Thursday, October 5, 2017

Holdfast: Progress of a Soul


         by Christian Anton Gerard
         100 pages

         published by C&R Press

         ISBN: 978-1-936196-74-6


        reviewed by Barbara Sabol

Holdfast: Progress of a Soul

     "Muse, say, fool, look in thy heart and write." Such is the impulse that powers the work in Christian Anton Gerard's second book, Holdfast.  The poems are laser-tipped with ache, with longing, and ultimately with personal redemption. They do not flinch from confrontation of poet to self as speaker, who lingers in the dangerous intersection of dependence and deliverance. This collection represents a searing introspective reckoning yet veers from the confessional: the poet opens the door to his soul, reveals the wreckage in the "blue room," and identifies it: "Whiskey's voice." In the poem, "Defense of Poetry; or Prayer in Recovery," he writes, "This is not a plea for redemption. This is not//a plea for restitution, though it is a thought moving/toward such a thought." The collection arcs from alcohol addiction, the misplaced self, to setting right the wreckage and arriving in islands of joy via love, faith and poetry itself.

     The "Christian Anton Gerard"/"the poet" figure (so named in most of the poems titles and lines) moves with deliberate and honest steps out of that blue room, following a map populated by a host of characters, primarily literary (Whitman, Spenser, Sexton, Rilke, Creeley and so on), with whom he identifies―an identification that often crosses into Negative Capability. The poems' speaker merges, or wishes to merge, with another poet, with a mythological figure, with an outlaw cowboy. In "Image," the speaker states, "I wish Whitman's portrait could be my self-portrait,//that Whitman's ghost is real as me." He becomes Spenser's Calidore, the hunter, in the opening poem, "The Poet Making a Scene." In this poem the poet/speaker is split, amoeba-fashion, into three characters: the two boys who "are practice-dancing shirtless/on the lawn. . ." and a videographer who is ". . .turning in circles like a narrator." And then further into myth: Calidore. The ground is perfectly laid, in this poem, for the through themes of personal crisis and fractured identity that haunt this collection. The poem's ending signals the beginning of the collection's larger narrative:

            . . . I have Spenser,

            though, his own allegory, to show me I am
            my own allegory, to help me see the heart's racing in,

            stumbling. How intricate to acknowledge the enough,
            the vigilance required to stay hidden and then admit. 

     The disassociated voice serves as a rhetorical device which enables identification with these various figures, and highlights the diffusion of identity, a necessary prelude to self-discovery. The poet creates an authorial distance between the Christian Anton Gerard of his poems, at a remove from portrayed self: a chorus of I's. Yet an intimate internal dialogue is at the same time established, such that poet/self and speaker move back and forth from confrontation/brokenness to affirmation/healing.   

     While the tone throughout the poems is edged with conflict, the poet, in true Keatsian manner, is "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." This ability, along with a reliable and powerful narrator's voice, draws the reader into similar mysteries and doubts; she travels that rough terrain through the uncertainties, guided by a narrator bent on revelation. In the final three lines of "Irises" the speaker addresses and responds to poet/self:

            . . .
            Where are you, Christian?
            On my knees. In this night.
            How do you know? My Hope is open.

     Through the three parts of the collection a progression toward wholeness is enacted via dialogue with the alcoholic, fractured and guilt-bound self who works to "understand forgiveness' shape" in part one, to the recovering self, wrestling with faith with his sober presence with his family in part two, moving to a more integrated self freed to love in all directions in the final section. This progression is, naturally, non-linear: in the first section, for example, we find a poem titled "[Because there are nights that seem to put one arm first]" which flows into the opening line, "on a ladder toward day." Here is the poet figuratively climbing into daylight/recovery. Perceptions are already shifting, as in the penultimate stanza, the speaker states, "I used to think flowers were fireworks celebrating//the dark not eating me."
     The title poem, "Holdfast: My Alcoholic Head in Recovery," in part two of the book encapsulates the fractured and grasping self in a rush of run-on lines, with double-breath space between each:
            . . .
            so I set down my thoughts on a twig

            and say I am not I over and over

            until I'm more comfortable with not being I

and in the final four lines, the movement toward recovery:

            . . .And still, most nights, I sit in the dark,

            knees drawn to my chest and all the worlds I know

            dangle like ghosts I can't grip, can't stop gripping.

