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Mark Craver

Seven Crowns for the White Lady of the Other World and Blood Poems
Washington, D.C.
77 pp - paper; $10.00

To those readers familiar with Mark Craver's first book of poems, The Problem of Grace, his second volume, Seven Crowns for the White Lady of the Other World and Blood Poems, may seem a departure. The new poems have clarity and accessibility, but do not be misled: these biographical poems are much more than the ubiquitous "coming of age" writing of a young white male; they are the complex, many-layered poems of a philosophical poet who admires Wallace Stevens.

Seven Crowns[ Click to Order Craver's Seven Crowns ... (soft $) ]     The book begins with an Invocation that evokes the physicalness of the world. Although "the world cheats," the poet wins - he cheats death by walking through a graveyard in April, and we enter the realm of metaphor in spite of the poet's declaration that "nothing is symbol/for anything." The book ends with "The Last Poem in the World," which will rise like a benediction over a nuclear apocalypse. In between, the poet presents that world to us.

The epigraph from Wallace Stevens, "Time is a horse that runs in the heart, a horse/Without rider on a road at night," signals the poet's concern with Time. He understands both the power and limits of Time. Consider "Alexandria as the Center of the Universe," one of my favorite crowns. Ignominously trapped, wrapped in the leash of his friend's crapping German Shepherd, the poet conjures up time-past as the world spins and the archeologist's trowel digs below the artificial world of Old Town, Alexandria, trumpeted by the Chamber of Commerce. He trowels away not only the colonial city but the present world of Yuppies, prying them from offices, banks, and shops, taking us back in geologic time, back beyond melting glaciers, to newly-forming continents, before the existence of this solar system, this universe. "For an instant, Alexandria was center of the universe" but "Nothing changed much. I walked the dog, the river ran/past bookstores and cafes." Time is powerful but its power is limited.

The Time the poet shows us, the times he shares, are the ordinary events, the daily, the mundane yet exotic events of family life, events that take him from Japan, where as a toddler, he runs away while his mother hangs the wash (he is returned safely by a woman in a kimono who offers him a stash of white bunnies), to the flat time and flat land of midwestern Nebraska and Kansas. There he loses his sexual innocence, suffers the pain of uprooting again and again, always the new kid in school. An onlooker in the adult world, he watches his father knock a drunken friend senseless yet savors the sensual riches of duck hunting with this same father. He discovers a boy's own mysterious world on the plains and wide sky of Nebraska then suffers the break-up of the family and the loss of younger siblings he loves and protects.

But the poets's family is larger. The poems in the second section, entitled "Blood Poems," are all dedicated to someone. Craver is indeed a blood brother to all sorts and conditions of people. In a poem to a friend, a fan of the Three Stooges, he shares the pain of loss of an ideal father. He relinquishes the role of protector of his baby sister, telling her "whomever you become, I will lover her." In "Wedding Poem," for friends, he takes their vows seriously. His honest sharing of his own family's love and pain illuminates his final "we wipe tears from the face of Christ." He reports the truth as he sees it revealed by his students in a public highschool, and he describes a community honestly; a burning townhouse evokes this line:

... it takes some fear to bring
out love and trot it across the asphalt on a string.

Craver not only attempts a crown of sonnets but sustains seven crowns - that's forty-nine sonnets - in the first section of the book, plus fourteen (what else?) more sonnets in the second section, "Blood Poems." If you are not into prosody, suffice it to say he does many things with the sonnet form. In the first crown, "This White Lady, She Plays One," his use of enjambed couplets helps to convey the erratic drug world creatied by the pursuit of The White Lady. In the third crown, "It Can't Be This Way Everywhere," written to a flesh and blood woman, he uses a modified English sonnet form to praise the extra-ordinariness of the ordinary. In other crowns, he uses unrhymed octaves and sestets and rhymed Italian but also invents his own rhyme schemems, using rhymes and off-rhymes just often enough to please the ear and assert his control. In "Time Is A Horse," he shifts to a 7/7 stanza form and expands the line to six feet: the horse of time does run "in the heart ... without rider, on a road at night." The last of the "Blood" poems, "Poem for Amy Michelle," begins

I shuck these corny love sonnets
and organize my stutter

We watch in fascination as the poet breaks open the sonnet form. A form that has served its purpose, the sonnet explodes across the page into a motif poem champing at its own rules. It is as if (the organizing motif) Amy Michele, as well as the sonnet form, serves as his muse, and he delivers his truths into her open hands, begs her to both hold these truths and protect him from these truths, as if safe in her holding, he would be safe from bleeding. Just as he would take refuge in the arms of a woman, he has taken refuge in the sonnet form and thrived on its protective discipline.

By the end of the book, the poet has not only shared honestly with us but has shown us the order or sense he has not imposed but derived from the world he has unflinchingly faced. Subtly, the painful, frustrated attempts to escape the reality of a broken world through the lures of The White Lady have been replaced by coming to terms with that world through the power of language: The poet who drafts and reads the last poem in the eight minutes between the First Warning and the Big Flash "will have cleaned out/ the medicine cabinet and when the burn finally sets in/ he will feel nothing." Because the last poem could have changed the world if it had been written and read before the Big Flash, it is both the only hope and a symbol of despair as The Last Poem escapes from the dead earth's pull like a helium balloon. Inevitably, these lines from Auden's elegy to Yeats reverberate: "Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives . . . a way of happening, a mouth."

The final scene will take us beyond despair if we recall these earlier lines from "Alexandria as the Center of the Universe":

I liked living with pain. I taught myself to sing,
to use tools . . .
To love the ugly world
is to find yourself at its center and to let it be
enough, to refuse to be saddened by it; to let it end.
That's where it all started for me: at the end.

How appropriate. The voice of this poet, a child of the last half of twentieth century America, an army brat who has immersed himself in the ordinariness of a very physical world, ascends as the voice of a metaphysical poet.

Guest Reviewer: Sharon D. Ewing

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