‘American Desert’ poet comes north

Many distinguished poets have resided in the Adirondacks, and now the region is lucky to welcome Benjamin Landry as a visiting professor at SUNY Potsdam.

Landry’s previous two books (“Particle and Wave” and “Burn Lyrics”) were highly awarded, and this year he’s out with another full-length collection, “Mercies in the American Desert” (Louisiana State University Press). Individual pieces from the book have appeared in top publications like The New Yorker, Tin House and American Poetry Review, but the collection’s strength lies in bringing together these different voices and poetic approaches. Landry is a young poet, and this book succeeds on its boldness and variety.

The publisher’s copy calls “Mercies in the American Desert” “a clear-eyed reckoning with the people and the nation we have become: a land assailed by gun violence, police brutality, and state-sanctioned racism.” In my reading, it also offers a quiet counterpoint to these larger realities — moments of careful observation, short visions and longer experiments with the structure of language. It is, as the jacket suggests, a “redemptive wilderness for our time.”

As a concept, wilderness seems deeply entrenched in Landry’s poetics. The title borrows an archaic etymology from the Salem witch trials. In its roots, “desert” is linked to “de-serried,” or “un-rowed” places — those outside agriculture’s neat furrows. Likewise, Landry’s poems transgress the neat limits of inherited from. While some poems (like the strange dreamworld of “Recent Dispatch”) step out evenly measured couplets, Landry more often makes full use of the page. Some poems indent their lines wildly, or paint them across the field. There are matrices of cascading words (“Shafts of Light”) and back and forth arrangements across an imaginary centerline (“Recess’). There are also remarkably cogent lyrics (“Parkland”) and blocks of prose. Landry’s collection asks us to be convinced by many voices and perspectives. Together, the formal choices enact the both variety and disillusion of modern America — the draw toward, and ultimate frustration by, our inheritance.

Landry’s collection also deals with another implication of “desert” spaces — abandonment. In his tight, ascetic poem “Parkland,” Landry lists a number of things that “not everyone” gets to do. “It is June,” he writes, “and not everyone / graduates. Not everyone / tears off their gowns. / Not everyone races …” etc. This is a situation defined by its own abandon, the places and actions deserted by their actors.

And yet, the book highlights many different actors — speedboat captains and college kids, spouses, flowers, Paul Bunyan and jellyfish. Landry deals in real live Americans, which is a remarkable achievement in this political moment, when the demands to flatten and demonize our opponents are all too strong. When Landry asks, “But what sort of nation did we / think we would be by now?” the question is both self-implicating and sad. This poems give any number of answers, none of them totally comfortable or self-absolving. As Cole Swenson notes, Landry constantly “enlarge[s] the meaning of US … the shreds left behind by human error and the surprising persistence of the varied lifeforms that thrive among them.”

And it’s not just Swenson — “Mercies in the American Desert” has been well-reviewed by top poets like Shane McCrae and Martha Ronk. Nothing I can say could endorse its technical powers more highly. But I can say that it’s especially worth reading now, and especially in places like the Adirondacks, which fall outside the bullseye of American culture. Edgelands, places un-serried by agriculture or the straight lines of industry, nurture many of the “mercies” of which Landry writes — intimate gifts of kindness, attention and love that pass from person to person. It’s not that the “deserted” places are more righteous or less implicated in the national situation, but that they provide a valuable perspective. This collection both provides and questions that perspective in high style. “Mercies in the American Desert” is a powerful offering from yet another strong, fearless poetic voice that we’re lucky to have among us.


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