     The ladder into daylight in these poems is love―of wife and son, of God, of self. And poetry. In the second part of the book, a full dozen poems' titles begin, "In Defense of Poetry;. . ." or are tributes to selected poets or poetry. In "Poetry Can Save the World?" the final couplet, the poet likens poetry to prayer - the impulse is one and the same:

            Prayer is what I do when I don't know, or rather
            in a poem it's the way I ask the sky to sing.
     The love poems in this collection, particularly in the second and third sections, signal a self learning, simply, happiness, and they are beautiful. In "Aubade in Afternoon" the subject of poetry fuses with romantic love in a loosely punctuated, idiosyntactic dialect that needs no parsing:  
            . . .      
            But if it be syntax inverted
            you love, let me
            be that wrangling, that
            reverse sentence full―
            your boots on still jeans
            my hands reach slide
            listen let us be denim

            its working to the floor
            the sound of.

     Perhaps the most beautiful poem, to the poet reader, is "You Poem You" in the final section. The speaker addresses the poem, as beloved:

            . . .
            Leaning your face against the clouds, your poem thinks of her cheek
            against your beard, knows she'll ask why you're crying.

            Your poem's whole life before and behind it.
            Your poem will be standing there holding her, and your heart

            will jump inside your chest's pocket, your fingers on her spine.
            The tears will be quiet, and you,

            you poem you, where everything happens so fast,
            you'll say, I want to read you this story I love.

     Blooms a bud that had been whorled in upon itself in the third section of Holdfast. Poems anchored in love petal in the direction of "her," of God, nature and numerous poets, and of Poetry, capital P. Eros emerges, intense and joyous. One of the many wonderful examples is found the final section of "Christian Anton Gerard to Her Sort of in the Style of a Teenaged Love Poem:"

            I said your name forty-nine times before I fell
            asleep last night―my voice fire-pop and invitation.

            I am all buzz and zing and you
            and yes and you and yes. Yes.

            I dreamt your voice. Breath in my ear.
            I woke a tulip field at sunrise.

or in the final couplet of "Christian Anton Gerard to Her," a contemporary Neruda:

            I want my sweat to taste like good, good labor, and dirt and grass.
            I want my name to taste like that in your mouth.

     Nature and Eros mingle, and of course God cannot but enter into the delicious brew. "Preservation" opens with the line "Christian Anton Gerard's tongue is a wetland.," and closes with
            . . .
            bullfrogs and crickets, ducks running on the water into dusk.
            Once though, Christian Anton Gerard stood in a wetland
            at sunset―a fox howl made his heart beat different.

      The poems in Holdfast are dense with image, allusion, figures from literature, science, popular culture, mythology all in service of a soul in progress: the Christian Anton Gerard of these moving and often breath-taking poems. The poet has laid down a template for a poetry of brave and vulnerable disclosure in a language refreshingly original, surprising and absolutely rewarding. The poet in no wise hesitates to follow the advice in his "Defense Prayer:" "Muse, say, fool, look in thy heart and write.

About the Author:

Christian Anton Gerard is the author of Holdfast (C&R Press, 2017) and Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella (WordTech, 2014). His work appears widely in national and international magazines. Gerard has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Prague Summer Program, Pushcart Prize nominations, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the 2013 Iron Horse Literary Review Discovered Voices Award.

When he’s not working, Gerard can be found fishing (usually just standing next to oceans, lakes, or rivers), learning to work wood (avoiding the ER), or indulging his love for home improvement projects of all kinds (after watching hours of do-it-yourself YouTube videos).

Christian holds a B.A. from Miami University (OH), an M.F.A from Old Dominion University and a Ph.D in English from the University of Tennessee. He lives in Fort Smith, AR, where he’s an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith