WHALE OF DESIRE
BY MICAH TOWERY
REDUX CONSORTIUM, 2013
In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I’ve worked and corresponded with Micah Towery as a contributor to thethepoetry.com. It’s a cozy website that’s been kind enough to publish my rambling reviews, though I’ve only spoken with Micah through email or gchat. This wasn’t enough to preempt my reading of his debut collection Whale of Desire, and, since I am a poor follower of journals, I hadn’t come across any of his poetic work before this.
That said, I tore through this book, finishing it within a couple of hours despite the many re-readings and moments of reflection. Debuts are often meticulously crafted over a long time, but Towery’s is more than the best of a life lived until publication. It’s elegant, sharp, and balanced, a slim volume with no fear and no agenda. And in many ways the title, Whale of Desire, automatically encapsulates this, though it requires perusal beyond first blush.
This is a book of many desires and loves, affinities so vast that perhaps it can seem unwieldy. This title and the tribute to Melville are no accident: desire is a leviathan and easily obsessed over. Around desire so many other emotions eddy, but Towery doesn’t offer merely a swirling glut of emotion. His lines dance and crackle, his subjects both revered held accountable to magnification, his tone surreal but never disingenuous:
laughing at the children who are laughing at you.
You’re taking out my brain and smoking it again
like the cheap, cherry-flavored cigar it is.
My hairs are splitting you—
(from Tribute to Herman Melville)
Surrealism and Christianity are siblings in their appreciation for symbology, though Towery never overloads. He investigates and we follow along, from Christian theology to the theology of jazz, through the canon and those unfamiliar with such things. The balance lies in Towery’s openness to life and its poles, not interested in lessons so much as associations. God above, the union below, “while Miles and John / play together upstairs.”
Philip Levine lurks around On the Closing of the Coca-Cola Plant…, though for a book full of God there is a distinct lack of blind subordination. Instead Towery transmits, journals, and observes with an open heart the decay of a type of certainty.
Praise you, laid off workers, part timers,
injured and summer laborers like me
who got out.
Goddamn the rest of you—
I know you had no place to go…
(from On the Closing…, I. Invocation)
Not quite ballads, maybe epigraphs of a sort. The narrator is only a “kid” at the bottom of the corporate flowchart, so we get a fly’s eye on the crumbling beauty of American industry.
The hottest mornings of summer
we get here early. It’s
still. Summer dark
fogs the windshields
and these men, left behind—
only a matter of time
until Binghamton plant closes
and we all become Crowley
Milk men, who have the same
but better union, who taunt me
in the backs of supermarkets:
You Coke guys eat more shit
than my dog.
I put product on the shelf
and declare, I am only
here for summer.
Though of course what new hire doesn’t believe that they are exempt, excluded from the politics of a life on the line. The curse of youth in general, flittered away without appreciation. The same could be said for belief, but Towery neither proselytizes nor anguishes. Binghamton deserves its songs, and the poet shifts his lines and injects enough jazz to keep the tune shifting and engaging. Where Levine was always an old man a grumbler, Towery blows a mean horn.
Not that there isn’t space for softness, but it never cloys. Love poems are a dangerous proposition in much current poetry. Even in verse many couch and armor themselves, or dial up the sweetness towards tooth decay. With the same deftness that he sings of labor and faith, T0wery approaches his love poems with the right combination of open-heart surgery and honest deprecation.
So instead, I’ve become accustomed
to false visions and vibrations,
the struggle of every little thing
and come to believe this might be a sort of love song,
a careless moment
of truth, an aloofness in which
I hear a train whistle—
I hear a church bell.
I am so impulsive for you—
I write this in the cold for you.
(from Love Song in the Light of Gas Stations)
Gas stations are rarely the regularly associated stage setting for love (maybe lust?) but beyond an unexpected association Towery delivers genuine love in a genuine world. The almost tidal nature of impulse, push/pull of desire and even moment it yanks around within us:
Almost—as I view you
from the kitchen—I almost
come behind to hold you. and later,
after dinner, I am full of sadness that
I didn’t. and I’m sad the roast
I labored over lies half-eaten,
leaking on the cutting board.
(from Third Love Poem for Jill)
These poems are walks, sights, and musings. There isn’t an indulgent indentation to be found, nor poetic seriousness or elaborate fretting. Towery delivers a taught, thoughtful collection to be savored, simmering with thought and experience. The Whale of Desire is large enough for all loves, from belief to fidelity, and each poem rings out as a hymn.