Roots in the Sky, Boots on the Ground by C.B. Anderson, Kelsay Books, 2019

by James Sale

The title of this collection gives some indication of the wit and expertise of C.B. Anderson: the paradox of roots being in the sky, rather than in the ground, is suggestive of the divine origin of poetry itself, and at the same time the relatively, infrequently used technique of starting lines with rhyme rather than ending with them (roots/boots); ingenious, to say the least, and here suggestive of a spirituality that is lived, that is unpretentious, and finally active. In other words, to paraphrase Milton, not cloistered in its own virtue.

That, then, is a powerful start. Ambitiously, C.B. Anderson remarks that this collection of his poetry is in the mode and manner of the metaphysical poets, which must presumed to be the greats of the 17th century. How true is that statement and how does Mr. Anderson’s measure up to such an exacting standard?

First, one needs to say that this is a beautifully produced collection of some 80 poems: the cover, the paper, the typography are all excellent—it looks and feels good, and is easy to read. Indeed, the ease of reading—meaning that the layout is clear and uncluttered—extends to the poetry itself; for Anderson’s work, at its best, achieves a limpid clarity and precision that gains in power as one poem— as diamonds might be—is set against another.

To speak, then, of his best poems in this collection, of which there are very many, one has to acknowledge an extremely fine, and refined, poet.

Let’s take the first poem in the collection, “The Sky’s the Limit.” This neatly picks up the theme of the book’s title in its own title: drawing attention to the sky and that playful double meaning; for when we say the sky’s the limit we mean two opposite things. First, that there is no limit; and second, that that is the true limit of what it is we could and should desire. The poem—five stanzas of 4 lines each, precisely rhyming abab—has as its exact midpoint in line 10, the phrase “it’s time to shed your heavy winter boots,” and so we find the second theme of the collection’s title picked up. But the heavy winter boots are not for us. Something better awaits. The last four lines—issuing from the fourth stanza—are lines of distilled beauty and power:

…above
The seamless hovering of cloud, a loyal
Lover awaits with warm unbounded love:

The same your father knew, and his before;
The same your children will before they die,
Provided they attend and not ignore
The silver music and the giving sky.

This is great writing: there is an ease and accuracy of expression, as well as a control of form, worthy of Augustan poetry. Which is strange for two reasons: first, to find a “modern” writing like this at all; and second, because we were, we thought, setting out on a metaphysical journey, not an Augustan one. But hey-ho, to the second point: perhaps if we expected the convolutions of Donne, we are rather going to get the less ostentatious flourishes of Herberta more devotional kind of writing.

And this is exactly where the second poem in the collection takes us, “Redemption.” From the personal, confessional openingvery Herbertian: “Forgive me, God. I knew not what I did…” to the stunning and brilliant closing couplet

…His subtle art
Declined to turn my head, but turned my heart

The rhyme seems hackneyed, but in the context of the poem works superbly well. If we look at the whole sequence here:

I thank you for the One who took my place
And interceded with His loving grace
When I was faced away. His subtle art
Declined to turn my head, but turned my heart

Look at the effortless flow of place/grace/ and then internally with “faced,” but faced away, which contrasts with the “turn my head” that God isn’t going to do. That being insufficient; instead, God is turning the heart. Beautifully balanced writing, and what is more remarkable still is that Anderson actually has plenty to say and is going about saying it. If we contrast this with much of the post-modernist “verse” out there that is being in taught in schools and universities, then this is real nourishment, whereas the other must inevitably lead to mental and emotional rickets!

Wonderfully, Anderson sustains the power of his writing throughout the whole collection. Given this, let me just comment on one more poem of his that I especially like, “The Word.”

Anderson has a gift for powerful couplets, great one-liners, and a general clarity and power in his words. He is also vicious in his invectives. This particular poem is a fascinating disquisition on the meaning of “The Word”—keeping in mind of course that the Greek word for “word” is logos, which also means “meaning.” The primacy of meaning is exactly what modernism undermines with its own “relatives” and “ne’er-do-wells” and Anderson hits them straight between the eyes:

The shabby hovel where their Jesus lives
Lies somewhere near the outskirts of their heart …

That “gets” it: the squalid constructs they erect, they do not even believe in at a true level, the level of their heart. Notice the withering contempt of “their Jesus.” Man fashioning the idol in the image they want rather than the person being allowed to be who He is. Truly, inspired writing.

