Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms
James Richardson
Ausable Press, $16 (paper)

Reservations (1977), Richardson’s first book, already displayed some of the themes that would inform his later work. Richardson is basically an intimist—in Reservations, even a miniaturist—interested in conveying nuances, small-scale perceptions, and minute shades of consciousness. At the same time, he is a deeply materialist poet, one for whom the natural world is the only world, and his poetry is almost entirely free of gestures toward transcendence:

The blood darkens, the eyes crowd,
the body like a vast party breaks up
into smaller and more passionate nights.

He can be both touching, as in “On the Anniversary of Your Death,” and witty, as in the book’s longest poem, “The Encyclopedia of the Stones: A Pastoral,” a sequence of short sections obviously reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but with the opposite goal: instead of defamiliarizing and investing its central image with a mysterious significance, Richardson takes the quintessential ’70s deep image—stones—and refamiliarizes and domesticates it—e.g., “Sand makes them nervous.”

His next book, Second Guesses (1984), was a transitional one. The language is more muscular and dynamic than that of Reservations, and the poems are often sensuous and sweet, thick with tastes and smells and with invocations of Keats and Hopkins. They have more range and energy, and many of them have a kind of calm and lucid perfection; yet overall they seem less realized (especially the longer poems) than those of the first book.

With As If (1992), chosen by Amy Clampitt for the National Poetry Series, Richardson achieved the poetry of his maturity. The poems have the density and sensuousness of Second Guesses but are much more assured, as in the haunting “Blue Heron, Winter Thunder”:

As if your face, our story, as if day after day
were the sheen in someone’s hair. Shift,
   not there.
And, sky darkening, I looked past my
down into turbid waters, phosphorescent
pleasure to water, pain to dark water,
and there was the night, or the day in
among the slim white trunks, white rain,
   white rain.

Many of the poems in As If are set in this ruminative tone. Many also display what will continue to be Richardson’s principal concerns and motifs: the incorporation of scientific material (“A billion universes / too hostile for us; / this one is as it is— / Anthropic Principle— / because we survive to observe it”); a taste for the aphoristic (“Who loves his disease, / to be cured must be cured of love”); and reversal and inversion, as in the conclusion of the lovely “As If Ending”:

As if they too had been there yesterday,
when a migration little different from
leveling, took its long place on the water,
   ending nothing, since nothing ends.

The limitation of As If emerges in longer poems, such as “At First, At Last,” which contains a great deal of beautiful writing that seems in search of a theme, sustained largely by attitude and atmosphere. Yet this limitation is overcome in a stunning fashion in Richardson’s next book, How Things Are, which contains what strikes me as his finest poem, the magnificent long sequence “How Things Are: A Suite for Lucretians.” The poem adopts a faux-didactic manner reminiscent of On the Nature of Things, and it develops and explores a version of Lucretius’s materialist conception of the world, which neither denies nor deflates anything human—imagination, self, desire—but instead renders it all in naturalistic terms devoid of any suggestion of the transcendent or the supernatural. “How Things Are” is one of the few successful contemporary poems I know of that can be called philosophical, though it wears its philosophical concerns, and its scientific ones, lightly. The following passage, for instance, describes a materialist view of the nature of consciousness of the sort advanced by such cognitive scientists and philosophers as Daniel Dennett, in a way that seems entirely part of the poem’s ongoing, self-contained meditation:

For the mind is not a point, as we
   sometimes think,
or the little theater where we sit alone,
   but many nations,
eye, ear, memory, knowing, knowing of
each in contact with the others by Long
and there’s no one Place that is us, no
   single Present,
only the order in which we hear their

The book contains other wonderfully realized long sequences embodying Richardson’s characteristic themes and strategies. For example, “Under Water,” a graceful, meandering poem, treats the use of modern science through allusions to, among other things, the so-called Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics—without making that reference explicit. And in the concluding “Through Autumn,” a series of small poems centered on a house, the miniaturism of Reservations reemerges.

Richardson’s work after How Things Are, both in Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays (2001) and in the new material of Interglacial, is centered to a great extent on aphorisms, a form of which he is one of the few contemporary practitioners. They offer the rewards of small pleasures, and I find them best taken in small doses. They’re rarely dazzling conversational gambits à la Oscar Wilde, and they don’t drip with scorn à la George Christoph Lichtenberg, but there is a certain underlying earnestness to them—although it can become wearing when they’re read at length. Yet their surprise and whimsy are genuine:

But for this rock, its shadow says, I could get at the
sun. . . .

Birds are amazing, newspapers, stoves, friends. All that happens is amazing, if you think about it. All that doesn’t happen is even more amazing, because there’s so much more of it. Only habit keeps us from seeing all this. Habit is really amazing.

I suspect that Richardson is drawn to aphorisms in part because of his penchant for inversion and reversal:

It is by now proverbial that every proverb has its opposite. For every Time is money there is a Stop and smell the roses. . . . Truths are not quantities but scripts: Become for a moment the mind in which this is true.

As for the new poems, while there is nothing on the scale of the Lucretian sequence, they are vigorous and assured, and at the same time playful and more public.

* * *

Richardson’s poetry is marked by what I have called his intimism: he is drawn to nuances of thought, feeling, and perception, and his motivating impulse is to suggest them to the reader in a way that allows him or her to enter the poet’s intensely inward realm. His goal is not so much to convey what he is thinking as to convey what it is like to think it. This is not to suggest that the poems are calculated, or written with an audience in mind: like all strong poets Richardson is essentially talking to himself, but talking in a way that allows the sympathetic reader to overhear and, if only partially, to take on the poet’s voice as his or her own.

Richardson is also a materialist, or naturalist. For him, the natural world is all-encompassing and complete, and the impulses that might draw one into a flirtation with the transcendent are all contained within it. There is a pervasive undercurrent of disappointment that might encourage theorizing about a different, more idyllic world, but he simply declines that gambit. Philosophically Lucretian, his poetry insists that the whole range of human engagement and response, both celebratory and regretful, is earthbound.

Richardson’s poetry, finally, is fragmentary and disjunctive—even at its most discursive, it so often presents an accumulation of miniatures not governed by consecutive argument or syntax. James Longenbach has drawn a useful distinction between “wet” and “dry” disjunctive poetry, the former characterized by an aura of affect and feeling that the latter eschews. Richardson’s disjunctiveness is the wet kind: the ruptured clauses, the illogic, the transitions, the fragments, the reversals and inversions are thoroughly disruptive, yet the principle of composition is always that of the musical cadence. The result is a powerful and moving body of work that in its intimacy and philosophical naturalism is unique in contemporary American poetry.