David Baker

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

David Baker
Air Date: July 28, 2010

Aaron, I’d like to introduce you to the work of David Baker. David’s ten years younger than I am—sigh—and he’s already published nine acclaimed books of poems and three collections of essays, while being poetry editor of one of the finest literary journals in the country, The Kenyon Review He grew up in Missouri and got his Ph.D. in literature from the University of Utah. He lives in Granville, Ohio. His work is very much of and influenced by his own land, the Midwest. He says he grew up pretty much the way the rest of us did. As in, the first poem he remembers reading was by James Whitcomb Riley, followed by Dr. Seuss, and in school, the Canterbury Tales, John Donne, and Emily Dickinson.

David’s now one of the country’s very best poets and critics. I always know that whatever he has to say is going to be intelligent, well-considered, and sane. And I know his poems are going to be all that, plus sensitive, polished, and surprising. The poet Marilyn Hacker says that he’s “the most expansive and moving poet to come out of the American Midwest since James Wright.” That’s a lot to say, but I have to agree.

I asked David to say a few words about the two poems I want to read of his. The first poem is titled, “Hungry.” David says, “I’ve been haunted by the image of a neighbor’s guard dog for years. the dog’s on a short tether, and seems nearly starved, and yet protects the house with real zeal. That paradox is the center of the poem, for me. I wanted some sense of the helpless, the ineffectual.”

And then there’s a jay in the poem. David says “The jay that can’t quite finish his sentence, or ME, who wants articulate language from a bird and a dog; and the strange beauty of a big storm that is, still just part of the way of the world. To have so much (water, seeds, richness) and to have so little. That’s the paradox.”

Well, enough talk. Here’s David Baker’s poem:

HUNGRY

This time the jay, fat as a boot, bluer
than sky gone blue now that the rain has
finished with us for a while, this loud jay
at the neck of the black walnut keeps cawing
I want, I want—but can’t finish his clause.
Hard runoff has spread the driveway with seeds,
green talcum, the sex of things, packed
like plaster against shutters and tool boxes,
sides of the barn, while the force of water
pouring down from the stopped-up gullet
of gutter has drilled holes deep in the mud.
Yet the world of the neighborhood is still just
the world. So much, so much. Like the bulldog
next door, choking itself on a chain
to guard the yard of the one who starves it.

David mentions to me the tight syllabic structure, also, a kind of clarity, he calls it, the way a day can be so clear after a storm. I’m thinking, too, of paradox and how often we find a poem in paradox. I think, and this is just my guess at this, that when we introduce paradox—two things that can’t really be true at the same time, but are—we’ve reached the heart of what poetry does. It opens up, or points out, the gap where our rational, logical mind can’t reach.

Then here’s the other poem. This one’s called “Hummer”—which I think is pretty funny because it unites the hummingbird and the huge tank-of-a-car called the Hummer. Here’s what David says: “I love to watch those little birds. So fast, so beautiful, and as I have observed, so ferocious! They run into each other, clobber each other, zoom and buzz each other, to make room for themselves at the feeders and flowers. Such tiny little brutes. So of course I played with the name—a hummer being a ridiculous car, too, with as much arrogant power as a tiny bird, and a hummer being a kind of pitch a baseball pitcher throws to scare a batter or brush back a batter, just like the birds. (If he hadn’t told me that, I’d have no idea!)

“Aggression, power, mixed with beauty—paradox again,” David says. One of the bases for this poem, too, he says is the simple act of paying attention, looking hard at details. The world will give you a poem if you just pay attention.

HUMMER

The greater the lesser, the cars bulked up
and armored for the exurban, panic-
room set, for whom a wide wheelbase
is a military presence on the highway,
superior—if insecure—in its security.
A strip of highway, and then they blow by.
And the long blast aftereffect, like the pitch
that flies by the same name, the brush-back
warning shot of a little chin music, what
the veterans call from the dugout.
All you see is a wing then feel the whir.

They’re out there now, the lesser the faster,
each fury-borne blur with a ruby ribbon
at the throat of the meanest thing
on wings, diving to suckle at sugar-
water tubes we dangle from our pin oaks,
stealing sips from coral bells or the pink
hoods and human poisons of a foxglove.
We love to watch them. Though watch, precisely,
isn’t right. They shoot, dart, flipper away
at astonishing rates—seventy-five wing-
and twelve heartbeats per second, unless

courting, during which the tenuous wing-
member vibrates two hundred times a tick.
All we catch is a pencil-line fading-
in-water escape. Or the rare instance
of a landing, when one whirs to a pine bough
—blue finger, with a beak—then back, back
to bombing each other, bumping windows.
What drives them if not hunger’s hundred shapes,
hatred, thirst, mania, survival, force of habit?
Each is greater than the last, according to
the laws of compensation and revenge.

I quote the quotable David Baker again, about writing poetry, because I think what he says is, well, just right. He says, “To write poetry is to place one’s faith in music and mystery and magic and difficulty—a commitment to the imagination’s powerless power and to freedom of all kinds—and also in the long-range hope that the work of poets matters to a culture as well as to an individual. I admire poets especially, he says, who do not so much write for a wide audience as a long one.

I do think David Baker’s poems are for the long audience; I think his poems, like James Wright’s, will be around for a long time, because they’re both skillful and real. They’re about us and they speak for us.