When a false poet writes we learn nothing of his or her soul; but when a true poet writes we discover some of his or her inner secrets; so it is with Anderson: we feel the themes running through his verse—poetic migraines as it were that preoccupy him. Issues of being a cosmic speck, all our wasted and unproductive time, and the nature and peculiarity of salvation, to mention three obsessions. And they are all important themes which more than ever need to be explored, to be faced and to be responded to.

The thing with post-modernist verse is that one of the highest forms of praise is to say that So-and-So’s (who is not a poet, but that is what we have to pretend) poetry is “unflinching,” which means that So-and-So confronts “reality.” Nothing could be further from the truth of course: what it actually means is that So-and-So has nihilistically depicted some unpleasant aspect of daily life, magnified it, glorified it even, and now wishes to be told what a clever-boy or girl they are for seeing so “deeply” into the nature of things. Actually, Anderson does—unflinchingly—face reality, but he does so with a faith that is alive to all the inconsistencies and oddities that make-up our existence. In this way his collection is an important record of where we are now in the 21st century.

There are many beauties in this poetry that I could discuss at considerably more length, but for now I ought to indicate where I find Anderson’s poetry not so ideal. There are two basic areas.

First, and most importantly, I find the metrics far too regular for my taste. I fully accept that the poet himself may find this the ultimate compliment, but despite the wonderful conversational style he achieves in so many poems, there is a certain monotony—sometimes—in the iambic beat: that feeling that Anderson simply cannot step out beyond the metrics occasionally and find other passions can sometimes work when form is broken. To be clear, Anderson’s is a very big mind, but it was Emerson who said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Too much consistency in meter, then, I see as a failing, and this relates to my earlier point about the Augustan style of his writing: Homer nodded, according to Pope, but did Pope ever nod? For all his greatness, isn’t Pope sometimes just a little too relentlessly fluent? So I’d like to see a little more experimentation.

The second point is relatively minor. Anderson does have a penchant for recondite and obscure words: lotic, pavid, asymptote, concinnity, canopic, paludal, narthex (and actually I can’t help but dislike the rhyme here: parsecs/narthex) and so on. It’s not overdone, and a critic like T.S. Eliot would argue that it’s the job of the poet to refresh the language, which is true; but whenever you come across words like that the emotional force can be blunted, for one stops reading the flow of words as the question, “Where did that word come from?” enters the mind.

But overall, I regard my two objections as petty cavils: Anderson’s collection is a major contribution to classical poetry and the kind of work that The Society of Classical Poets is trying to promote. I strongly recommend it and I strongly recommend that anyone who wants to learn how to write contemporary classical poetry studies it; for there is a wealth of meanings and techniques in this great collection that will repay many, many re-readings of his work.

 

 

 


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10 Responses

  1. Leo Zoutewelle

    I’m not sure which I would like better, when compared: James’ comments or CB’s poems when I get the opportunity to study them, but I am grateful for both! Thank you both.

    Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    Dear Kip –

    I am sure you planted well and are now generously sharing your plentiful garden with us. James has given you a fine review; many thanks to him. And I’m looking forward to the poetry.

    Congratulations 1

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Well, jeez, Sally, I already sent you a copy, for having written one of the blurbs on the back cover. And James has indeed given me a fine review, but I refuse to apologize for having been too precise in the execution of what now must be called the mythical ideal of iambic meter. Anyone who reads this book will be astounded by the breadth of the ground traversed from front to back cover. James Sale never mentioned the trochiac poem “Summer Stock” or the flawlessly anapestic “September”. To the charge that I am wed to precise meter, I plead guilty.

      Reply
  3. Randal A. Burd, Jr.

    I enjoyed the review and the examples provided. I do find the criticism “I find the metrics far too regular for my taste” to be rather odd (being a post-modernist mantra) coming from a Society of Classical Poets member. That being said the quality of poetry and review reflect highly on this group. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  4. James Sale

    Thanks Randal for your comment and support. Yes, it may seem odd but remember that it was Shakespeare’s friend, and great poet Ben Jonson, who said of Donne: ”Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging”. I love Jonson’s poetry, but I love Donne too, and in the context of the review, especially given CBA’s aspiration to be a metaphysical poet – and Donne being top of that particular tree – I thought the comment valid. But keep in mind, this reservation is described by me as relatively petty compared with the stature and the power of the poetry CB Anderson writes. So the reservation must not be exaggerated; it must be balanced with my other points. Thanks.

    Reply

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