May 12, 2014

Tom Griffen Reviews David St. John's The Auroras

The Auroras
David St. John
HarperCollins, 2012

ISBN: 0062088483

Still Wet With Light

            The first word of the first poem in David St. John’s book The Auroras is “opaque.” Readers might find this to be quite fitting for the weaving triptych in which St. John explores theme and form. His elimination of punctuation, capitalization of the first letter of each line, use of mid-line extended spacing, and ampersands in place of and all tie the otherwise unrelated chapters together. The fact that The Auroras is a triptych in the first place hints to a religious layering, even though the format itself is far more commercial and practical than it once was. Before even reading the poems, the book transforms into a bit of a mystery. Whats to come? What should be expected? Arguably, this is one of the driving forces pushing the reader directly into The Auroras wet light.
            Each of the three chapters could easily be books of their own. The first one titled Gypsy Davy is a meandering poetic memoir that refrains from ever becoming too sentimental. Though readers are privileged to witness St. Johns travel exploits from afar, he manages to make the scenes inclusive, thus giving readers a stake in the poems. The journey, as it were, might be St. Johns way of further dedicating his book to his wife Anna Journey. He extends the metaphor through historical references of age, and imagery alluding to travel and adventure. In Aurora of the New Mind, St. John writes, Still I look a lot like Scott Fitzgerald tonight with my tall / Tumbler of meander & bourbon & mint just clacking my ice. Gypsy Davys Flute of Rain hints to King Arthur being presented his sword, Excalibur, Id filled the final page of my diary / A lovely thing given to me by The Lady of the Lake / & bound in a cover of tooled leather.  In Aurora of the Lost Dulcimer, St. John states that, I was just like Ulysses but better dressed. The poet shares his epic adventures, and rather than make them sound romantic, he uses images to maintain an honest and sullen tone. Cerebrus, a three-headed hound of hell, is mentioned in Schopenhauers Dog Collar. Schopenhauer believed that the world is in a constant state of unhappiness driven by continually dissatisfied people. This philosophy loads the poem. But St. John lets readers know that his own outlook isnt so bleak, writing in Pythagorean Perfume, that, Even if your boat is carved of rancid meat / & your sails are frozen with ice dont despair. Seems readers are in good hands on this journey.
            The second chapter, In the High Country, is the longest section and contains eighteen free-verse, non-rhyming couplets and five quatrains. The two-line stanzas give sharper focus to the poem, providing a pause between St. Johns doses of dense imagery. In this chapter, his description of place and time is braided with a meditative introspection about aging. The title poems first line states, Some days I am happy to be no one, and then proceeds to point out the connectivity of all things. Such revelations continue in From a Bridge, when the poet reflects on a womans suicide, Twisted violently toward the storm-struck sky / There are some things we know before we know. These bits of wisdom suggest that the poet is absorbing his own maturity while allowing the world to happen as it must completely out of his control. There seems to be a relief that comes with this acceptance. Without Mercy, the Rains Continued, is a brief study of the poets younger, less-rehearsed self. The naturalness of rain becomes a metaphor for something uncontrollable. The beautiful question left at the end of the poem is one readers may find haunting. Can we change? Do we change? Does this metaphorical rain still exist even after weve (supposedly) grown up and moved beyond it? St. John suggests that we just get used to being wet.  

                                    & as I listened I knew something
                                    Had been asked of me
                                    Across the years & loneliness
                                    To which I simply responded
                                    With the same barely audible

                                    Silence that I had chosen then

            Chapter three, The Auroras, is an exploration of mortality. St. Johns form alters drastically for this section (suddenly theres punctuation!) which announces to the reader that the voice has somehow changed. His lines are longer and the stanzas of free-verse seem to be more prose-based and wanting to share as much as possible within the limited space of each page. Immediately the aurora metaphor is clearer - the colorful and striking eternal changing of everything is the ultimate ingredient for life. The ability to move through its shifts without attachment and without the need to control it is the human challenge. In I. Dawn Aurora, St. John says:

                                    The nothing that you know is as immaculate a knowing
                                    as any moment moving from a distance into dawn.
                                    All of the awakenings, or the old unconscious lies       
He revisits the idea of connection and his rain metaphor in III. Autumn Aurora:

                                    The illusionist steps to the stage. Everything
                                    he claims will be, will be. I know because Ive watched him
                                    before the curtains began to part, & Ive seen he is not just
                                    one man, but he is also a woman. He is as multiple
                                    as the rain. 

Readers understand that the poet is pondering death as he writes about the famous Parisian cemetery in IX. Pere Lachaise. He moves from the micro to the macro - from his descriptions of the cemeterys virgin headstones, jeweled with rubies, from reflections within the onyx to his reminiscing about the death of a friend, thousands of miles away, who dressed in brass cymbals that chimed with each move. This stunning image moves into a celebratory final line that doubles as a commentary on ridiculous social/religious norms, When they / found him later, dead, they said how pagan hed become in his nakedness, / in his glory. The auroras are what St. John hopes the readers will stop and consider - then follow as a guide. They are wet, vulnerable, qualities that make them worthwhile. As such, he gives readers a lasting piece of advice in one of the final poems.  In VII. Ghost Aurora, St. John states:

                  What could be more useful than a loving
                  principle lifted slowly out of particles, like the frond of a morning fern
                  uncurling? Take up your coat; take up the morning. This is what it means
                  to lure the phantom out of the dark, until she lifts us into the space
                                 of song.  

One need not be afraid of the rain.

Tom Griffen is a student in Pacific University’s low-residency program for poetry. His work will be published in upcoming issues of The Crab Orchard Review and The Suisun Valley Review. He is also a visual artist and curator of the "We Are Carrboro" photography project in his hometown of Carrboro, North Carolina. See more at