John Keats remarked in a letter to his friend Haydon that “Difficulties nerve the Spirit of Man – they make our Prime Objects a Refuge as well as a Passion.” No stranger to suffering himself after attending to his mother before she died, and then watching his brother Tom waste away from a disease which would later claim the poet himself, what Keats meant by this statement is that suffering does not simply make one’s poetry a salve or a balm. Suffering also elevates perception, intensifies life experiences, so a poet may come to greater self-knowledge and a new understanding of the human condition.
This idea is threaded through much of Keats’ work but it is also found in Mark Callanan’s new collection of poems Gift Horse published by Signal Editions. As hinted at by the title, however, Callanan’s brush with death in the form of a medical emergency a few years ago has made him less inclined to talk about it in terms of anything except as a gift. There is a real humility to his poems, which reaffirm life’s uncertainties rather than bolstering the grandiose claims Keats made for poetry as a physic for all the hurts of the world.
This is not to say Callanan’s poems are not ambitious, but rather his ambition is found in the workmanship of his craft which undertakes a serious examination of the physical world, a world he unwittingly almost lost, rather than in some prophet or philosopher’s private musings of an ethereal paradise.
Take for instance, his poem“Meningitus” from the first section of his book where the speaker’s hard-earned wisdom is that life is far more fragile than he realized:
I wait here for the sky to quaff the harbour sludge,
the hills to slough off houses, light poles,
cars parked neatly at the curb, the sun to burn
away the trappings of the city with its bulbs
of suburbs, the sea to rise and gorge itself
on cruise ships, trawlers, pilot boats, upended
punts whose gunwales melt into the earth.
Instead, I find myself compelled toward the dirt,
a writhing fit on the bedroom floor.
I kick my hooves and stare
past the faces of my family,
toward the future, that uncertainty.
Unlike the first stanza with its apocalyptic imagery where the poet sits waiting for some revelation, for some vast image out of spiritus mundi to trouble his sight, the second stanza begins with a glimpse of his own near death. This revelation is very different from the one he anticipated. More akin to animals than to the divine, it is his mortality he learns which connects him to all existing things in nature, rather than some imagined metaphysical realm.
This pragmatism enters into another poem “The Meaning of Life” which wanders further into this territory:
The Meaning of Life
It could be that this line drawn taut
between my fist and Bonnie’s kite—
the nylon wings and plastic strut—
is closer than I’ll come to revelation.
Or trust, I mean, in the sort of heaven
a feather’s width between the fingertips
of god and Adam insinuates,
their faith enduring on a chapel ceiling.
I’m the kind of man whose mind
is often flocked with herring gulls
that dive for chicken skins in parking lots.
And yet, at times, I almost grasp
what’s lost down on this lower plane:
the pull of unseen hands, a gentle tug.
Tangled string; me staring up.
Unlike others whose near death experiences have lead to a fervent belief in god, the speaker’s faith resides only in a world he can feel and see in some way, where his mind “is often flocked with herring gulls / that dive for chicken skins in parking lots”. Instead of belief, this poem insists the only connection to what lies beyond this life is the speaker’s own uncertainty anything else exists. Even so, the last four lines admit that powerlessness in the face of mortality has the speaker, at times, staring up and looking for a god to make sense of it all.
Ultimately, Mark Callanan’s collection Gift Horse is concerned with a whole array of things – mermaids, snowmen, extinct wolves – but the terrifying fact of one’s mortality underscores the whole collection. Lucia Perillo talks about powerlessness in the face of death in “Job versus Prometheus” from her essay collection I’ve Heard The Vultures Singing where she concludes:
The worst thing about disease is how it undoes Prometheus’s good deed and gives the patient a flash glimpse at his or her possible death—a flash that’s never exactly accurate, of course, because we all ride the plotlines of our singular, inevitable physical demise. Disease is notoriously inconsistent. And yet the flash is still horrifying, frightening beyond belief, because it might contain some truth after all. (54)