Eric Pankey   Eric Pankey  


On November 11, 1920, two years to the day and hour after the thundering guns of the First World War fell to silence, the burial of the Unknown Soldier took place in London amid lavish ceremony. An unidentified corpse, chosen randomly from thousands that had been exhumed from mass graves in France and Flanders, was conveyed in a solemn procession to be interred in Westminster Abbey. Midway along its route, the gun carriage bearing the coffin halted briefly before the just-unveiled Cenotaph, a stark monument designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to memorialize the countless soldiers whose bodies were never recovered from the artillery-churned mire of No Man's Land. In the first three days after its unveiling, the Cenotaph was visited by 400,000 Britons, most of whom had lost loved ones in the war. The Cenotaph, which takes its name from the Greek for "Empty Tomb", symbolized the horror of individual lives lost in the insane carnage of what was then the most devastating armed conflict in history. It stood in for each individual destiny broken beneath the incomprehensible workings of history. Although the tumult and savagery of war were surely the furthest things from Eric Pankey's mind when he composed the poems in his new collection Cenotaph, we are nonetheless confronted with the painful sense of loss that must have faced those who stood before the Cenotaph that day, the feeling that is certainly behind the construction of such a thing as a cenotaph. We are also made aware of the power of atonement that is perhaps most clearly articulated in the heft and silence of the cenotaph. Pankey, whose earlier works convey the luminous calm of devotional poems, continues the arduous work of producing poems that sustain the pensive beauty of prayer while submitting to the earthy reality of region and season that make up the world of the senses. It is this conjunction of the celestial and terrestrial that mark his poems and provide them with balance and bearing. As with T.S. Eliot and his precarious masterpiece The Waste Land, Pankey is both careful and kind enough to provide a list of sources from which he has drawn lines and themes (included in the varied company are John of Patmos, author of Revelation, and Blind Willie Johnson). With his choice of title, though, he designates as his primary theme death, and, more importantly, the human desire for commemoration and memorial that is coupled with it.

Favoring firmly maneuverable couplets or tercets, Pankey exhibits a remarkable ability to draw precise and compelling images from his topics rapidly and evidently at will. They leap from the poems like sparks from a welder's torch. In "See That My Grave Is Swept Clean", a poem that borrows two lines directly from the 8th-century Chinese poet Li Ho, he establishes that words "are but an entrance, a door cut deep into cold clay," a predication both potent and arresting. He admits that "Behind each assertion, each gambit, I could place a question mark." Such a rudimentary assertion about the ambiguous nature of his medium is hardly sufficient to hold our attention, but he deftly translates it into a hidden question mark that is rendered as a "hook blackened with rust." It is here that he announces himself, makes clear his astounding ability to fashion a universe of his own choosing. We have surrendered our typical defenses, and, as if entering us into a contract that will carry us to the end of the book, he fulfills our expectations by answering his own question in the final line, providing us with mantra and motif: "Are words but an entrance? Words are but an entrance." Words, despite their frailty, can be marshalled by an authentic poet to conjure larger intuitive possibilities than they might possess in clumsier hands.

In "The Kingdom of God Likened to a Deer Carcass" he envisions in the carnal remains of a deer the vaulted interior expanse of a cathedral, the earthly embodiment of the Kingdom of God. This is an almost medieval conceit wherein a single body is made to mirror the divine cosmos. Rather than acknowledge a universalizing harmony in nature as did Alexander Pope or a reassuring pantheistic divinity as did William Wordsworth, Pankey formulates a more complex place for it in human experience. Navigating more closely to Thomas Traherne's formulations of angelic felicity than to Whitman's garrulous visions of a consanguinary bond between humanity and the universe, he imbues the natural world with what could be called divinity, but a divinity occasionally interpolated by an avuncular field guide:

The holly, like a vessel of magic,
Lets loose a flock of cedar waxwings
(A bird not named for its flight or song,
But for its wingtip markings--blunt sticks

Of scarlet sealing wax).
Green burns strong,
A barbed flame on a resinous wick.

There is also a sadness profoundly ingrained in these poems. It can be as simple as the discouraging avowal that "To live in time is to be keelhauled, / Dragged and dragged beyond a single breath. / But breathe he must, so he breathes in." But it can also be cosmic and elusive as in the confession that "If I could remember a morning / Not spurred by the cold of winter stars. . . . // Yet my days are spurred by winter stars. / Those that fall grow colder in falling." His poems have the dignified weight of elegies, and they accommodate the expansive, somber attitude exemplified by, say, Thomas Gray's famous "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" (though it should be remembered that neither Theocritus nor John Donne nineteen-hundred years later would have felt themselves limited to subjects of regret or death in their use of the elegiac form; our understanding of the elegy is an altogether more modern one). Throughout the collection, Pankey proceeds to bring us words as entrance. We experience the representation but not the thing: surface and casing, the unconfirmed miracle, the cicada's shell, the "hollow cathedral of chaff at the crossroads." These are all equivalent in their own ways to the empty tomb at the collection's core.

