#186: I WANTED TO PAINT PARADISE. I read Joseph Stroud’s extraordinary collection Of This World: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) almost in a state of suspense. The opening sequence, eighty-four six-line poems grouped as “Suite for the Common,” was so moving and accomplished that I feared the rest of this substantial book (344 pages) would have to come down a peg, be not quite as good. It is, instead, marked throughout by a mixture of amplitude and restraint—amplitude in its fullness of emotion, its variety of subject and attack, its ranging of the world from Vientiane and Bodh Gaya to South America, to Auvergne and Madrid to “the Wailing Wall of the Jerusalem within me,” and restraint in its matured exactitude of craft, which refuses to overstate or to pester us to respond. Few poets working today can match Stroud for clarity, compactness and proportion in setting up a dramatic situation, but these situations move, as Rexroth said of the Noh drama, not towards resolution but towards realized significance. And Stroud is genuinely of this world: he has traveled among the poor and through the circumstance of war, worked with his hands, learned the names of animals and flowers, felt the shifts of wind and weather. He is fully sensate, but who can miss the spiritual element in his work as well? The book climaxes with thirty-six prose poems in the voice of Giotto Di Bondone, in which the beauty of the Renaissance Florentine settings, the laughter and Franciscan modesty of his protagonist, and the subject of painting—the incarnating of glory with hog’s-bristle brushes and earthy pigments—becomes the perfectly-chosen metaphor for Stroud’s own stance to his art. Even then there is more to come, including “Provenance,” as wise and final an elegy for a departed parent as I have ever read: “I want to tell you the story of that winter / in Madrid where I lived in a room / with no windows, where I lived / with the death of my father, carrying it everywhere through the streets.” As with the recent last books by Philip Levine and Jim Harrison, Of This World is a book that should be feted and noised abroad, greeted with parades and fireworks. Here is broad humanity, striking but unstrained metaphor, and feeling, a great steady flow of feeling for the world and its creatures striving to survive.
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