“Weathering,” by David Havird

David Havird

Reviewed by William Walsh

Generally, when I read a book, for pleasure or review, I thumb through the weighted pages to feel the texture, the heft of what I can expect. Some may say that I harp on the tactile too much, but there is always the importance of the physical connection between the book and the reader that is needed. I will flip around to see what’s inside, reading a line or two, a short passage, the author’s biography notes, especially if I have never heard of the writer, as with David Havird. I mean, you cannot know everyone, right? And, yet, I should know this poet. I sit here having read his book, thinking about the mutual friends he and I have, wondering how our paths have not crossed, but this writer is as foreign to me as anyone in recent memory. We are also connected through influence—primarily, James Dickey, but other southerners, too. I had met Dickey on several occasions; conducted a three-plus hour interview with him at his house in Columbia, South Carolina; studied his work as an undergrad and grad student; and have taught some aspect of his work every semester for years. As well, the week I took reading Havird’s Weathering was the same week I taught two classes on Deliverance and Dickey for another professor at Reinhardt University. I was thrilled to talk about the man and the novel. What I discovered in Havird’s book was his connection to Dickey, and this made me feel as if I had a kindred spirit, as the stars aligned themselves.

The opening to this book pays tribute to Havird’s mentor by quoting “The Shark’s Parlor,” a poem of such grandiose lore that undergraduate and graduate students still speculate to this day as to the truth of the narrative and the poet’s fantasy. Of course, if you asked Dickey, he would have said that it was the truth, or the truth as he saw it at that time. The portion Havird quotes is appropriate for this collection, as he is a man who has moved through his life and is now reflecting backward and “[f]eeling more in two worlds than one in all worlds growing / encounters.”

Weathering: Poems and Recollections is divided into five sections; however, section four, “Recollections,” is as out of place in this book as a sewing machine at the bottom of the ocean. And, yet, it is what drew me immediately into the book. This section is comprised of three essays, which are more along the line of personal reflections with one common denominator: Dickey. I found it odd to have three essays in the middle of a book of poetry, but it is not until after reading the entire volume that the reader understands, not the necessity, but the desire by the poet to include them. Had Havird placed them at the beginning, the essays would have been weighted too heavily for the book and overshadowed the poetry. Had he placed them in the last section, they would have appeared to be an afterthought. In the end, they were appropriate because they pay homage to Havird’s past and to the man who had such influence on him.

Initially, I read the first poem of this book, “Phalanx,” but was so distracted by the lure of the essays that I could not proceed any further. I was compelled to read Havird’s essays first, out of order in this collection. What I discovered were stories and recollections about Dickey from his student. The first one, “In and Out of Class with James Dickey,” talks about everything one can think of regarding the South Carolina poet when one wants to write a book but doesn’t have the time. It’s the kitchen sink, and all of it is interesting. This essay, like the others, has a unifying subject, Dickey. This is no surprise. What was a surprise was when Havird discussed Robert Lowell and Archibald MacLeish’s visits to Columbia, as well as people I know who are friends with Havird, specifically his fellow student and friend, James Mann, who lives in Greenville, South Carolina. And if you did not know, in addition to being a fine poet, Mann is one bad-ass karaoke singer. Years ago, I heard him sing a little rock-and-roll number at the Snug Hub in Canton, Georgia. Mann holds the record (never to be broken) of having taken more classes with Dickey than any other student. All three essays are personal reflections, peppered with scholarly insight, but it is a who’s who of literary bigwigs, specifically the Fugitives and Agrarians. Anyone who has studied Southern Literature and the Nashville literary scene understands the importance of these writers. Havird seems to have met them all, entertained them, driven them around, broken bread with them, or if he did not, he has studied their work, discussed their significance to the literary scene, felt their importance and presence permeating the University of South Carolina and Dickey’s classes: Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Peter Taylor, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Stafford, and more. Anne Waldron’s Close Connections (1988) is a supplement to the literary alumni of her book as Havird talks fondly and critically.

Havird begins the first essay with a recollection of Dickey’s famed house on Lelia’s Court, which I’d been to a few times, and which has since been bulldozed and replaced with a new house. Just last week I was on Google Earth looking at the new house, thinking, What a shame it was to destroy a house where so much literary brilliance occurred, whether it was Dickey’s, his friends’, or his students’. Dickey appears to be a surrogate father for Havird, whose father died in 1995, two years before Dickey passed, but while away at college, Havird gravitated to Dickey—the replacement for his own father, or an expanded version of Havird’s father or of what the elder Havird could not provide to his son. But the young student, now years later, honors Dickey even if he paints a sad and horrible picture of the poet toward the end of his life, “What I notice first, beside the gauntness of his once round face, are the clear plastic tubes in his nostrils. . . His shanks—he’s wearing shorts—are all scaly skin and shin-bone.” Havird does not quiver before the ghost of Dickey, providing warts and all.

