A Canticle for Palmquist
by Steve Fortney,

reviewed by Keith F. Voos

Midwest and other readers following Steve Fortney’s publishing career will be delighted by his latest work, a volume of poetry titled, “A Canticle for Palmquist.” Broadly speaking, a canticle is a sacred song and, fittingly, the language of this book flows with both an intensely musical lyricism and a special kind of reverence. At times, the lyricism takes the form of exuberant assonance and alliteration, as in the opening stanza of “Seminary, St. Paul Minnesota, 1960:” “The snow grieves in strands / over blacktop back roads / torn wedding veils, crossing, / braiding on black glass / the way sand drifts in / between desert dunes / flowing in sunset shadow.”

At other times, the lyrical quality of the poetry takes on zen-like simplicity: “In the clear / still / endless sky / in the windless / calm / three ravens / in the treetop / distance / croak, / and then wing southward.”

An indolent reader might let the beauty of this language distract from the power of the themes with which Fortney is dealing, primarily the central place of family, the salvific role of nature, reverence for life and, perhaps most notably, the reconciliation of opposites. Two of these themes, family and reconciliation, come together forcefully in “Rogers, North Dakota, 1936.” This is a poem about the poet’s mother and father, about a father and his sons, about claiming the past honestly, and about healing from long-held wounds. It’s a poem that packs a wallop, but such is Fortney’s mature mastery that he synthesizes the intimate and the large-scale without seeming to break a sweat. It’s a lovely prelude to the glories that follow.

Earlier on he has alluded, in a poem about a visit to a cemetery, to “rages of sorrow.” But these rages really break forth, almost unbearably, in the second half of the volume. Here, forty pages comprise the canticle of the title. This, in turn, is made up of three Cantos. (Notice the repeated equivalence of poem and song.) In the first canto, “The Scythian,” Fortney creates a rich multilayered mythic narrative combiningelements of history, legend and religion from East and West with his own untrammeled imaginative vision.

This canto tells the story of the birth of violence in the human heart and of the endless misery that has bled forth since. It isn’t pleasant reading, but it is spellbinding, sometimes mind-boggling, in its cosmic scope and depth. Fortney is, among other things, angry with the horrors that religions have wrought, and orthodox believers from all paths will find something to challenge or offend them. Approach Canto I when you are feeling strong: It is likely to disturb any emotional or spiritual equanimity you happen to possess. But when the shock of the first reading wears off, you’ll find you want and need several rereadings to explore the skillfully woven continuities of theme and structure it holds.

Canto II, “The Damages of Unbalance,” seems at first to tamp down the fire with which Fortney is working. Here the reader encounters not the raging, havoc-wreaking Scythian of civilization’s beginnings, but his domesticated descendent, a portlyeveryman staying overnight alone in a midwestern hotel. Nonetheless, the worst ills of men seem to infect this poor soul. He is lonely, lustful and easily given to despair. Already, in the second poem of the canto, he is crying out: “Is life really this absurd? / Am I the only one who sees the absurdity?”

In the remaining ten poems of this section, the hapless fellow drinks too much trying to get to sleep, achieves only a brief, boozy half-sleep and falls prey to dark imaginings. He imagines, as do so many men in so many cultures, that some combination of violence and sex solves all problems, while knowing with perfect hopelessness that it does not. His own culture, born of intolerance and sexual repression, brings him no peace: “The second drink was easier. But, Lordy, / how long is the night! / Not so much this time. / The sweet cloy of the lime rose bites at the / deep melancholy of his throat. It’s all very sad. / How quickly leaks make empty, how suddenly / pleasure dies and all the pages are old hat.”

Well, hotel rooms are hard on all of us, and this despairing fellow somehow survives the night. He perks up a little in the morning and makes it to his car in one piece. Gladness for him and for the reader anxious on his behalf.

Canto III is titled, “Kendall’s Song: 43 E 18.” 43 E 18 are the coordinates giving the location of the name Kendall Fortney on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D. C. He was the poet’s younger brother. His grave itself is one of those visited in the poem in the first half of “The Canticle,” where the author writes of his “rages of grief.”

The first twelve poems of Canto III bear headings that name great battles of the world, from the mythic one on “[t]he day the mother rite died,” through Agincourt and Waterloo to Stalingrad and Nagasaki. The headings also give the number of those who died in the battles, in some cases millions. The tenth, eleventh and twelfth poems are all headed with the name of the same battle, the most important battle of all, that at La Cua in Vietnam. It occurred February 6, 1968. There was one casualty, an unarmed medic, a conscientious objector.

In these poems and in the eight that follow and conclude the volume, Steve Fortney performs a miracle, the miracle of affirming life in the face of colossal human folly, human smallness and death. The poems in this section have titles such as, “Garden,” “Marriage,” “Children,” “Friendship.” The three La Cua poems are called“Poems,” “The Gazebo,” and “War.” All speak in a simple, serene voice. It is the voice of a man who knows that love of life, honest, satisfying work, music and poetry, all the goodnesses of existence, come from connection, connection to other people and to the natural order.

A third of the way into “Poems,” Fortney writes: “Out of the pure earth of his spirit he will shout to the star.” There is no way of expressing a deeper connection than that. It is the connection he had, and still has, to his brother and to the universe they shared. It is the connection that, somehow, in the holiest kind of paradox, reconciles unspeakable grief with transcendent joy and renders his brother’s death, and his own continuing life, undiminishably sacred, sacred as long as the universe endures, and beyond.

The final eight poems in this canto constitute a kind of coda to the entire work. They are in the form of what Fortney calls “A Buddhist Liturgy in Eight Parts.” He titles this “Mass in C Major, K 167,” and subtitles it “On the Bridge Over the Little Muskeg River.” He provides the names and words of the equivalent sections of the Catholic mass, in both Latin and English, though his own brief poems for each section bear neither titles nor numbers. They are written from the point of view of a trout fisherman. He is a man who has chosen his distant fishing spot for its solitude and for its ability to give him a deep connection to the transcendent meaning of his life, a man about as far from the anomie and ennui of an anonymous hotel room as you can get. His words state, in the most direct, affirmative way that humans don’t need gods, that life itself in all its myriad forms is the great and only holiness. They reiterate, from a completely new angle, what Fortney had said not long before, in the third La Cua poem in this canto, “War.” They must be read together and in their entirety, so I end this review with the conclusion from “War.” May it encourage you to buy and read this remarkable book. And may it encourage you on your life’s journey as well:
“That exchange of fire in the next millennium. . .bringing the winter which for a few trifling kalpas [eons]
killed all living things, was nothing,
nothing at all: for when matter stood after
the cleansing, some of the lichens and fish
and men who came and peered through
the wreckage and smoke of the sky, out
of the ruined soul of the earth, arose to the star
dimly glimpsed: arose and sang. This song,
called man’s sad music, he called faith.”

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updated 10/21/08