Dean Kostos. Rivering. Spuyten Duyvil, 2012.
Dean Kostos’ new collection, Rivering, is the work of a gifted poet coming into maturity. This is not to suggest any tentativeness or lack in his previous volumes, but rather the deepening and focus of vision that comes with the assurance of craft and the ability to look both inward at the self and outward at the world with an unflinching gaze. Both faculties are held in suspension in the opening poem, “Shores of Walker Lake,” based on an anonymous nineteenth-century photograph of a Native American boy fishing in a lake, whose inverted reflection—unseen by him—is cast to the side of the rock he stands on. What the boy fishes for is the real, the unseen; what he receives, as its most immediate gift, is the vision of himself. The boy’s unawareness of his water-image is the unselfconsciousness with which children, not yet having tangled ego and object, investigate the world. The poet, having come to his majority, replicates this process by coming to the page with his pen, but with the knowledge that what he will find in its folds only what he is able to put there:
Come to water as to a page
Point your fishing rod and trawl,
scrawl the muddy floor. Reflection
swims into itself.
Kostos’ mastery of language-play is evident even in these opening lines, with the carried rhyme of “trawl” and “scrawl”; the latter does double duty as a verb, as is suggested by the connected meanings of exploration and inscription it contains: the self both discovering and imposing itself in the “muddy floor” of memory and experience. That is quite a bit of work for (slightly less than) four lines of verse to do, but the speaker wants to recover in this boy his own lost essence: “Tilt your head / into his liquid shadow— // read his featureless face.” The poem serves as this act of recovery, in which the actual fisher-boy is rescued by his reflected image in the watery grave of history into which the white man’s conquest cast both his questing innocence and the fate of his people: “One / becomes many.” The poem’s final lines are both celebratory and elegiac, as the image evokes a ghostly resurrection that “flood[s] canyons with wraiths” who feast on the natural surrounding but whose mouths are simultaneously “erased like a smudge.”
The paradox of photography—an image that “presents” the past— dominates the first section of the book, leading the poet back into his own childhood. A picture of himself asleep at four in his sleeping father’s arms suggests the dream in which life passes, while another, held by his mother’s gaze, enacts the anxious gifting of identity proferred by love, a transaction forever incomplete. Completion is a vital theme, and the sequence that comes at the end of the section, “Hughes’s Subjects,” is an attempt to write the poems on subjects the poet Ted Hughes suggested to his wife Sylvia Plath. Hughes gallantly (or imperiously?) offered them to help Plath overcome a dry spell, but they were apparently never taken up, and lay as an ambiguous gift bequeathed to literature itself. Accepting it, Kostos unites the sensibility of both poets even as he translates them into something his own. In “Bird in Unexplored Valley,” for instance, he inhabits one of Hughes’ beloved raptors, coming upon its own mode of speech:
I perch at the methane
maw of a cave,
at a sun-blind lake, at the cusp of no-
name. The cave sputters no syllable—
the only caw mine
as I explode into wing.
Here Kostos describes the cry that emerges in the poet from the muteness of the world, while subtly referencing the scene of Walker Lake from the first poem of the volume. The off-centered rhymes recur in the echo of “maw” and “caw,” the latter word critical in the earlier poem too. It’s only a single example, however, of the contrapuntal dexterity with which Kostos interweaves his verse, themes, and images from one poem to another to convey yet another shade of meaning. This is the hard work of a poet fashioning a vision that informs the collection as a whole.
Representation and recollection also dominate the book’s second section. Identity, and the effacement that time brings, return as a theme, and, as the Indian boy’s face is veiled in “Shores of Walker Lake,” so in a portrait of Monet’s, the subject (and the poet) declares that “I’m the future’s sacrifice, my face / an immaculate wound” (“Is Facelessness Modern?”). The images of wounding and blurring also inform “Gradual Dissolve,” based on an Eakins photograph of the aged Whitman, which wonders whether the poet still “sees carrion flies / glitter over dead mouths?” and concludes with the light cast over him, a “radiance taking him / apart.” Other poems (“Hart Crane Before Drowning”; “Dusk Over Hartford”) evoke the “deceitful radiance” of a featureless sun and a “narcotic sun” hypnotic in its descent, promising final form but dissolving at the last. The latter poem, which also recalls the bird-poet inscribing his verses, is a tour de force that builds Wallace Stevens’ own repertory of images into it. Similarly, “On the Difficulty of Reading Paul Celan” depicts the poet “crack[ing] // open German with a grackle- / beak” to write his poems in a language rendered all but unusable by terror. No song-birds here, decidedly. And even in the act of love, the inadequacy of human communication is recalled: “tongues taste tongues, tasting the fractured crumbs // of words not spoken” (“On Seeing Brokeback Mountain for the Sixth Time”).
As the sun orchestrates the images of the book’s first two sections, the last is dominated by night. “Tower of the Moment” begins with a line from Kenneth Rexroth—“A dark blur in the blur of brightness”—and proceeds to “The crushed model / of a lighthouse, its light extinct.” In the night sky, the moon will prove a “a radiant liar,” while underneath the dark truth of Hades’ rivers—all five of them—flow with their burden of lost souls, “neither dead / nor breathing, neither meat nor / shade, guzzling tears. Scuttling off.” The book thus concludes where it began, with water, the cycle of the elements complete. Yet even in its very last lines, even in terminal dissolution, the struggle for speech goes on: “Siena gurgling each name from the mouth / of its underground river” (“Siena”). The richness of language that Dean Kostos achieves in Rivering, it is safe to say, will last.