There’s a certain comfort to be had from a poem that’s centered on a person. We tend to like the groundedness provided by a narrator; lines like Seamus Heaney’s “Our unspoken assumptions have the force / of revelation” might feel more ominous were they not attached to some sort of a presence. The world is wondrous but also strange and sometimes even dangerous; a narrator whispers us into peace.
The poet Eric Pankey doesn’t seem to feel that way. Most of the poems in his latest book, Augury, don’t contain people. And in those that do, the people are nameless and faceless. Yet even without that reassuring presence, the poems as a whole produce a dreamy feeling of calm—a different kind of calm, and not necessarily a bad one.
Soft phrases and sounds, fluid lines, a feeling of synthesis at the end provide this sense. Pankey’s work is on the same spectrum as Lawrence Joseph’s fine verse, although Joseph’s concerns are often more urban, often more apocalyptic—our present world. In “Speculation On a Star-Nursery,” “An empty, oarless / Boat drifts / Above vast depths.” A place “Where gravity / Long ago / Released light, // Light which has not / Reached an eye / That might behold it.” Pankey considers another setting in “Speculation on the Dark Ages”: “deep within / A grammar of cinders,” among “toppled ramparts,” a whisper of a world “Like the gas / And dust trail // Of an imploded, / Now vanished galaxy, / Illuminated.”
If Augury resided in only these drifting, serene moments, the book’s content might rise out of our reach. But Pankey introduces a human presence at precisely the right moments to ground the poem. In “Speculation on the Weight of Yesterday,” he considers the intangible nature of grief, how “Like the light at Lascaux, / It is transparent / And dissolves as salt does on the tongue.” But this isn’t metaphor for the sake of metaphor. When the flesh and blood does enter the poem, it feels necessary. “You wonder how such a small thing, / Removed as if a mote from your eye, / Could have caused such irritation. // Held in your palm, it is a smidgen, / An iota, a whit, nothing / A tear could not wash away.” Pankey’s shift to second-person gives location and intensity to an expansive illustration of grief.