A review of Naming the Silence by Michael David Blanchard

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Naming the Silence:
New & Selected Poems
by Michael David Blanchard
Paperback: 106 pages, Sept 15, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-1483474212

When by his own admission Michael David Blanchard was a sensitive, introspective teenager, he began writing poetry as a student at Baton Rouge High in Louisiana. He continued composing in college and twice won the University (of Virginia) Union Fine Arts Award for Poetry. In his professional days after earning his Masters, literary journals and magazines published his poems as he found himself in demand as a college professor, editor, writer, and advocate for the dying with hospice organizations.

Yet, a definitive collection of his own works in the form of a book of poetry eluded him. Now in his sixties, Blanchard recently reexamined some of his best works for inclusion in an impressive book, Naming the Silence: New & Selected Poems. Spanning five decades of Blanchard’s writing, the volume is both a compilation of 53 finely crafted poems and a thoughtful extended meditation on the creative process. It is, simply put, a book worth waiting for and a splendid collection.

Blanchard wrote many of the works in Naming the Silence during his years as a young, dynamic English and creative writing professor at Troy State University in Alabama (now Troy University). While at Troy, he co-founded a poetry workshop and edited the university’s literary magazine, and was awarded the Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching.

Blanchard’s Troy years marked him with turmoil and rapid-fire changes. In 1977, during what he described as a particularly long, hot summer, Blanchard confronted the unexpected death of two friends, one in the crash of an Air Force jet he was piloting and the other a former girlfriend in childbirth. Blanchard—still in his twenties—captured the experiences with counterbalancing themes of loss and hope in “Autumn Comes to the Deep South,” the collection’s longest piece. This poem begins as a contemplation on death and loss and on the lives of those who have occupied the old house where the poet then resided:

One day they will tear down this house
and all the houses where I’ve passed time
and all the roads leading to them

will lead nowhere and all that’s left
will be the space I’ve kept
open and silent

and the place of the mind
that turns at the sound of a name
will go still for silence has no need for names

But the long-awaited return of autumn and its cooler weather brings a sense of new possibilities revealed in the concluding lines:

Let us leave this house
and mark our time on some other ground

Let us pack from this space
only those words that fit

and fashion others from fall shades
turning new to our eyes

Let us seek the heart of woods
and drink clear quickness there

Let us gather branches that will not hold
and learn from them

that the flesh too will not wait.

Sometimes Blanchard hides behind his classical education with intellectual allusions in crafting his poems, yet of the fifty-three pieces in this collection, “Promise” and “Autumn Comes in the Deep South” are perhaps the most personal. Blanchard describes “Promise” as “a touching aubade addressed to my son, three years old at the time, and occasioned by our first fishing trip together.” Like in “Autumn,” in “Promise” there is a sense of being haunted by death—this time, the memory of Blanchard’s deceased father. Yet, as with “Autumn,” there is something spiritual and uplifting, especially in the lines addressing his son directly. Deeper and more complex than an Andy and Opie moment, the exchange makes use of a conceit of fishing metaphors to explore and describe the relationship between father and son and to reveal the poet’s acute self-consciousness having become both father and son himself:

I can remember finding my own father once
or since the memory is like a dream
perhaps more often
at a time like this

drinking coffee in the dark
oddly at comfort in his easy chair.
Perhaps those were also Saturday mornings
when he had promised as I have you

to find a pond off some never-traveled road
where fish swim beneath the scaly brightness
cast on water by a risen sun
move among rocks and logs and fallen limbs

silent as secrets never told
at a depth hidden
but known to an angler’s sense
where those secrets may be caught

by faith, skill, or just blind luck
if only for a moment
jerking wild, silver, and brilliant.

The poems are not presented in order of their composition but arranged in four sections based on a similar general theme. In fact, the concluding poem (“And Was the Day a Success?”) is the oldest one in the collection. Written during Blanchard’s student days at Virginia, he explains that its inclusion is a tribute to some of his earliest influences as a writer, most notably William Carlos Williams, and its placement suggests that this latest phase of his career as a poet is ending just where it began.

