Ladder of Hours;
by Keith Althaus
(Ausable Press, 2005) 176 pp.
Keith Althaus, in a short prose piece on the cover of his second book of poems, Ladder of Hours, describes how he began, some forty years ago:
"I began to write in the simplest and most straightforward language because I thought it would be easy. And because I had no audience, any attempt to impress or seduce the reader with rhetoric would only come back to me. Years later, by the time I realized how difficult it is to write simply, I was hooked on the promise of its reward".
“To write simply” -- the phrase holds great appeal, both for poets and readers, yet complexities swarm when you ask what it means. So much of what we hold to be first rate isn’t written simply, and so much of what is, isn’t good.
In Althaus’s case simplicity starts with a pared-down form based on the sentence. ‘First Memory’ begins
The taillights disappearing
into the black wood of the hill
mark the end of my reach,
the limit of my knowledge.
It’s the kind of beginning that might take you into an ordinary poem, possibly heading towards flatness. But here is where he goes with it:
Before that there is nothing.
Sometimes I am awakened by the slamming
of brakes, or the jerky shifting of gears
going uphill, the clattering of an empty trolley
through a deserted, unlit intersection.
Sometimes I am filled with enormous sadness
for no reason, as a car veers off up ahead
or a city bus slows to make a turn farther
and farther behind me.
There is unexpectedness, even surprise, in the way the reader is carried quickly from a thought accompanying an image into a bodily experience, brakes slamming, gears juddering, then through a dark intersection opening into a feeling, an “enormous sadness” which accompanies, perhaps is caused by, the sight of traffic, turning vehicles diminishing. All this in thirteen short lines, three sentences.
To readers used to poems in which words are juxtaposed in defiance of their everyday meanings, or to poems of deliberate ambiguity and fragmentation of syntax, an Althaus poem when viewed quickly can look like adequate prose split into phrases. The method risks flatness, and requires that the poem be so tightly constructed as to hold itself together as if with magnetized parts.
Many poets have written in this style. It is an obvious way to begin, but the difficulty to which Althaus refers sets in immediately, in that the space to move is actually more restrictive than that within rhymes and meters. The sentence, in which we are so at home and which normally does much of the work for us, can constrain, resisting the poet’s need to startle and enthral.
Oddly, along with Althaus’s ability to work within such tight spaces has come one of the strangest and most compelling aspects of his work: his insistent returnings to a small number of themes or subjects. Old friends (lost, dead, alive but living elsewhere), childhood (toys, early rooms, school), travel (often solitary moments with or without his wife and son), past jobs (laborer on a pig farm, tree trimmer, dump-sticker salesman), New York City in the ’60s (student at the Art Students League, booze, drugs, loneliness), sleep (waking, dreams, insomnia) ... the list in its entirety would not be much longer, and would not seem all that unusual or even that original. But what matters are the details, the odd particularities in what is noticed, and the depths he is able to reach while maintaining a luminous clarity.
A NIGHT LIKE THIS
On a night like this
you can imagine
the end of the world:
the power out, high winds and snow,
the earth changed so completely
in a matter of hours.
Total silence of manmade things,
the plows and sanders useless.
The weight of the sky
now equal to that of the land.
And the flame of the candle
you carry so frail it sways
in each breath, and with each step,
a butterfly at rest, moving its wings,
the last thought of those you’ll miss,
alive in your hand.
Here we have a pure Althaus moment: the delicate point where time seems to pause, where the smallest movement -- one’s breath upon a candle flame -- seems to hold the possibility of a fateful turn.
The poems in Ladder of Hours are not dated but the arrangement gives a feeling of at least a rough chronological order. A poem such as ‘The Feather’ comes early in the book. The “I,” the Althaus voice, tells of a man mowing the grass next to a garden and a cornfield where a scarecrow wears the man’s “cast off clothes.” Nearby a “jack o’lantern sits on top / like the brains of the compost heap, / ageing fast, thinking deep.” A wind which “doesn’t care if it is loved or not” moves among rotting vegetables, flowers gone to seed. In a furrow, which is a “runway for the slow takeoff of pheasants,” the man finds a feather. “Among husks and stubble” he hunts for the pheasants’ nest, then for another feather. Finding neither, he looks down at the feather in his hand --
"this was lost alone,
in flight, or momentary rest.
I pocket it: a note
to be read later."
The tone, with its description of a bit of routine labor, of a man poking curiously in the detritus, of the sense of his looking for something he probably won’t find, and his falling short of some ultimate explanation, together with the light touch of absurdity and its hint of self-deprecating laughter, will be at once familiar to readers of Althaus’s first book, Rival Heavens. Ladder of Hours is rich with such moments and poems; but as you move on through the book you sense that Althaus’s confidence and technical control have deepened, and like a veteran jazz musician he can now take you farther into the abstractions of feelings without your getting lost.
In the lovely poem, ‘For Mary Hackett’ the texture of the language shades towards an abstractness that nevertheless maintains precision. [Hackett (1906-1989) was an American painter; Althaus has written several essays about her work.]
FOR MARY HACKETT
The most beautiful thing is a year:
its green, gold, and white wheel
turned by the wind and rain,
by the breaths of strangers
in a crowd beside you,
kept spinning by hands
lifted off of beds in unseen
benedictions of farewell.
Dry ice bubbling in the lake;
late summer, the brown water
boiling at the end of the dock.
Lost hours, watching a sunfish
defend a rock and a stalk of algae
from a school of cruising bass.
Days left empty as the pages
in an angel’s diary.
And the long winds of fall,
which are the sighs
of people in the city,
cooling breaths that dry the words scraped
on the stiff crepe of a corn husk
by a pin dipped in blood.
Then snow fine as dust
clapped from erasers
falls through the air
the ground like gesso,
with the slow
The “breaths” in the first and third stanzas appear again and again in Althaus’s work, obsessively, sometimes twice in the same poem. It is as if the word were as necessary to the work as breathing is to the body. Sometimes visible in cold air, “breaths torn to shreds, / the unsaid returning / to the alphabet” (‘In Traffic’ from Rival Heavens); or imagined, “Down in the street / breaths like souls ascend / from bodies trapped / between the seamy underground / and frozen heaven” (‘In the City’); or part of the physical intimacy of language, “and long chains of hills / in a few breaths and syllables, / these names / in tandem rattled off / on the late news” (‘Landscape’).
Throughout Ladder of Hours there runs a saving laughter, an affectionate bemused and loving regard for the absurdity of the difficult present, and for heroically comic struggles once waged. In ‘Self-Portrait in Pigshit’ the poet remembers how once, years ago, he “crouched on those flyblown boards / laid across the tops of the pens” installing plywood ventilation panels in a “finishing house” on a pig farm. “If a nail fell into the shit below / you’d have to climb down / and get it otherwise a pig / might eat it and die.” And, of course, lunch break: “... stinking, though we’d / hosed our boots / and shed our coveralls, / we were still barely welcome / at the diner down the road ...”
The young man smiling,
standing with his crew
in the doorway of Nellie’s Cafe
greeted by a chorus
of catcalls and ribbing,
does not exist anymore.
Those cells are buried in the air.
Yet around his visage
there’s a glow
as if someone has been breathing
on his picture, trying to bring
it closer, make it clearer.
There are longer poems in Ladder of Hours, some with three and four parts, and in these Althaus extends the meditation while holding to his tightness of language and sureness of touch. ‘Treasure Island’ describes his reading to his son at bedtime, “Beside me / on the couch, / finally quiet / after running all day; / his knees stick out / like a pair of bruised peaches”. The poem modulates through scenes from the book, the pirate ship, Jack Hawkins and the Squire and Long John Silver, through a memory of a “dealer’s pad” in New York City where the man who played Jack Hawkins in the movie awaits his heroin connection; the final stanza returns to the room where the sound of rain “brings music, / changing tempos, slowing”, and a father’s silent wishes and fears for his son as the son begins to fall asleep --
a shiver runs through him,
then me. It’s late.
I mark our place.
Ladder of Hours is a book of subtle humor and quiet astonishments, with rarely a note out of place. Here is one more small example of its beauties:
Across gravel that has lost
the secret of the mountain,
dust which hides in an insect’s voice,
through what’s left of the tattered shade
that stunted love
so it could stay in a world
guarded by toy soldiers,
a boy leads you to your shadow.
Keith Althaus is an American poet living and writing on Cape Cod with his wife the artist Susan Baker. One of his poems is included in the Bloodaxe anthology Soul Food, where the note on him reads: 'His conversational poems are philosophical in spirit, persistently enquiring after what a person can know and showing how insight into everyday life can transform the world. They take us into numinous territory we didn't know was there.'
Bill Gilson is an American poet living and writing in the Lake District with his family.
This review was first published in the magazine Tears in the Fence (editor: David Caddy).