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On Fire and In Love With the Taste of Words

ISSUE:  Winter 1999
Days of Our Lives Lie in Fragments. By George Garrett. Louisiana State University Press. $26.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.

Days of Our Lives Lie in Fragments is a pleasure to read. George Garrett is a skillful poet who has mastered several poetic styles, honed his craft for four decades, and is now producing the best work of his career. In these pages one watches him evolve as a poet and a person. From the tighter, formal poems of his early books Garrett has moved toward looser, vernacular-based poems in his more recent books. When his forms relaxed, his vision expanded. It moved from one that R.H.W. Dillard characterized as “dark and Augustinian . . .fraught with doubts and terrors, lighted by love and his Christian faith,” to a world view that embraces popular culture, gains vitality from a bemused edginess, and conveys a much richer sense of the world’s moral textures.

Most readers know George Garrett as the novelist who reinvigorated the historical fiction genre with Death of the Fox, The Succession, and Entered from the Sun. He has, however, also published six other novels, seven collections of short stories, five books of nonfiction, and two plays—as well as co-authoring what film critics Harry and Michael Medved once described as one of the worst movies ever made. Still, Garrett began his career writing poems, he has continued to publish collections throughout his career, and his poetry may be the most direct expression of his art. Days of Our Lives Lie in Fragments (New and Old Poems, 1957—1997) brings Garrett’s best poems back into print and offers a selection of 30 new poems. Readers familiar with his poetry will be pleased with his excellent new work, and this nicely selected volume should win him new readers as well.

Garrett has wisely chosen to begin the book with his recent poems. They contain some of his strongest work and convey a sense of his having come to terms with what he has to say and how he will say it. “Whistling in the Dark” makes this case clearly:

What has happened, my friends, is this:
we are saying the same things over and over again
because we have to, because there is no other choice.

We are singing the old songs, whistling the same tunes,
each like a small boy in the dark, in a graveyard,
maybe, whistling to reassure the rotten dead

that he, of course, is careless, indifferent, fearless.
We are saying the same things in exactly the same tone of voice
because we have to, because there is no other choice,

except, perhaps, that purity of absolute silence
to which our noisy music does aspire,
with which our music will be well rewarded

all in due time. Meantime, my friends, we must
say again and over again the same few things
(wise or foolish no matter, beauty of bounden duty)

without which the world goes wild and the silent dead
rise up to rattle us daft with their dancing bones
because they have to, because they have no other choice.

This poem excels on several levels. The first is the basic message it conveys: if one writes, one is bound to keep returning to certain classic themes; this is not only all right, it is necessary. Still, by fulfilling one’s duty, by accepting it and not trying in vain to deny it, one discovers a kind of release. This idea echoes the Buddhist concept of “work practice,” where working with the proper attitude becomes a step on the path to enlightenment. When Garrett acknowledges that his work will one day be forgotten and “rewarded” with the purity of absolute silence, he shows that he understands one must focus on the process and not the product to reach this exalted-state.

The second way this poem excels is its delivery. Using a scaled-down variation of the villanelle form where he repeats one rather than two lines, Garrett raises a sense of anticipation between repetitions and he brings new shades of meaning to it in each usage. More important still is the rhythm he achieves with the slight pauses he introduces at critical points, as when he says “in a graveyard, maybe, whistling to reassure the rotten dead that he, of course, is careless, indifferent, fearless.” The magic arises from the way this conversational speech plays off the formal expectations he has placed in the back of our minds.