All three essays are absolutely unbalanced in their composition, drifting from person to person, from one thought to another, to Havird’s personal life to discuss incidences and poems and Havird himself; however, the personal nuances of his narration are mesmerizing in their ability to provide a documentary-like quality for life at the university with Dickey in the 1970s. Havird touches on what I assume is his father’s disappointment in Havird’s career choice, the father having expected his son to be a lawyer, not a poet. Through Dickey, Havird the son was anointed poet, which his lawyer-father seemingly could not muster. In poetry and literature, Havird found his second father in Dickey. He mentions how Robert Penn Warren “might have been the only living American poet whom Dickey never trashed.” A tidbit such as this demonstrates the reverence Dickey had for Warren, as well as how few people were unscathed by his wit, intelligence, and anger.

One of my favorite recollections is the scene at Lake Katharine, behind Dickey’s house, when Big Jim and Robert Lowell are on the lake dock, both without shirts. I’ve seen this photo numerous times over the years, but here is a person (Havird) who was there to recall the incident, almost as a journalist: “Dickey boasted the superior physique. Lowell’s skin was very pale and slack—‘and he’s supposed to be so attractive to women.’’” There was also the idea of revision and how Dickey guided his students through it with an odd request in assignments, namely to write “two prose narratives—of a dream and a masturbation fantasy—and free association.” For Dickey, the revision process began “with the isolation of evocative diction and arresting images.”  One of the nuances I procured from the essay is the idea that through Dickey’s connection to a vast array of writers who visited the University of South Carolina and his house, there was access for his students, young men and women who benefited immensely from these introductions. Dickey opened avenues for the most talented of his students, and although Havird never boasted such self-endorsement, it’s safe to assume, after reading his poetry, that he was one of Dickey’s strongest protégés.

The author of two previous collections of poetry, Map Home (2013) and Penelope’s Design (2010), Havird has published in some of the finest journals: Poetry, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Yale Review, and The New Yorker. After the essays, I was anticipating his poems, because like many friends of mine who were students of Dickey, I eagerly awaited to see his thumbprint on Havird. Truthfully, I was hard-pressed to find Dickey imprinted into Havird’s poetry—Dickey was not there as expected, except in the fine molding of craft. This is actually one of the highest compliments a student can provide to his mentor, to leave the Socratic feet of the teacher and forage alone to become oneself and not an imitation. Havird does not disappoint Dickey in this regard. Dickey taught Havird to be a poet, not to be Dickey. Although Havird’s poems are finely crafted, they do not duplicate the mentor beyond Dickey’s fascination with the world. These are not the poems of an uber-woodsman and bow hunter, and you are unlikely to find much about the South in Havird’s verse; however, you will find a man who travels and thinks about the world and his place in it, as well as poetry composed of the highest quality.

I chose one poem in each section to analyze, my favorites. In “Hurricane-Proof”—as if life could provide such a thing—the speaker is warned by the manager of an apartment to close the doors because “[a]t night rats climb the palms,” and it’s where the outside world (nature) enters the inside world (the apartment) to create chaos, much as in Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” except in reverse: the jar is placed in nature creates chaos because it does not belong. Stevens wrote, “The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild.” In Havird’s poem, rats do not belong in the apartment and people do not want chaos scurrying around the floorboards. It is where nature dissolves and chips away at man-made objects, “sea wind’s salt; everything metal / it rusts.” All the man-made icons, structures, and symbols, regardless of man’s power, cannot withstand nature even if we think it is hurricane proof, where it is a battle of the two worlds that exist together only because nature tolerates man. But nature creates chaos, where the hunter prowls, “the morning’s yellow-crowned night heron / toeing on yellow marsh-reed legs.”

What is hurricane-proof? Certainly not man-made structures. But nature is hurricane-proof because even if some portion of it is destroyed by another aspect of it, it regenerates and becomes a newly formed thing. With man, when nature causes chaos, chaos reigns. In the end, the speaker discovers, along with his snoring lover, chaos in his inability to sleep, the two of them seeking shelter under the fronds, surviving among the crabs: “it impassioned you and this other / snoring beside you, whose sleep is / hurricane-proof.” The crabs, as small as they are, survive what man, ultimately, cannot in the long run—nature.

