Days of Summer Gone: This is One of Them
One walks step by step
into the darkness.
The motion itself
is the only truth.
—The Magician, Ingmar Bergman
I first read Days of Summer Gone at a time in my life when I still dabbled, secretly but constantly, in poetry of my own. It floored me. To what extent I have the book to blame (or thank), I don't know, but since then I have managed to leave poetry to the poets—writers like Joe Bolton. These days I devote my writing time to grocery lists, which I think turn out quite beautifully. Scallions, rum, pita, pears . . . I dream of a cashier, ravishing yet sensitive, who names my delicacies aloud as she scans them, then turns to me and asks if I'm a poet. "No, I'm not even hungry."
Now I am to write about this book which once led me rather to silence than imitation, though its effect on me is still the same. It leads me by the tongue into a mute, ineffable space and leaves me there lonely and wordless. If Bolton's book taught me th at poetry in my life there certainly is (or else I could not have identified so completely with his own), it as certainly taught me that I haven't got the words for it yet, or else all the writing workshops, English classes, and lit. crit. crap stuck me with words that will only get in the way of what I have to say.
And yet, Bolton must have faced the same obstacles. The brief biography that Days offers reads like the itinerary of some sort of academic journeyman: summa cum laude degree, writing programs in Arizona, Florida, Houston, numerous teaching positions, numerous publications . . . Despite all that, his writing is not ostentatiously learned or scholarly. It's simple, quick and clean as a new razor. There is nothing parietal about his poems' settings or themes, nothing recherche in their language, and for this I admire them more. They are, nearly to a fault, unstrained, completely free of the flip precociousness and wilting pretention that characterize so much college writing (including my own, alack). Bolton learned first what most writers learn last—the power of understatement.
The first two poems in Days are both about happening into someone else's drama and being awed unexpectedly and transformed eternally in that moment. The "witnesses" in these poems are transported briefly but completely out of their own lives and into the lives of others. Here we might expect to discover identification or commiseration on their part, but the feeling is more one of an alienation that closes in from all sides. The narrator of "Party" is troubled by the lover's quarrel he witnesses across th e street because he realizes how much the situation resembles his own. Yet his ultimate reaction is not sympathy but estrangement, and when he says, "I don't know what any of it means or matters," it's not just the people across the street he's referring to anymore.
Considering Bolton's recurrent use in individual poems of inter-meshing dramas to comment on a core theme or emotion that alone can seemingly neither speak nor be spoken, it was only fitting that I was introduced to Bolton's poetry by a friend of mine who loaned me his own personal(ized) copy. I read Bolton's poems under the influence of his marginalia (his comments, alterations, fragments of verse), so that to me Days has never been a thing merely written, a monument in dead language. I continue to read it as a palimpsest of lives, an overlay of hopes and disappointment, regrets and endurance. One of my friend's comments I remember distinctly because it was on what was my favorite Bolton poem. "Black Water" earned but one remark, writ bold beneath the title: "this is one of them." I never asked him what he meant by that, but I might have written it myself. To this day I consider "Black Water," even in its simplicity, as moving as poetry gets.
It is Tuesday, and early June,
And it would be your wedding day,
Were it three years ago;
And it would be your anniversary,
Had she not left you . . .
But it is simply a Tuesday, in June,
And you have woken up alone to the life
You live alone,
And the workmen down the block are hammering
The last of the dream from you.
Perhaps I like "Black Water" because it's more song than poem, one that only Nick Drake or maybe Tim Buckley could sing convincingly, if they too hadn't killed themselves long ago. You see, Days of Summer Gone is a posthumous book. For most of its readers, it was their first acquaintance with Bolton's work, but it needn't be their last. Oyster Boy hopes that by publishing the following poems it can generate new interest in Bolton's poetry while gratifying those whose interest never wanned. Admittedly, these early poems lack the density and power that he would discover in Days, but if they are far behind Bolton's best, they are just as far ahead of what most young poets dream of accomplishing. Hopefully they will inspire their readers to seek out later poems like "A Hymn to the Body" and "The Changes." In these, Bolton hones an expert eye for catching what is vanishing yet precious.
