural Vermont and his quiet outrage about man's inhumanity to man. I would urge you to read these poems and then read them again. Each reading will reward you with new insights and awareness of the great art behind a simple poem.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Mass., and Brownsville. He can be reached at EpsteinReads.com where you will also find more than 1000 book reviews to help answer the question, What shall I read next?