I could easily have chosen several other poems from this section to illustrate the high level of Garret’s recent work. I am particularly drawn to the reflective work that echoes the themes of “Whistling in the Dark.” The title poem is a moving elegy that acknowledges how “soon, soon enough, we shall all cross over/out of these shadowy seasons of sooner and later/each alone as can be with pain and sorrow.” “Anthologies” and “Anthologies II” follow the speaker’s thoughts as he pulls down two books from his shelf. “Some Enormous Surprises” is a truly extraordinary poem: it finds a fresh way to write about Adolf Hitler using humor (by reminding readers that Hitler was thought crazy because he was a vegetarian, opposed smoking, and called the Volkswagen beetle the car of the future) and empathy (by imagining him as a boy retrieving buckets of beer for his father’s supper). “Ghosts” is a prayer for forgiveness that ends with these moving lines:

. . .O fathers
and mothers moving in twilight
stay and be still
as you were and are
in (always) fading memory
pray be smiling, kindly wait,
be easy on us living and scarred
kinfolks who came to love and grief
too little and too late.

After the section of new poems, the remainder of the Days of Our Lives Lie in Fragments moves chronologically through Garrett’s previously published volumes, beginning with The Reverend Ghost from 1957. Though the organizational scheme makes sense, the transition from his most recent to his earliest poems is rough. The juxtaposition starkly points out the differences between the new and old work. One immediately notices the clipped rhythms Garrett adopted to fit the formal patterns he employed, his reliance on literary and religious allusions (which add an academic seriousness to the poems), and an overall earnestness that permeates this early work. This isn’t to say the poems aren’t worth reading. They are. There are many wonderful poems among the previously published poems. But the pleasure one finds in his earliest work is one of returning to an earlier time, like looking at old photographs of oneself as a young adult—the mature person is visible, but dressed in different clothes. Compare, for instance, the lines quoted above from “Whistling in the Dark” to these from “Congreve”:

Nothing is lost or won.
The sun shines as it has to
on the just and the unjust.
Rain falls on the false and true,
and what was beautiful is dust.

The suppleness and mysteriousness we find in “Whistling” is not present in “Congreve” because of its formal and moral exactness.

Garrett wasn’t oblivious to his early high seriousness. In “The Bed,” from Luck’s Shining Child (1981), he writes:

“When I was much younger
much more solemn than now
[I] couldn’t watch a leaf fall
without an archetypal twitch
and every apple was original sin . . . .”

Of course, there is much to be said for Garrett’s serious side. But just as I prefer the more melancholy newer poems, I prefer the more jaunty older poems. I love it when Garrett observes “Who won’t be passionate and brave/dressed as a musketeer, a sly/rapier taut along his thigh?” I thank him for writing “Welcome to the Medicine Show”:

What I have done here is simply bottle
some of the natural hatred and malice of poets for each other.
I guarantee it will do nothing at all for you.
But it will sure enough shame a hornet or a scorpion.
It can make a rattlesnake laugh and roll over like a puppy.

I always feel perversely happy after reading it. In fact, all of his “Flashcards” (short poems in the manner of “Medicine Show”) and his “Celebrity Verses” (satiric takes on famous women) are one-of-a-kind utterances worth seeking out. Then there are the poems like “Tahiti Mama, Who Loves You?” and “Belly Dance” that perfectly mingle humor and amorous affection. As a comic tour-de-force few poems can top “Fat Man,” which pries humorously into the mind-body relationship (“O flesh, my tyrant wife, my shrew/old slattern, what’s to become of you?/Of us?”)

George Garrett displays a wonderful virtuosity in this book. He plays it straight and he cracks wise. He writes in forms and he writes free verse. He writes personae poems and he writes from life experience. On top of that, he has included a small selection of translated poems that are truly haunting. They are poems I had not previously known, but they are ones I know I will return to again and again. “Wake,” “Plough,” “Goat,” “Footnote” are marvelous. “Dead of Winter” (after Salvatore Quasimodo) is exceptionally rendered. Let me close by quoting it.

Your clear hands call my name.
They dance in the dark light of the fire
With the odor and oakwood and roses
And death. Dead of winter.

What became of the starving birds?
They fell into a waste of snow.
So it is with words.
They flash like sudden angels, go
Away like ghosts. So with the trees
And us, too, make of morning breeze.


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