Farewell to the
Starlight in Whiskey

Barton Sutter
(BOA Editions)
At first we were put off by the naked-love-in-the-woods stuff coupled with Midwest farm lore ("you've braided the tops of the onions / And gathered the vegetables in.") But it isn't all peaches-and-cream in Minnesota/Wisconsin canoe-country. Sutter's lady friend Dorothea carries hysteria "like a dose of malaria" in her blood. His drunken poet friend John Engman had an aneurysm while bathing, "One man in a tub:"

    You stood there on your silly head
    And held your breath for hours, days,
    Swelling up and turning red.

"One more miscalculation," writes Sutter, "Like thinking poetry would mean salvation."

His memories of family are a father with Alzheimer's, a mother who "came apart / From leukemia and chemo and the surgeon's knife." Then the poet turns to a medical examination of his own heart:

    Love muscle, clenched glove, triphammer heart,
    Help me to tell my needs from greed.
    Spitting image of the mercy seed,
    Don't quit on me now.

§     §     §

I think we should always honor one who insists on writing poetry in 21st century America. Of all the thankless tasks, this has to be it. A poet! Car mechanics get more credit and love than poets. Could it not be compared to being a blacksmith in Milwaukee in 1920, a streetcar conductor in Atlanta in 1940, a windmill manufacturer in Ohio in 1960. Of all the dead-end careers!

And it comes to be special to find one who can do it like Sutter --- with rhyme and meter, no small fun, a touch of romance. And a tad of spite: "Where is Dick Cheney's heart? / Does it bulge like a bubo / Under his arm." Writing on about Quaker meeting, television, cutting open a fish, a girlfriend's panic attack, kicking the booze habit, telling of a previous marriage, cooking up pretentious poetry editors, and loving (and hating) poetry:

    You can have your Keats and Shelley,
    Whose precious poems grow ripe and smelly
    With references to Roman gods. Reading them, I drowse and nod.

His favorites? Fr. Hopkins ("Who loved god and weeds"), Christopher Smart ("Electric lines about his cat") and Robert Burns ("could write a juicy hymn / From gazing at his lover's quim.")

He may have it wrong about our beloved Keats, but, given the world, and the oncoming night, and the parlous state of Cheney's heart, the best we can ask for is that a poet show some love and terror and passion; be able to express, honorably, death and despair and delight and whimsy; and at all times, have the magic to, in Sutter's case, tell us so movingly about his own father in the clutches of dementia:

    He used to hike and swim,
    But this is what's become of him:
    He picks litter off the floor.
    He tries the lock on every door.

    He drums the chair, he beats his thighs.
    He gives out little groans and sighs.
    Smiling, he stands and claps his hands.
    He fiddles with his wedding band.

    He descends the stairs; he climbs the stairs.
    Whatever he wanted wasn't there...

    The man was a preacher, years ago,
    But now he's down to "yes" and "no."
    He cheered for me at football games,
    Now he can't recall my name.

--- A. W. Allworthy
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