May 26, 2020
In Eliot Schain’s latest collection, The Distant Sound (Sixteen Rivers Press 2020), we enter a type of concert where the poet conducts his many memories. From a truck stop men’s room to the Chez Paree, from Gallery 41 of the Uffizi Museum to a Mexican town, each memory brings a new story, a new world. But for me, personally, it hardly matters what the memory is because the music that takes me there is so compelling. The rhythm and flow of his language pull me through each poem like a breeze pulls a kite. “As all the Heavens were a Bell, / and Being, but an Ear…” (Emily Dickinson), reads the epigraph to this book; it is a perfect place to begin.
But don’t let my appreciation of his music diminish the power of his words — some brilliant choices — or the meanings they convey.
Kazim Ali writes “The smaller the moments of a life become epic and transcendent through the attentions of the poet’s mind. This is Eliot Schain’s gift. Nothing is ordinary — not an old friendship from youth, not a spouse of many years. Everything is seen keenly and anew.”
Eliot Schain is the author of Westering Angels and American Romance. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review and Ploughshares, as well as several anthologies. He received his MFA from Columbia University and has worked as a teacher and psychotherapist.
Here are just a few poems from The Distant Sound beginning with the opening poem. I can’t do justice when it comes to representing the wide range of work between the first page of this book and the last, but you’ll at least have a taste, or a tune. Your comments will be welcomed.
The Old Shepherd
When the sound took me out of the house and into the yard
it grew wings and en-colored like that lofty earth-bird
who will not flee us so I stayed close to the sound
and the nerve within that was always trembling
trembled again until I closed in on the ghosts
and their kind voices and empty forms so close to mine
like those cracks in the universe leaking still more color
until I could not what we call see but could feel and hear
so I followed the sound as if drinking from the chalice again
and continued through the city with its warrens and cafes
and old homes carved out of nothing as is everything
and then moved on to the countryside where lakes became
eyes dotting the earth’s skin to lure me deeper into sound.
God and Creek
When Jon was eight and went to the creek shaded by cottonwoods
in a distant city on the American Plain he was flooded b the miracle
of going home as the dappled light and the toads near the water and
the depressions in the ground that welcomed his bare toes reminded
his bones — though they would last a long, long time — that what would
make him a man was in the sound that comes by night or in those soft
corners of the day when the claptrap and the frittering are left behind…
he placed his palms to the surface of that drifting water and its church
came into him as it would forever onward — for what is maturation but
swelling reverence for this home we were given by some odd divine
who chose us to be both urn and ashes and so Jon accepted his town and
pecked with the others at what we might become but always remembered
the water from which the toads and the cottonwoods and all our gods
build their beautiful echoes with gates so we can be both human and free.
after Robert Frost
When I was a boy to climb a tree
was the easiest way to unhook from sorrow —
the firm feel of wood to lean upon
and leverage for some greater height
as one goes up was sweeter
than what I’d found on common ground
searching among fallen fruits and nuts
for something that would get me so I could eat.
The sky was an inkling of some greater park
with fantastic swings and deeper pools
as the branches thinned and the wind revived.
The thrill of going higher was closer to truth
than some classroom where boys and girls played
like cheap toys and broke if handled ardently.
I preferred ardent about the sky,
and thus am here alone, just timberline,
still climbing, my old friends like
branches suspending me as I head for heaven
which is the best place for love.