The second section consists of a sequence of poems written in fourteen lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter that spring forward nimbly like Chopin polonaises. They are filled with alternating impressions of light and darkness, heat and cold. Pankey balances the demanding pseudo-religious abstractions of Eliot against the solidity and tangible pitch of Robert Frost's autumn fields and frozen forests:

Saw grass and heather here, a cedar edged
In shade there, until all is darkness,
A moment of morning cast as nocturne.
For once, he leaves well-enough alone,
Leaves the world, in its abstraction, true.

The third section of the collection is likely the strongest. His ear, while attentive and exact when describing the sounds of the landscape, seems attuned always to higher things, to the murmurs of creation itself, as well as the anger and dread that can inhabit the heart.

Far off, the cricket crouches in the rain,
Strikes and strikes flint against steel,

Yet nothing sparks. Nothing catches.
I breathe in the dulling and opiate extract

Of night air and breathe it out again.
How is one led back past borders

Cordoned by deception and blame?
How is one led back when what is left

Is a ragged splinter, a swarm at the heart?

There is also the recurrent motif of pilgrimage, both spiritual quest and irresistible pull of destiny that leaves us as much in "exhaustion as in reverence." In the end, Pankey's greatest labor is the construction of a cenotaph not for thousands or millions, but for the single human life. It is constructed not of marble or granite but from the world itself as it is perceived and completed by the poet's mind.

From a distilled essence of quartz and rose,
From a gramarye of psalms and waves,
From strewn stones and a hazel rod,

I have built this empty tomb for you.
Let its fretwork of shadows be your raiment.
Let thunder's phosphor light your way.

Grief is weightless and hard-shelled
Like a seed carried on an updraft,
A seed set down on hostile soil.

I have built this empty tomb for you,
Which the tide will bury and not exhume.
Sleep as silt sleeps in its dark fall and depth.
Sleep as silt sleeps in its dark fall and depth.

This tomb, even if eternally secure, is no more solid than a cloud of silt falling to the seafloor, no more confining than the universe itself through which we pass in our frail vessels. The tripartite poem "Cenotaph" resolves with the emphatic repetition of the dazzling final line, which seems to lull us phonemically toward release and the sleep of death. Having completed the empty tomb as much for his loved one as for himself and us, he entreats us to relinquish the illusion and dream of light and enter its protecting confines.

The collection continues with ethereal virtuosity and, by turns, esprit. "A Narrative Poem" offers a theory of narrative poetry ("The story of a story is order over chaos") while determinedly refusing to adhere to a narrative structure; likewise, "A Confessional Poem" resolutely declines all that is confessional ("The story would not resolve itself for the telling"). Again, Pankey fabricates a shell, a frame, rather than the thing itself. If he seems a bit groping and wooden in the satiric mode, his dexterity is unmistakable in the following section, a series entitled "Elegiac Variations". He skillfully blends the quiet metaphysical observations of earlier Mark Strand ("How far I have come to be only here") with the informal gnomic arrangements that distinguish Charles Wright's brilliant trilogy of trilogies The Appalachian Book of the Dead ("All that remains of the western night // Is the coal and indigo / of a hawk's eyes"). The concluding two sections contain shorter lyrics and a single prose poem. He once again anchors his resolutions in the landscape, "the light on Cold Spring Brook." Emotional landscapes that otherwise would feel ponderous or simply dark are set aglow with radiant precision:

The holly, like a vessel of magic
Lets loose a flock of cedar waxwings.

How far I've fallen in my falling,
Pulled down by a ballast of secrets.

I do not remember flight or song,
But hard berries like blood in their beaks.

Erudite but unforced, Cenotaph is Pankey's most accomplished collection to date. If he could be said to possess a fault, it could be that he relies too strictly on devotional and metaphysical formulae of religious poetry without tempering its sometimes glaring light with a more truly human voice, his insistence on emulating the unswerving dedication of George Herbert more closely than the playful and sometimes wayward piety of John Donne. Of course, we don't enter into a contract with a poet of such imposing talents as Pankey expecting to be greeted by bucolic affability or urban slackness. The bulk of his poems resemble prayer, and so we are obliged to approach this collection as we would a Roman chapel. Even if the world is too much with us, we can't help pausing in reverence amid the noble beauty and absorbing silence. If his poems remain somewhat empyrean among the clever and informal clamor of contemporary American poetry, perhaps that is where they belong.

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  Copyright ©2002, Ernest Hilbert  
Photo credit: Jennifer Atkinson