“Upon This Rock” is the metaphoric tale of man versus nature as a storm rages for two days, “wind from Africa / shoving the sea from its bed,” and how man arrives—in this instance, one man “across the shimmering bay / a fishing boat putters.” I might even go so far as to say, with the exception of a few turtles, foxes, and other animals scattered throughout his poetry, that Havird is an ornithologist or loves ornithology. If you love birds, he has birds for you: gulls, doves, a rooster, and many others. He even constructs his images, at times, with bird-verbs, “Hearing the rooster, I picture the rock / hawking the sea from its throat.” Even if “hawking” is not meant to be bird-like, it is the poet’s choice for reasons only the subconscious may know. In the end, man is reduced by nature to be lost at sea, which may be an ecological warning: “Peter / [erupts] with curses, in agony crowing.”

Again, if you like birds, as I do, Section Three offers one of Havird’s finest poems, “Sparrow.” He submits the poem with an epigraph from one of the great Southern minds, a poet of distinction, Randall Jarrell: “The sparrows of Paris are the sparrows of home.” It is a beautiful thought regarding the connectedness of the world and how one thing is influenced by another despite thousands of miles separating them. Seemingly, this is Havird, the poet, connected to the world in thought and action and through his art. The poem begins with what must be assumed is one of Havird’s influences, Rainer Rilke, as he “went on my sixtieth birthday / to see the parrots with Rilke.” To travel to the land where great literature has been written, where, in spirit, a poem or book has influence shaped into it, and into a zoo-like enclosure, the speaker visits the parrots in Paris that are “[f]enced in” with what I believe are stupid people observing the birds. In reality, though, the birds themselves look on, “holding in view / an immutable rainforest home.”

As with any visit to a zoo or a bird sanctuary, we observe what is at hand, but often discover the unintended, and does the speaker, who “[w]ent / with Rilke” and ended up with “Yeats / crowing that he had ‘pretty plumage once.’” At sixty, the speaker discovers a screaming cockatoo, which is a shift in the poem, and yet the poem is titled “Sparrow,” not “Cockatoo” or “Walking with Rilke and Yeats.” The speaker, who is aging, as were Rilke and Yeats, guides the reader through alleyways of his personal thoughts about birds. “Inside the cage” of “mesh,” he observes freedom, nature unobstructed. He discovers the title-subject, “the one house sparrow god / who’s everywhere escaping notice.” It is unnoticed by others, but not by the poem’s speaker. It is the sparrow, free from the enclosure, that strafes the speaker’s “cheek and earlobe” as if on a bombing run. In the speaker’s final thought is that he is “homebound.” The speaker, or the poet, whose job is to observe many details, as if in prayer, as if studying carefully, is more than the “clown of the mountains,” is not held captive but is free to daringly swoop down and buzz someone’s earlobe. That is what nature does. Nature should not be held captive in a mesh enclosure, but remain free to strafe and cause chaos for mankind. Nature rarely disappoints when humans leave it to its own devices.

Always a sucker for a good elegy, I enjoyed “Downriver with Uncle Paul” and its strong opening line: “Now Winter plants its pickaxe. Underground. . . .” The cadence sounds as if the axe is piercing the ground as well; the reflective “underground” momentarily pauses to take the reader’s eye back to the pickaxe entering the ground but then enjambs to the following line and his Uncle Paul “clod-cold.” With a leitmotif of time infused throughout with the speaker’s “wristwatch” humming, we learn his uncle was “fifty-nine” and “dead.” “The Accutron” watch is important enough for Havird to spend seven lines describing as he “huddles as within his humming star.” We have an admired uncle with “infantile / paralysis” who was his “father’s baby brother.” In a list of remembrances that can be attuned to most childhoods, Havird spent a few weeks each summer with his grandmother. His Uncle Paul “showed up to ride / his horse, motorcycle” and yet, once “[b]ored. . . he bought / himself a boat” to “motor down / the Saluda River to Lake Murray.” What an adventure for a kid! It is not simply paying homage to his uncle as that would be too simplistic for a poet, but Havird employs the passage of time until “God hurls his bolt” and Paul must “Now go to sleep.” In the end, the “orchestra of stars” is as “off key” as the speaker, and “sleep’s orphan” “huddle[s] now / within the drone of gravity.” This is a sad but beautiful tribute to one particular man in the poet’s life, a man who “hums / a luminous green song of time.”

Havird is not one to be lost in the shadow of his mentor, Dickey. He is his own man with his own voice, style, and importance, whose poems and essays are of deep interest. Weathering should be on your reading list, because as he says in “Molting,” “I picture / within the lamplight’s moon on the ceiling / a hawk whose shrills are high noon’s killing rays.” Havird imagines a world out of the ordinary and creates illuminating poems each of us should experience.

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  1. Bill – I enjoyed this immensely, rather like a condensed literary course, but without the typical impression that comes with “condensed” of tightness, elimination, foreshortening. A lyrical and reflective piece – very, very nice. – Theresa

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