Jim Schley's Essays

Stanley Plumly’s Quiet Magnificence

Stanley Plumly, Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems, 1970–2000 (Ecco / Harper Collins, $13.95).

Stanley Plumly’s poems could be described as quietly magnificent. There is an amplitude and gracefulness to the work that hearkens strongly back strongly to the nineteenth-century Romantics, in particular Keats: "Like some dreams, they appear, then reappear, / cloistered in the space of their own wounding, / their public mourning, their gravity’s gray coat. / Even at a distance, as if drawn by being seen, / they come straight at you, the almost elegant woman / in the aisle, the tall young birdlike silent / weeping man . . ." (from "Grievers").

Yet Plumly never sounds antique. Reading the poems in this new, retrospective collection is an experience in following a thought process that is physically embodied in phrases, complex sentences and vivid images embedded in articulate lines. Doubters who question whether any of today’s poets have schooled themselves sufficiently in the hard apprenticeship of Yeats and other poetic forbears should listen and take heart: "Sound of the breath blown over the bottle, / sound of the reveler home at down, light of / the sun a warbler yellow, the sun in / song-flight, lopsided-pose. Be of good cheer, // my father says, lifting his glass to greet / a morning in which he’s awake to be / with the birds . . ." (from "Cheer").

Plumly’s poems are muted in manner yet never tentative; sonorous and fluent while refusing to be merely beautiful. He persists by searching out new ways to see, new ways of grasping what it means to be alive in these drastically fragile bodies. His book’s title alludes to a strangely ambiguous evocation of parent and child lying beside one another — perhaps a small boy and his father, but more likely a diminished and failing father whose still vital son is recognizing in their unaccustomed intimacy a rare bridge across distance. 

One of the wonders of this selection of Plumly’s work drawn from thirty years is the way the book is arranged as a continuous sequence "in reverse chronological order," with only a brief author’s note to indicate the original book titles. It is uncanny to see how comparable in acuity and eloquence the early and later poems really are in this fresh reading. The book lingers in its look back, filled to the brimming point with birds, trees, and people that are gone, all gone, residing now only here. Truly, a life’s work.

Plumly has never been prolific — three slender books in the 1970s, two in the 1980s, and only one in the 1990s. Yet his ode-like soundings of mortality have accumulated in power and resonance. His voice is; the care with which these poems were made is evident in every line. This, then, from "Doves in January": "Long o’s, long o’s, long o’s, and then a pause, / a whistle more like someone’s voice than song, / as if in a moment a day could pass // from nothing’s grief to some becoming grace.

― Assigned by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette but not published.