All Things Are Real: James Schuyler’s “Collected Poems”

19-year-old James Schuyler at the U.S. Navy's Fleet Sonar School, Key West, 1943

19-year-old James Schuyler at the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Sonar School, Key West, 1943

Reading through Schuyler’s Collected Poems feels like reading through a diary or through a stack of personal letters, kept neatly in order. When roses are described as being full of buds in one poem, the next or one soon after will mention the first one bursting into bloom. Spring poems are followed by summer, then fall, then winter poems, only to circle back around. A recurring phenomenon is the personification of the months of the year. Here’s an example from “The Crystal Lithium:”

January, laid out on a bed of ice disgorging / February, shaped like a flounder, and March with her steel bead pocketbook, / And April, goofy and under-dressed and with a loud laugh, and May / Who will of course be voted Miss Best Liked (she expects it), / And June, with a toothpaste smile, fresh from her flea bath, and gross July, / Flexing herself, and steamy August, with thighs and eyes to match, and September / Diving into blue October, dour November, and deadly dull December which now / And then with a surprised blank look produces from its hand the ace of trumps

In “So Good” we get a very visceral personification of March: “March is here / like a granny / a child doesn’t / like to kiss: / the farm smell, / a chill sweet- / ness. He’ll / get over it.”

John Ashbery (l) and James Schuyler (right), painting by Fairfield Porter, 1967.

John Ashbery (l) and James Schuyler (right), painting by Fairfield Porter, 1967.

Whether he is in the city or in the country, Schuyler always notices the weather, the season, the flora and fauna. Very few poems do not mention at least one or two of the above. Even music becomes plant-life for Schuyler. Take this passage from “Like Lorraine Ellison:”

And through the snares / sexily come saxes: through / solid shadow-green / of brushing leaves, clear /  as a blues, violet sage, / flowering saxes. I / send you all the love

“I never miss the garden section. / It describes heaven to perfection,” explains the speaker of “A Picnic Cantata,” and with all the very specific plant names, at times even taxonomy, and the detailed descriptions and observations of nature we find throughout Schuyler’s poetry, this could very well be him. The ever-changing view of trees, flowers, shrubs outside his window can capture his mind as much as any human interaction.

I’d say that Schuyler is almost as fond of animals (dogs in particular, cats a close second) as he is of the plethora of plants he describes as talking to him. In one poem, he goes as far as nominating a dog (a “beautiful, humorous white whippet”) for immortality (“The Morning of the Poem,” p.278/9). In fact, there is much life in Schuyler’s poems: dogs, cats, raccoons, mice, bull frogs, flies, moths, any number of birds (including lots of jays, a cardinal and a barn-owl), and so forth.

a whippet, source: wikipedia

a whippet. source: wikipedia

In the exuberant “Hymn to Life,” even the sun is alive, “Comes out from behind unbuttoned cloud underclothes — gray with use –” and while the plants become animal-like (“at the Reflecting Pool, the Japanese cherries / Bust out into their dog mouth pink”), animals become plant-like: “A cardinal / Passes like a flying tulip, a lights, and nails the green day / Down.”

Life cannot sit still, it constantly flows from one form to another, like water moving from solid to liquid to gas with great ease. It is as much in Hodge the cat’s ripped ear as it is in pear blossoms or the seizure he witnesses in the delicatessen. I love the ending of this (long) poem (including yet another personified month): “I like it when the morning sun lights up my room / Like a yellow jelly bean, an inner glow. May mutters, “Why / Ask questions?” or, “What are the questions you wish to ask?”  It seems to echo, again, in “Good morning,” which ends on this question: “Silver day / how shall I polish you?”

Lest you get the wrong impression, people also appear in Schuyler’s poems. We get to see through his eyes, for example, in “The Morning of the Poem,” a former lover: “he stood across / The street, in tweed, a snappy dresser, feet apart, head turned / In an Irish profile, holding an English attaché case, looking for / A cab to Madison Avenue, late, as usual, looking right out of a bandbox, / As usual.” And of course there are also his friends, his fellow poets and painters, — there’s a lot less name-dropping here than in, say, O’Hara, but the familiar names are all there. One person is omnipresent in these poems, the unnamed ‘you.’ Again in “The Morning of the Poem,” Schuyler explains that “When you read this poem you will have to decide / Which of the ‘yous’ are ‘you.’ I think you will have no trouble, as you rise from your chair and take up your / Brush again and scrub in some green, that particular green, whose name I can’t remember.” Like a painter knows his countless shades of green, even those that might be too faintly different from each other for the untrained eye to distinguish, Schuyler knows his friends will know how to read his ‘yous.’

40 shades of green observed in a spring forest. source:

40 shades of green observed in a spring forest. source:

Schuyler’s poems come as they are, in diverse body-shapes, skinny as rakes and only two, three words wide, or fat and full and covering numerous pages. Often, they are sweet notes, or bitter-sweet notes to a beloved or a friend. The poem “Steaming Ties” contains some very tender moments: “when I’m alone it’s hard / at times to know how unalone / I am, loved by you,” explains the speaker, and further on, he confides “ties are, even ties, / are silk and real. Your / voice to me is silk and rustles.”

While at times, Schuyler comes across as more contemplative and calm than his fellow New York poets, his sense of humor is intact, though at times wry and dark. There is also a child-like exuberance, like in this passage which, again, is from “The Morning of the Poem” (probably his best-known poem):

Rain! this morning I liked it  more than sun, if I were younger I would have / Run out naked in it, my hair full of Prell, chilled and loving it, cleansed, / Refreshed, at one with quince and apple trees.

It’s one of the moments where I really felt a kinship — the right kind of rain is wonderful and makes me feel the same way (though I don’t plan Prell into it). I like the passage for another reason, too, — apples and quinces. I like both, very much. The apples and quinces make a repeat appearance a few pages later in the same poem, this time linked to growing up and growing old: “the apple and quince trees / Looking so old, so unkempt: I remember planting them, they were just seedlings, or do I mean saplings?”

quinces, from Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen (source: wikipedia)

quinces, from Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen (source: wikipedia)

I chose the title for this post from “Letter to a Friend: Who Is Nancy Daum?” where we’re told that “All things are real / no one a symbol” — very much a summary of Schuyler’s poetics of writing what is real and observing what is there. That’s not to say that there is nothing that could be read symbolically in his poems — there’s plenty. I also don’t claim that he takes no flights of fancy now and then — some of his images are fantastic and imaginative — but what I think it means is that it’s all rooted (like plant life) in the dirt and grit of the every-day.

I’ll likely write one more post about Schuyler’s final poems, just to give them their own space, and to give my brain some room to process all this poetry.

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


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