John James is a collage artist. He cuts and pastes, making neighbors of images across continents, across centuries. He “disrupts” (his word) extant images, in order to predicate echoes between them; he arranges slices of the past into tectonic plates, into double exposures, into quilts and arguments. This is true of his visual art, but his poetry is collage, too.
In fact, a reader need look no further than the second poem in James’s first book, The Milk Hours, to see collage overtly at work. In “History (n.),” Plato’s Phaedo, which tries to lasso the soul, keeps company with Anne Carson’s Nox, which tries to corral grief into an origami enclosure. Nietzsche, Hegel, and Haruki Murakami lend the poem phrases, too.
But more intriguing than the overt aesthetic of collage in James’s work is the way that art’s premise shapes his book. After all, poets always owe other writers phrases, and all artists are borrowers. What differentiates collage is that its artists use what they borrow with the purpose of disrupting time. Collage artists julienne the unity we tend to assign to the bundled past. They whittle eternity first into millennia and, at last, into breaths. They unbind the flip-book version of a life, making its split-seconds all suddenly equal.
So, in The Milk Hours, James’s boyhood self and his present-day self are equally present. In some poems they sit inside the room of a single stanza together, and the kid is not just a hazy prototype; he’s every bit as incarnate as his older counterpart. Which means that for James the danger of these poems must have to do with getting lost.
In a different register, that’s the risk for James’s reader, too: that they will not be able to follow. Even a collage needs a center, however asymmetrical. Therefore, one of the temptations for the artist is to fabricate a center, to let a moment fatten and sweeten into a false eternity.
Rather than giving into that version of sentimentality, however, James acknowledges its lure and then turns back to the multiple urgencies of time. His poem “Kentucky, September” provides one example:
Then I realized this wasn’t my grandfather,
and these weren’t my hands.
All of this was a pasture resembling heaven.
Heaven was a meadow in time.
The poem is wise. It grants the eternal moment’s pull, especially on those of us who have known loss. But it doesn’t allow the Bluegrass State to morph into heaven; James keeps the field in September from becoming a “meadow in time.”
A similar dynamic unfolds in the poem “At Assateague.” Even as the poet derides “dawn’s gouache” arriving at a barrier island’s horizon–“It’s unbearable, this scene, / its sickening romance”–he admits, after a mere breath between stanzas, “Still I want to hold it, to freeze / its sudden architecture.” And it is partly that the cryogenic urge that makes this book resonant; we have all wanted to waylay fleeting, pastel dawns.
This book is also resonant, though, because it fails to still time, as we all have. So “At Assateague” ends with “pear blossoms giv[ing] way to pears,” and its last line is a very mortal resolution: “I’ll never stop eating them.”
The Milk Hours contains many such mortal resolutions, beautiful and a little preposterous, aware of their own half-lives. Taken together, James’s verse is not only honest enough to concede but also sage enough to value the truth that it is mortal. Indeed, while these poems do make time their subject, splitting it as a nuclear physicist might an atom, they also honor the reality (it is a mixed blessing) that they are subject to time.
Because time, for James, is the engine of both life and grief. Already on this collection’s first page, in fact, he cites time’s gifts and thefts, dedicating “The Milk Hours” to his father, who died in 1993, and to his daughter, who was born in 2013. Those years, those hours–they’ve put an infant in the writer’s arms, and they’ve seen to it that his father’s “face grows vague and then vaguer.” Time is the guarantor of both presence and absence.
Which introduces another truth The Milk Hours tells as it cuts and pastes the stuff of past and present: time is partly empty space. And that emptiness persists not only between moments but inside them; time is like matter that way. The poem that is this collage’s off-center center, then, is not its title piece, but what the writer has labeled “Poem Around Which Everything Is Structured.”
This “Poem Around Which Everything Is Structured” works as the center of this volume partly because it is itself structured around absences. It makes an announcement to this effect up front: “Something’s missing / in this song, and I don’t know what it is.” Throughout the poem that missing something materializes, as absences do throughout The Milk Hours. Blanks appear on the pages themselves as loss that tugs the words out of a rigid order.
[…] Let me speak plainly. Let me get to the dark
heart of the matter. The thing is, Love, that when I watch
the squash buds wither, when the June sun makes them
shrivel into themselves, it’s almost too much for me to bear.
The whole poem has this shape; only half of its lines are anchored to the page’s left margin, so the tercets take turns being more or less attached to that edge. This is the verse’s concession, in form, to time.
For it is time–the months, the sun–that draws buds from vines and then withers those buds, and the line containing this quick, mortal drama pulls away from the poem’s left margin. The poet refuses to justify on the page a rush of loss he cannot justify in the June sunlight. Consequently, in the poetic line, time reveals the poem’s tenuous grip on it.
The following left-justified line, however, names the perplexity that the poet actually can own or, perhaps, that possesses him. Either way, in this standard line, no absence buffers the writer from a consciousness of mortality–and not mortality conveniently collapsed into a unity, but pulled apart, divided into snapshots and darkness. Of course it is “almost too much for [him] to bear.”
Even so, the poet presses on, and happens on his boyhood self, whose eyes he “search[es ...] for mutual absence.” He writes,
[…] And I, and the boy, sit
blinking in the dark, staring off at the wall and the dead stars
beyond it throwing cold light through the black matter
of millennia. It rests inside his palms. It rests in mine. At times,
looking out at the bare sky, and watching those stars fizzle
in the map of still time, I want to crawl up into its stillness […]
In his first book, James has marked the milk hours–hours that give and take–on “the map of still time,” and that is one measure of his accomplishment. He has also folded the map, to let the child he once was and the adult he has become plumb one another’s eyes “for mutual absence,” no small feat. But what strikes me as this debut volume’s best gift to us as readers is that it gets to “the dark / heart of the matter,” putting “the black matter / of millennia” in our palms, not only in the writer’s own. These poems, that is, “search [us] for mutual absence,” too. And wise readers will, the grief involved notwithstanding, want to be found.
Jane Zwart teaches English at Calvin University, where she also co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Rattle, North American Review, Boston Review, and TriQuarterly, as well as other journals and little magazines. In addition, she has published edited version of on-stage interviews with writers including Christian Wiman, Zadie Smith, and Amit Majmudar.