In the years since I first read these poems, I moved West and my friend moved North and we thought we moved in different directions. Maybe. But something in our continuing enthusiasm for this too-little known poet suggests to me that we are wed by the same pattern of grief that travels throughout Days from Kentucky to Tennessee and Atlanta and Florida. As the geographies of our lives change, our sense of place somehow remains the same as it does in Bolton's "American Variations." Each of this poem's five sections slips through different settings, tenses, and persons until the various viewpoints fall in on each other. With all its nearness and nowness, Bolton's past tense never manages to be quite that and his present tense is so often spent in rememberance that we barely recognize it as such. Likewise, the "I" and "you" of this poem don't seem to designate separate persons so much as shadows cast by the same person suspended in that time-out-of-time where the is and the was of us are conversant yet one. In the end, the "Variations" converge "In this, their one and only world," where men and women "make what little love they can."
What little love is there for Bolton, however, seems painfully aware of the odds against it. Even the most liminal affections come full-equipped with a sense of loss. Bolton wrote poetry about love that gives the lie to traditional love poetry. It is peopled with lovers who began by telling themselves: there isn't enough time or space to ever come between us; but they've had plenty of time to realize how long the time can be, and how brief love. Knowing this, they cannot love at all without an intimate a wareness of love's evanescence, an awareness that love is moribund and that death is, perhaps, the only thing strong enough to preserve it. That all can seem like the saddest thing in the world, and it's broken the likes of many a better poet than Bolton. Maybe the only way to survive such heartbreak is to take comfort in it, to tell yourself: If love really were forever, we'd never get anything done. No remote controls, no rockets to the moon, no grocery lists. I mean, you can't eat dandelions and you can't sell stocks with a sonnet, so let time take love the way of a skinned knee. Let it get better, let it heal, let it go away.
It is out of Bolton's refusal to do this that Days is born. This work ventures deep into the vacuum formed in love's absence to rescue what little light shines through these poems, though still shrouded in emptiness and darkness-bound. If the writing is sometimes addle, halt and heartbroke, it is often elegant, heroic and necessary. This from "The Changes":
And I've tried to learn to love only so far
As that love is specific and precise,
And to leave when I feel it becoming otherwise.
But sometimes, when I'm holding a woman in the dark,
A siren oscillates out on the street,
And something nameless shudders through me, tempting me
To make the connections that can undo a life.
And too, one remembers so much
Especially now, when the trees turn and the rains begin,
And the failing light makes the days ahead
Seem like so many pages on which nothing will be written,
And you feel each moment, as it passes,
Transforming itself into one small, bright stone
In the huge and forever-unfinished mosaic
Of all that is lost.
Each poem in Days of Summer Gone sets for itself the task of capturing the fleeting nature of all emotion, all memory, all things human. In each of these, there is nothing so fleeting as the ineffable. We can hold on to this only momentarily before it vanishes into forgetfulness or cliche, but Bolton's poetry insists that this is the only thing in life worth keeping, and it tries to. Though certainly even the best poets lose something by maiming life into language, without the attempt, everything is lost. Bolton knew this. It's what drove him to write poetry whereas it drove me, for the most part, to shut up. Now I spend most of my life just living. At my love's acme, at my despondency's nadir, at my sanity's end, I found the limits of my language. I chose to retreat from where he dared. Right out there at the end of what should have been anyone's will to write at all, there went Joe Bolton, rhyme and metering away. To read what he has left behind, to live with it for many years as I have, makes life a sadder thing, yes—but a thing more true as well, and therefore more worth living. That's no small feat.
[Editor's note: The Galileo Press, which ceased business in early 1995, had published Days of Summer Gone. This unfortunate occurrence makes Joe Bolton's poetry more difficult to enjoy. Copies of Days of Summer Gone may still be available through local bookstores. It is the hope of those who appreciate Mr. Bolton's writing that his work will be acquired by another publisher. In the meantime, Oyster Boy has published two poems, "In Pieces" and "Towards Twenty-Four," both from his Masters of Arts thesis, which contains Days of Summer Gone and Breckinridge County Suite, also out of print. The MA thesis is avaialble at the University of Florida Special Collections Library.]