St. John, David
ST. JOHN, David
Nationality: American. Born: Fresno, California, 24 July 1949. Education: California State University, Fresno, 1967–72, B.A. 1972; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1972–74, M.F.A. 1974. Family: Married 1) Bonnie Bedford in 1968 (divorced 1974), one son; 2) Molly Bendall in 1990; one daughter. Career: Assistant professor, English Department, Oberlin College, Ohio, 1975–77; assistant professor, then associate professor, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, 1977–87. Since 1987 professor, English Department, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Assistant poetry editor, Iowa Review, 1974–75; associate editor, Field, 1975–77, and Seneca Review, 1977–81. Since 1981 poetry editor, Antioch Review.Awards: Discovery/The Nation prize, 1975; Great Lakes College Association New Writers award, 1976, for Hush; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1976, 1984, 1994–95; Guggenheim fellowship, 1978–79; James D. Phelan prize, 1980, for The Shore; Prix de Rome fellowship in literature, 1984. Address: English Department, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California 90089–0354, U.S.A.
Hush. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
The Shore. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
No Heaven. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
Study for the World's Body: New and Selected Poems. New York, Harper Collins, 1994.
In the Pines: Lost Poems, 1972–1997. Buffalo, New York, White Pine Press, 1998.
The Red Leaves of Night. New York, Harper Flamingo, 1999.
Recording: Black Poppy, Watershed, 1995.
Where the Angels Come toward Us: Selected Essays, Reviews, and Interviews. Fredonia, New York, White Pine Press, 1995.
Translator, with others, God's Shadow by Reza Baraheni. Bloomington, University of Indiana Press, 1976.*
Critical Studies: By Norman Dubie, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), spring 1977; by Robert Hass, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, 27 November 1994; by Katrina Roberts, in Agni Review (Boston), spring 1995.* * *
David St. John is a skillful poet. Hush, a collection of poems written by his mid-twenties, clearly establishes his talent as well as reflecting preoccupations common to younger poets. As with many young poets, there are poems modeled after the work of other writers as well as impressionistic poems inspired by paintings. Many of the poems in this collection, however, also connect quite powerfully with the author's personal history. The literary allusions and painterly approach generally work for, rather than against, the outcome. Many poems deal with the struggle to get beyond the preoccupation with self that is part of being an artist to establish the intimacy necessary to being a worthwhile human being. This theme is reflected in a quote from Paul Éluard that precedes the body of the work: "Are we two or am I all alone."
"Naming The Unborn" and "Hush," the title poem, both deal with the loss of a son, the poet's second child, who was the victim of a miscarriage. "Naming The Unborn" contains powerful images that evoke the loss:
his face rose in our dreams
like a planet,
and we said:
little star of red mud,
flesh-blown and milky;
In "Hush" the poet compares mourning his son to
The way a tired Chippewa woman
Who's lost a child gathers up black feathers,
Black quills and leaves
That she wraps & swaddles in a little bale, a shag
Cry out, as if calling to a father you conjure
In the paling light, the voice rises, instead in me.
In some poems the author's thoughts about other artists manage to connect forcefully with his own life and personal grief. "Six/Nine/ Forty-Four" concerns Keith Douglas, a British poet killed in the Normandy invasion of World War II. A poem in four parts, it develops in a series of short takes like scenes from a newsreel, with literary and personal themes reinforcing one another. St. John alludes to events from Douglas's life, such as his poems being censored as he writes from the front in North Africa, and imagines the deceased poet's parents in London, intercutting these events with scenes from his own life and that of his father, a flyer who was also in the service. The scenes culminate with the three mens' lives overlapping in the Shangri-La, a bar the father had visited earlier and where the poet himself gets drunk:
These sons picking through the silences
of abandoned Quonset huts, where they were born.
These fathers: suddenly air. Blown from cockpits
into the shrugs of sons, the shrugs of my friends
& poets; all of us walking out of these pages,
& the wars, & these fathers. I've fallen
asleep in the same Shangri-La.
Asleep in my father's old overcoat.
Here the poet, like a painter, applies successive layers of images, including the echo from Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," until the picture is wrenchingly clear.
"Iris," another strong poem, uses the painterly approach well. It begins with the poet as a child telling his grandmother that there is a train inside an iris. The poem develops the image, less playfully, into "a darkened porthole lit by the white, angular face / Of an old woman, or perhaps the boy beside her in the stuffy, / Hot compartment." Peering deeper into the iris, he sees it become even more like a tunnel the train is moving through, making its "drive deep into the damp heart of its stem." The tunnel then becomes a corridor of elms arching like the ceiling of a "French railway pier," a place he walks through, holding an iris, to wave good-bye to his grandmother. As he watches her departure, the image shifts to that of an "empty garden," and the poem winds down toward an ominous conclusion:
Is walking toward him.
Dull shears in one hand; & now believe me: The train
Is gone. The old woman is dead, & the boy.
The collection does not conclude with an easy affirmation. Instead, there is a sense of life's always unfinished business, to be continued in future work. This is typified by the last poem, "You," in which a couple take a boat trip haunted by mutual, unspoken recriminations. But there is also a gesture the speaker sees as important. He sees the other person's life changing "because you reached far / Out of the boat, to pick a dead bird off a wave." The gesture echoes the speaker's earlier act of leaning far over a balcony railing to reach into a lime tree "because you wanted / Your gin with lime." The poem, like others in the collection, suggests the many ways we communicate, striving to reach beyond words: "The only prayer is to continue."