A Review of Richard Jones’ Stranger on Earth — September 30, 2018
by Christopher Nelson
A long book of poetry that is not a “selected” or “collected poems” is a rare thing. Richard Jones’ Stranger on Earth (Copper Canyon 2017) extends over 300 pages while remaining virtuous to our expectations of the lyric tradition: sparseness, concision, and emotional intensity. Beginning in the womb with “Silver Cord,” the book progresses mostly linearly—circumcision, childhood mysteries and terrors, young love—to span the numerous experiences of a full and well-considered life. Like a memoir in verse, each poem is a vignette in a much larger narrative tapestry: A biscuit tin holds his father’s decades-old Kodachrome slides and serves as a door into the past; a honeymoon meal of scallops and lobster over which is made the promise to bring a child into the world; an old wing chair that a father’s ghost returns to. With little irony, Jones braves unconcealed sincerity and succeeds—poem to poem—to move us; moreover, he does so with a light hand: with lucid, honest reflections and quiet endings.
The book is divided into seven sections, each with its own thematic or temporal focus. Formally unique among them is section six, “The Italian Cantos,” consisting of forty cantos (each thirty-one lines) that function as parts of a longer reflection on love, loss, time, and the poet’s art. They tell the story of the poet and his wife, Laura, going to Italy, where he stays in a monastery to write while she travels and sees the sights. In language that is disarmingly plain, Laura and a monk (Brother Aloysius) take on near mythic stature, he becoming a voice of mystery and wisdom, and she a distant angel and polestar at the center of his reflections. In “Canto 19,” as the poet struggles to express the truths and emotions he feels, Jones writes:
I considered all the books I’d read
and all the books in the monks’ library.
They all said different things
but they all said the same thing,
a truth paradoxical and inscrutable
that burns within us like a fire.
Evident in these lines are a theme throughout Stranger on Earth: balancing gratitude for being with the suffering inherent in being.
The book is prefaced by a long epigraph by Rainer Maria Rilke, in which the wise poet argues that “For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities,” and “One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions.” To take in all the wonder and loneliness of childhood and the “many nights of love”—to take a lifetime of memories and “[turn them] to blood within us”—then a true verse can be written. It’s a lofty aspiration, of course, but it is one that Jones has taken to heart. Permeating these poems are the various atmospheres and places that have informed the poet’s life, and the numerous artists, writers, and thinkers that have influenced his mind. Rimbaud, Rodin, Freud, Voltaire, Magritte, Monet, Man Ray, Ryokan—a richness of allusion in these poems abounds. Among Jones’ talents is to employ the allusions so that we are further enticed into the poems, not pushed out by obscure references. In the “Pont des Arts” the poet and his sister, whose boy tragically had drowned, visit a museum and consider Renoir’s white roses. Jones describes being unable to sleep afterward: “Open-eyed in the dark on the sleep-sofa, I consider / knocking on the bedroom door and waking my sister / to ask whether she thinks we’ll see Renoir’s roses in heaven— / a silly question.” The title of the poem refers to the bridge where “ten thousand gold and silver locks [are] fastened to the grillwork / … symbols of undying love,” which is where poet and sister stand above “the emerald water … swiftly flowing.” The understated loss of the nephew is brilliantly and carefully woven into a poem about sibling love, passing time, travel, and art. It is Renoir himself in the poem who gives the best answer to Jones’ insomniac question: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
Jones’ ability to command various poetic modes is robustly on display in Stranger on Earth. From confessional poems about mental breakdowns and self-doubt to love poems of lyric richness, like “The Camino” in which he writes, “we wished for all the things we didn’t know … it was Spain and I was alive / and she beautiful, kind,” to metaphorically complex poems, like the sonnet “Rainstorm”: “while the azimuth / of a dead star can be measured and named // a raindrop’s crystal ball falls so fast / we cannot see that which will last.” Throughout this range of emotion, subject, and setting, we are guided by Jones’ unfailingly consistent voice—so trustworthy, so precise in its descriptions and astute in its insights—guided to see a profound receptivity to all life offers and imposes, to the “futility and fullness of life / the privilege of being human.”