Monday, September 01, 2008

On For All I Know
by Erik Muller
67 pages, privately printed
Eugene, Oregon, 2008

Consider "For all I know, ..." just as phrase.

Sometimes we use it to introduce an assertion we're unsure of, as in "For all I know, she'll win the lottery." As a phrase, it points to how unlikely something might be. It's also a phrasing that takes its speaker off the hook, a way of saying 'I don't really know what I'm talking about here, so don't take this too seriously.'

But there is at least one more way to hear this phrase, namely as a quite serious act of dedication, one that might be paraphrased as 'on behalf of all I know' or 'in praise of all I know.' This possible confusion of meanings arising out of just a four-word phrase demonstrates the challenge of any writer and most particularly the challenge of any poet: the aim is to make clear, to speak accurately, but the language at hand is often generic ('book' you say, which one?). The phrase 'for all I know' is open to multiple interpretations. Erik Muller titles his latest book For All I Know. Titles call attention to themselves; that's their job. Muller knows the multiple meanings in his title, and he wants them all.

The book's first set opens with poems addressing the ambiguous (or is it unambiguous) topic of two-by-two human company. One could say "marriage," regardless of the political usages which so heavily freighted that term, and Muller's poems do so. Their impulse is celebratory and evident first in dedications: "for Eve and Nigel, married 8-15-97," for example. While the impulse in such poems is clear, the speaker knows that finding the accurate (and adequate) descriptive words "for Naomi and Phil, married 20 years" is not immediately obvious. Here's the opening stanza of "What They Say":

Stone opposite stone.
Poplars intertwined
at root, crowns nodding
with each green shift of wind.
Swales of camas spires
sparking blue volts.
You can know what
they say (if they say).

Each of the sentences in this opening stanza represents an opening gambit, an effort to describe a marriage. They at once start over and build on each other. But it's those camas spires that come closest (so the poem suggests) to standing in for the relationships a marriage both establishes and requires:

Turned up high
jets of camas
say to you: Blue
replenishes, multiplies.
Mark the spare flame
kindling the jay's tail,
chicory, certain
rare eyes.

At its best, a marriage makes an ecology lively and in bloom, so this poem knows. (And it finds room for a rhyme: multiplies / eyes).

For All I Know is a book of loves, affections, observations arising out of a deeply felt connection to the landscape and history of the American West. Sometimes this connection finds expression in images like those camas spires. In such moments, the landscape and the personal conspire. They make their own sort of marriage.

Muller's poems consistently reflect an interest in this sense of place knowledge -- how to make a place for oneself and one's loved ones, but also of how to know, be, and act inside a knowledge of particular locales. All this intrigues Muller, and his poems often note it. "But the Wind" starts by referring to one of the West's great railroad empire builders, James Hill, whose rail tracks still stitch together wide expanses. In this poem, high winds have forced the trains to stop in sheltered areas rather than risk being literally blown off the tracks. As might be expected, passengers fret a little. However, one of them, clearly an Indian, simply pops one of the passenger car doors, jumps to the ground, and heads off overland. The poem's speaker watches this man as he walks, his figure ever smaller "as if / being dissolved in space." The rails will eventually deliver their passengers -- they show one way home. And this one passenger, more deeply native, clearly knows another.

For better or worse, contemporary poets are inheritors of a style and tradition and set of assumptions that tend to value the prosy rather than the poetic, the offhand rather than the studied or rhetorical, the modest rather than the ambitious, the authentic rather than the artifice. These are false binaries, yet they carry some power. At their worst, such default values make for a smaller poetry -- short in length and slight in content. Such poetry can too readily assume that the larger whole is evident in the smallest grain. But a book itself can counter such drift. In a book's length and ordering, larger relationships form and larger implications emerge. For All I Know features two lengthy sequences, and it is divided into four sections. But it succeeds as a book because over its 67 pages it makes and sustains a coherency of interests and style. This is most surely not the only way to make order in a book of poems, but it is one way, and Muller makes it work effectively. The poems make a larger whole. For All I Know betrays its title only in that the sound of sense so evident here could not possibly be finished with the impulse to inquire.

(Note: Author Erik Muller is also the editor of Traprock Books, dedicated to the publication of work by Oregon writers. Traprock Books, 1330 E. 25th Ave., Eugene, OR 97403.