Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas
Holding Ground, by Bruce Willard, demonstrates the power of minimalist poetry. It shows how a carefully chosen image or two can be all you need to create meaningful poems. Sometimes you don’t need to say it all to say something powerful.
Take the poem “Divorce”:
There was a dry, simple thinness
to the air. An archipelago
made off to the south —
the debris of continental drift.
Everything was said
in three or four ways.
Every goddamned thing done.
Just the word remained. Like an island
the morning after a cold front has passed.
There it is, the image of an island after a storm, telling us all we need to know about the divorce.
Similarly, the poem “Astronomy” uses the image of an eclipse to describe a relationship: “We’ve traded positions. You, gaining speed/ with distance. Me, finding weight// in the shadow of your passing.”
Relationships are one of Willard’s primary concerns, especially the many ways in which we fail to connect. “Family Portrait” describes the author’s relationship with his brother through their positioning in a photograph. “I was close to my brother/ but not as close as I wanted to be.” “Holding Ground” uses the search for a harbor while sailing in the fog to illustrate a relationship holding together, but barely.
This poem also includes two metaphors which recur throughout the book — landscapes, especially islands, and the weather. To vastly simplify the symbolism, the landscape represents consistency, the weather change. There is the island, and the storm which buffets it. Variations on these images occur throughout the book. Yet Willard is a deft enough writer that each appearance feels fresh, is appropriate to the context of the individual poem.
There is a progression, a development through the book. The early poems often focus on one or the other (landscape or weather). He locates himself, then brings weather in. Then he gradually introduces people into the scene. The later poems are more complex; single images become multiple.
A recurring theme is our inability to fully communicate. It is ironic, yet fully appropriate, to use poetry, the most open-ended literary form, to demonstrate how difficult it can be to say what you mean. It is especially appropriate here, where Willard uses a bare minimum of words to make his points. The line, “All day I have been trying to say something/ about something without talking/ about the thing itself” from “Intimate,” could be a definition of poetry.
Similar lines come up repeatedly throughout the book. “I call frequently/ but talk less each month/…. think comma/ when you think of me// listen/ for the space between” (“Nothing Becomes Me”) “You can talk to me now, she said./ The windows were open and I heard/ the whine of traffic stop and the clang/ of a bell which meant a bridge was closing.” (“Island”). “I spoke but the wind took my words.” (“In Other Words”).
In the end, he does get his point(s) across, at least to the reader, imparting a deep understanding of the many ways humans do and don’t connect. All through poetry that, in the end, never fails to connect.