Stanley Plumly—author of eleven books of poetry, four books of nonfiction, Maryland poet laureate, professor, and winner of numerous literary prizes—died of multiple myeloma in April 2019 at the age of 80. According to his own poem leading off this, his last collection called Middle Distance, he was a “White Rhino,” the last of his kind, a lover of “flowers and the lawns of the northern grasses, and certainly / one of the few able to rub backsides with the baobab / and the century-nearing oak still surviving in the yard.”
Instantly, these lines give one an introductory taste, if needed, of Plumly’s warm, appealing style: wry, self-deprecating; prosaic in the best of ways, as when language can simply be allowed to be simple; homely, yet also deeply precise and memorably poetic. For this aging rhinoceros nearing the end of his time on earth—the world he wrote of so well for so many decades—old age was merely a:
“disguise, the hard outside, the soft inside.
Even the plated armor is turning dust, then one foot
after the other, neuropathy my gravity, the footprint
larger, deeper. I hardly recognize myself except in
memory, except when the mind overwhelms the lonely
body. So I lumber on, part of me empty, part of me
filled with longing — I’m half-blind but see what I see.”
This ‘seeing’ of his, and of others, is held up introspectively for examination. Plumly, in addition to being a writer par excellence on the person and work of John Keats as well as other Romantic literary men, was also the author of a book on John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, two Romantic painters, and these men and their work, their differing modes of envisioning the pastoral, figure prominently in Middle Distance. Plumly seems to have yearned for their company, these old friends of his, one last time as he himself, in part through their eyes, tearfully blinks himself into the landscapes of his dimming perspectives.
To focus on one such instance, in “For Gerald Stern at Ninety-Two,” he writes of a birthday party for the grand old poet in which guests were asked to stand and recite, from memory, Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” Abruptly, the poem breaks away from this merriment of “singing light” to place the speaker on a back road somewhere, “walking in a direction away from the viewer.” Plumly has discovered himself inside a painting, wondering whether “those trees in the upper right hand of the picture” are Eastern White Pines or “simply spruce.” He is the lone ambler who, at once, is the Keatsian refugee of genius, and as he writes in another poem called “Travel & Leisure,” a boy in a cornfield of Constable, heading in the direction not of death but of the intimate future, “where daylight may or may not be ending,” a work of art himself that potentially may or may not extend its visual and literary figure beyond time’s porous confines. Or, as he puts it, referring to the artist’s superlative ability, “the point of each brushstroke palpable at once in two worlds.”
For the writer himself, very much alive in the years leading up to his death in the act of composition, now in his voice still audible on the page, the “middle distance” he occupies is that vantage point between childhood and death, at which point vision becomes keener, memory more insistent, the felicities of life more poignant. It is a particular way-station, a time to examine critically, a pointed reminder of one’s mortality. The centerpiece of the book, a prose poem entitled “Germans,” takes us back, through the adult Plumly’s eyes, to a remarkable childhood period spent in a tree-felling camp with German POWs, imported from the European battlefields of the Axis and Allies to a Virginia sawmill: forced labor for his family’s lumber business. While more interested in these extended, nonfiction reveries, in tone and theme Plumly’s collection is very reminiscent of Rosanna Warren’s latest, So Forth. Each poet wrestles with aspects of the aging self that are less than laudatory, each person discovers a grayer aspect to the nature of man.
The road to the grave, we discover in Plumly, is, in many instances, the road home. Topographically, as we move closer to Nabokov’s “eternity of darkness,” the one that comes after the “brief crack of light”—the span of our living and breathing lives—we move also towards Shakespeare’s “second childishness,” into the emotional and spiritual terrain in which our focus oddly sharpens as our once-keen eyesight dims, where the things of this world grow painfully over-familiar and wondrously strange. Particularly for a poet, a man of vision and of language, inside the world of his declining body, of his still-fresh imagination.
Particularly for poet Stanley Plumly.
by Stanley Plumly
W. W. Norton & Company
Published August 18th, 2020
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer/educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has published criticism, journalism, fiction, and poetry. Having earned a BLS and MAT from Boston University, he is now pursuing a Master's of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. His Twitter handle is @RyanAsmussen.