By Larissa Shmailo
William Carlos Williams famously wrote: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” And the poet Anna Wrobel demanded, “If poets aren’t prophets, / what are they?/ If poets aren’t prophets, /what good are they?” More than any other art, we expect wisdom from our poets, even as we also demand the usual things we want from the arts: beauty, inspiration, elegance, connection, revelation. Dickinson, Whitman, and Frost delivered on those scores, and in an intimate, deceptively simple way, so does Michael T. Young, who takes up the mantle of poet as philosopher and fabulist in his rich collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water.
Young’s wisdom is paternal, and its source is nature, and the advice of natural history is couched in lyrical language full of subtle twists and delights. In “Advice from a Bat,” our Aesop adjures: “Hunt only at night. Fly erratically. Defy even your own expectations / . . . Cultivate the myths about you . . .” Many poems of Doctrine are like unexpected gardens in the center of lower Manhattan, replete with catkins, beech trees, lemons, dandelions, bioluminescence, chameleons, and gingko trees. And water schools us through the title poem’s prosopopeia:
Go around, it says, or through or under or over,
but go on.
Stand still for no one and no thing,
because when you stop,
your breath will thicken and grow dark,
the life swimming in you
rot. The stones will not preserve you,
their hands will not endure; in fact, you will grind
them down to pepper the way for those who follow.
Whatever trinkets you pick up,
soften them in your hands, shaping them
with the gentle art of friction . . .
–“The Infinite Doctrine of Water”
Like the water which carves a way for those who follow, Young’s natural history explores, or more aptly, carries the past, a theme signaled by the epigraph from Stephen Dunn, who terms it “unfinished work . . . seductively revisable.” The elegant lyrical sestina “The Generosity of the Past” shifts light, memory, and a changing relationship with subtle chiaroscuro.
In our apartment there was always light
splitting through the windows like mercy,
illuminating bookshelves and what we thought,
our conversations or our glasses of wine
lifted to toast each day of generosity:
the quantity surpassing what we knew.
The poet walks the streets of lower Manhattan and nearby Jersey, an observer of its denizens and architecture, the tacit memory of 911 always at the tip of the lyricist’s tongue. In his peregrinations he declares, like Borges’s Funes the Memorious, “that is to truly live—be a master of minutiae, every marginal memory,” but realizing “part of me was missing.” In “Birdwatcher,” he surveys his ground zero home, finding that coming to terms with tragedy may not always be possible in the “shadows it can cast but never catch.” But the poet notes growth attributed to the homo fabers of all epochs:
Years later, as I pass a construction site
and each morning, there’s a little more cement,
a few more girders, wiring and steel,
fused under acetylene flies,
I realize all those hands, all those minds
pick their way through halls of carbon and fly ash,
trace potentials down molecular paths of iron,
water and gravel, bits and pieces like breadcrumbs
trailing all the way back to subterranean lavas
and prehistoric furnaces, the inhuman fires
that go into making every habitation and home.
In The Infinite Doctrine of Water, bridges and subways and the station at Journal Square and Wall Street’s narrow lanes become an ecosystem full of flora and strange fauna, strangely haunted and strangely hopeful, connected viscerally to the past, animated by a lyrical pen that brings its fond transcendental musings to it, and luckily, to us.
You can find the book here:
Larissa Shmailo is a poet, author, translator, editor, and critic.