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Poems of wry gratitude

Review of ‘The Honey of Earth’ by David Graham

Cover of "The Honey of Earth" by David Graham

When I taste honey — as I sometimes do, as I have beekeeping friends who generously pass it on — it’s not necessarily the sweetness I taste first but the traces of the bees’ explorations, the spring flowers of Vermont hills, or the goldenrod of Adirondack roadsides. So do these poems engage in the memories and experiences of the author’s life and imaginings, and leave us with a delightful and complex flavor.

The title comes from a quote from Wallace Stevens: “The honey of heaven may or may not come, / but that of earth both comes and goes at once.” And the poems reflect the bittersweetness of that dynamic, but with good humor and open heart. In “At Sixty-Five,” the poet states, frankly, “On my birthday, I want nothing but / more of everything …”

Embracing the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the absurd, the collection starts with a poem in praise of “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings,” “… snoozing / right through the Annunciation” and “curled / in the corners of the world’s dazzlement.” This attention to quirky detail makes this collection shine, but it’s the deep humanity of the poems that make it glow. In “Junk Shop Shadows,” “… you can / almost see how every miserable / doo-dad was once someone’s / luminous dream.” In “Ode to Baraboo, Wisconsin,” where a sign on the edge of town called attention to itself as “The 54th Best Small Town in the Nation,” the poet notes, “You have to value / a place that knows its limitations / without giving an inch / to the competition — wily Auburn, Massachusetts, at number 55 …”

The dead, the dying, friends and strangers are embraced in these poems, and the passage of time, which takes away as much as it brings. In “Which Is to Say,” the poet lingers in the past: “Now that I’m old, I’m oddly / nostalgic not for childhood / but for my thirties” — but in the course of looking back at those days realizes that perhaps they were not as golden as all that, amid gains and losses, lusts and break-ups:

… and yes,

perhaps a tad more vodka

than was strictly helpful.

So those were not simpler

times, nor happier, they were

just thirty-something years

ago, which is to say, precious

as any lost gem or bent key.

The poet lingers with traces of old homes and fine hours, and loves it all in the end, the shadow and the light, with great empathy. Here are some lines from “To Judge the Sky”:

Poor knobby-kneed humans with soup-stained shirts

and lottery tickets in your wallets …

Poor mind showing its homemade videos to itself

all night long. And re-runs to boot …

… Poor everyman in Everytown —

we cannot thank you enough for your balloon dreams

rising above the aerials as if up were just the reasonable way.

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