The book’s title and the cover image are derived from the poem “Naming the Silence,” in which the poet reflects on the stillness of two wooden boats on a lake after a rain storm compared to sounds of the preceding tempest:

If I could be here
I would listen
not for the sounds that beg attention
the thunder of noon’s fierce storm
or night’s raucous descent

but the name echoed
by wooden boats on calm water
after a rain
no one in them
and no one to see.

In this poem and throughout the collection, Blanchard defines the role of poet as a sensitive listener and conscientious observer, attending to the details of the objective landscape, while reflecting on life’s experiences to discern their deeper meaning.

Indeed, for this poet, silence is akin to the great void of Genesis out of which all creation was called to be. The poem “Antiphon: A Poem for Two Voices,” with its interlinear allusions to the opening verses of the Gospel of John, makes that point:

And before the word was silence

a word at the origin of words
like the origin itself

before creation tumbled like diamonds
from the mind of God

or the words let there be
fell from the Creator’s mouth

like stars chiseled
from the quarry of night.

In addition to mindfulness and a keen observation of the details of the physical world, Blanchard’s work suggests three other faculties requisite for the poet. In “Reality in 3 Acts,” he assigns co-starring roles to dream, memory, and imagination in the drama of artistic creation.

Blanchard consistently displays an ease with poems in both short and long form and reveals a practiced command of nuanced phrasing, versification, and evocative imagery. While the works might be somewhat more formal in style than those of many of his contemporaries, there is no dominant or predetermined verse form here. Instead, Blanchard stated that he allowed “the resulting prosody to emerge organically from the theme and mood of each poem, as if I were listening to the poem and allowing it to come to life, take shape, and mature on its own terms.”

The themes, however, are consistent throughout. One of those is the need or desire to identify and name the latent fears of childhood which can haunt us into adulthood. In “Berry-Picking,” Blanchard reminisces about a boyhood episode when he and three friends on a blackberry picking expedition encountered a rattlesnake on their trail:

Always I want to return
to that hissing in the leaves
to pull fear out from a place

far behind the eyes
where all images
of serpents dark and tense

lie coiled upon themselves
remembered, unknown.

“Spiders” is about being awakened in the middle of the night to kill a spider which has frightened the woman who was his wife at the time.

We cannot see
things as they are,
only dream can name fear for us
spiders or thin webs of night.

And, in the poem “Dueños y Sueños,” composed in Spanish, he asks:

Who is the owner of my dreams?
Who holds the key to the apartment
where I sleep?

When I sleep
who collects the rent
for the night?

It is a child
whose darkest fear
is still outside the window.

(translated from the Spanish by the author in the collection)

As might be expected for a poet who has worked for so many years with hospice patients and their families, the themes of death and loss are prevalent here also. Those notes are sounded most directly perhaps in the poem “Elegy”:

What is gone is
least dispossessed often

as if the dispossession
now possesses.

And in “Good Wood,” the tribute to the Baton Rouge neighborhood where he was raised:

Acorns once fell from oaks
now like an enclave of long-married
couples whose child-bearing days
are in the past and whose
grandchildren rarely visit

in the yard of the house
where I grew up.

Blanchard is a Louisiana native and a graduate of the University of Virginia. He earned an M. A. from Indiana University and completed additional graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has taught literature and creative writing at Troy University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and the University of Louisiana. For over twenty years, he has also been an advocate for compassionate care of the dying through his work with hospice organizations in Louisiana and North Carolina.

About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro is an honors graduate of The University of Alabama Law School, where she became the first female partner in a prestigious Sarasota, Florida law firm. After a decade of lawyering, Claire taught at Florida State University College of Law and spent one long, cold winter as a visiting legal writing professor at the University of Oregon.  Her books are: Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine(2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley(2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow, and Trouble in Tallahassee (2018 KaliOka Press). Coming in Spring of 2019: Privilege (Moonshine Cove), a steamy legal thriller noir set on the Gulf coast of Florida. She recently finished polishing Wayward Girls–a manuscript she co-wrote with Dr. Penny Koepsel–and awaits the happy news when her agent, the great, fun, funny, and radically energetic Liza Fleissig, places it with the right publisher. Follow her at  http://www.clairematturro.com and https://www.facebook.com/authorclairematturro

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM SOUTHERN LITERARY REVIEW

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