In his poem "Paul Guest Addresses His Apple With a Stylus," about a reading given by the paralyzed poet Paul Guest, Stanley Plumly writes, "And I'm listening and thinking of the distances/imagination travels sitting still, wandering in all directions."
Plumly, 77, grew up in a small town in Ohio, his childhood spent in an America still haunted by the Depression and defined by the sacrifices and community spirit of World War II.
"Against Sunset," his latest poetry collection, travels in many directions while remaining rooted in childhood memories.
In contrast to the quoted lines, Plumly's imagination rarely sits still, but always is in motion, walking or traveling or revisiting moments of history or his own past.
The poems are unified by their first-person voice, which remains controlled, almost dispassionate, against varied experience and tides of emotion. Recalling the interior mediations of Robert Lowell, the leading poet of the generation that preceded Plumly's, "Against Sunset" registers a mind's reactions to the world and its own inner movement, in which different eras and places co-exist in a maze of associations. At times, however, lines whose main purpose is conveying background information lack poetic intensity.
Plumly's late-career success as a biographer and historian of the Romantic era is reflected in a number of poems. Keats, especially revered by Plumly as reflected in his marvelous biography "Posthumous Keats," is a ghostly presence as the narrator visits the same London places where Keats once walked.
Shelley, who eulogized Keats and is buried next to him in Rome's Protestant Cemetery, is also evoked. A visit to the poets' graves is a poignant moment in "Brownfields," which also rccalls memories of Plumly's father and a time when Plumly lived in Keats' Hampstead neighborhood of London along with his late former wife, Deborah Digges.
"Against Sunset's" most accomplished segment, a series of poems titled "Early Nineteenth-Century English Poetry Walks," also revisits moments of Keats' life, along with those of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Wordsworth and Keats appeared together in Plumly's "The Immortal Dinner," a study of the famous feast hosted by the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon that Keats, Wordsworth and Charles Lamb attended.
Echoing the Romantics, a preoccupation with nature predominates in "Against Sunset," with regret at the demise of natural objects and reverence for their enduring power. The title comes from the collection's final poem, which doesn't so much rage against the dying of the light as affirm the promise of each new day.
Seeing poetry as an enduring conversation among generations, the collection also includes eulogies to several of Plumly's contemporaries. Especially poignant are his memories of Digges in"With Deborah in Amherst," which touches upon the life of another famous poet, Emily Dickinson. Also an accomplished poet, Digges committed suicide in Amherst.
Plumly also recalls his friendships with the late poets William Matthews and Galway Kinnell and a brief encounter with Jack Gilbert and his continued appreciation of the poet. His eulogy for Gilbert gives a possible theme for the book:
"...If poetry is one silence
speaking to another silence or otherwise
communities of spirits, Gilbert's is
somewhere in between. He lived on islands
of his own making. White islands
in waters crystalline. His obit quotes
a friend that Gilbert was our "greatest
living poet," a large and loving claim,
which we all are, ditto, until we're dead.
"Against Sunset" was published on the same day as the presidential election. The collection gives consolation that poetry and art endure beyond the wrenching shifts of history.