Review of: The Book of What Stays, by James Crews


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University of Nebraska Press, Paperback $17.95

(Click image for publisher website)


Reviewed by Travis Mossotti, Managing Editor
James Crews’ wonderful debut collection, The Book of What Stays, is a book that traffics comfortably in the world of sensory experience: in the image, in the sound, in the touch of skin on skin, and his predilection towards scene and narrative is a welcome advance—for this reader at least. When he begins the poem “Metacognition” with a statement like, “Neuroscientists insist it is the greatest gift / of being human, this ability to take a step back / and think about our own thinking,” we’re meant to know there’s a retort looming. And when the final line concedes favor towards the body’s finely tuned senses (“Sometimes I’m grateful the mouth just knows”), I can’t help but imagine intellectual/philosophic poets everywhere cringing.
[As a brief editorial aside, I can’t say what compels so many contemporary poets to create disembodied-lyric-philosopher speakers, or why most of it reads like math equations, or what a little context might do for such musings, or why Ron Silliman should compare those types of poems to diamonds (“so hard…edges so chiseled”) when good poetry should resemble a body (a human body full of flaws), or why I desire conflict, drama in the form of natural, earthy violence (i.e., tornadoes: nothing less than violent linear narratives that leave a trail for us to follow). I can say, however, that having grown up in the Midwest, I know tornadoes, and seasons, and while I appreciate something well crafted, I live for the moments when a body of wind might rip a building apart.]
The moments of visceral conflict in particular are part of why I enjoyed Crews’ book so much: “Strange / clouds assembled that evening above I-80, alive and writhing, / what I thought to be the beginning of funnels,” the speaker tells us in the poem “With This Kiss,” creating a scene for us to inhabit and a sky chocked full of possibilities. And it’s no surprise that Crews, who also grew up in the Midwest, so often creates speakers who perk up at these dangerous skies with a kind of preternatural animal intuition.
Of course, there is a mortal awareness attached to this animal intuition, and it informs every poem; as a byproduct each one of his speakers is guided by temperance. They often deliberate over choosing the right words because they know this is their only chance to remember things precisely as they were—to get it right. “I didn’t want to forget the way description / often does,” his speaker says in the opening poem “Palomino,” hinting that this desire to remember things so faithfully is bound to fail, to forget. And yet, the consolation for this failure (for both reader and speaker), is the humility and confidence necessary to the process of moving on—“leave the past in your mind,” Crews challenges in “Revision” (a poem that closes the first section), “…if only to prove, looking back now, you can.”
His advice is not disingenuous, even if it is impossible to follow—even for Crews. Informed by his life as a gay man growing up in the Midwest, Crews consistently goes deeper than mere personal anecdote on issues of identity, sexuality and place and often seamlessly interweaves ancient histories and myths—as if he’s mining for a lineage that works and striving to rescue a larger gay history from millennia of heterosexual gloss. Whether it’s Mary Magdalene staring down from the ceiling of an abandoned church, graffiti under the rotting bridge that reminds the speaker of cave paintings at Lascaux, Orpheus “tracing the chords / of a new boy’s spine,” Leonardo and his portrait of a young man posing as a saint, or Calamus mourning the loss of his lover Carpos, each history or myth conspires to become one voice, one story, one invariably tragic love.    
Nowhere does this tragedy surface so vividly as in the central, epic poem “One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes.” This series of individually titled sections (originally published as a chapbook) unpacks the past with heartbreaking poignancy: the life of Cuban-born artists Felix Gonzoles-Torres and his longtime lover Ross who’s dying of AIDS (“For Keats too, it started with sore throats,” Crews poignantly writes, capturing both beginning and ending in a single line). Installation after installation, section after section, Crews fashions their tragic love into one eloquent image after another. Take this scene, where the speaker is walking through the woods around Wawanaisa Lake and stumbles upon two animal skeletons:
I took off my jacket, meaning
to wrap them up and take them
home. But when I knelt down,
two entire skeletons intertwined.
I came back empty handed,
into the bedroom where he lay
still sleeping.    
Of course, the image here of the two animals forever clutching is more wishful thinking than foreshadow. Most of us will not be that lucky, and certainly not Ross and Felix. But if we as readers have loved, then we understand the impulse, the impractical desire to hold a body as though at any moment we might be cast in ash—think Pompeii. And too, it’s exactly what it feels like in the prose section “(Lover Boys)” when Felix climbs on the scale after a shower with a dwindling Ross: “our two wet bodies one weight, numbers going crazy until they stayed at 355. We’re fat, I said.”
I could write another ten thousand words about the nuances and multitudinous layers of this book, but I’d be wasting time that could be better spent simply enjoying his poetry. Formally, Crews seems most at home and innovative in the long-lined couplets, paying great attention to sound, line breaks and pacing; but read his book for content, for what’s said and how it’s said, for the images (“And this sliver of lake you see now / will someday turn to a fast river you can follow to its source,” from “An Unexpected Warm Day in Wisconsin”), for the elegantly crafted lovers often delivered to us two lines at a time as if the form was drawing them forever together, for the desire to remember things as they happened or should have happened, however imperfectly either may be.