Jeff Gundy’s beautiful and intelligent new book of poems and prose poems is first a meditation on opposites and our
attempts to reconcile them: men and women, heaven and earth, yearning and consummation, red meat and veggie lasagna,
road and home. The overarching tension in the book, though, is between temptation and duty, Robert Frost’s dark and
lovely woods and his promises to keep.
How many times, Gundy asks rhetorically late in the book,
have I made that old
round through desire/and propriety (63).
The images of desire in the first section of the book are women: strangers, friends, waitresses, young girls screaming on a
playground. Even the speaker’s wife in
Day with Ducks, Sun, Eyes surprises him as an exotic other when their eyes meet
unexpectedly one morning in bed. In
Rain Gundy argues that
it’s not beauty or nostalgia or even lust/that’s got me, I
don’t know what it is,(7) and he’s right. Lust is only a side issue, not really the major theme. The women in the poems are
good, natural figures—dazzling, smiling, powerful—but mostly physically removed in distance or time, more beings on
which to meditate than temptresses. The real siren here is one familiar to Mennonites: the world itself. The desire of the
how to make the world love me even though he knows
It will never be enough (17).
Old Water this temptation takes a feminine voice, that of the
intimate water in a lake where the speaker is swimming
You could be so free, it whispered.
You could be so good.
I could not speak—and yet
I said, Not this way. I said
Not this time. What did I mean?
I could barely think of apples and children,
another life, and then the voice... All right.
All right. You won’t go far.
Do I remember
after that? Mud, the hard sticks,
light splayed along the surface. Damp clothes
and my hands among them. Then traffic
and trees and this step, that step, thin
rusty slats of the stairs leading down.
So it’s all about God, is it, or else not,
or else it’s me and the stream I yearn toward
day and night, hour and year,
the stream I can hear and almost see
as two lovely women swing past
on the other trail.
They do not see me
and I let them go. But oh,
the beautiful saunter
of those women deep in their talk. (22-23)
Duty wins here, but it’s a closely fought thing. This may not be a uniquely Mennonite struggle, but it is one that speaks
clearly to us. We live in the world, these poems say, there’s no going back. How, then, should we live there? The book’s
first, tentative answer in section one is a typically Anabaptist one. In
The Sadness of Water and Women the answer to
what to do is
declare survive suppose
adjust hush (21)
In other words, lay low.
Half of the poems in this book are written
out there in the world, literally on the road. The speaker is nearly always
driving alone, crossing and re-crossing rivers and borders. And it’s dangerous out there, too. One of the book’s recurring
images is the head-on collision that is
Not even temptation, just a chance/I know is there (12). Other times the danger is
something not so violent, but darker in spirit. In the book’s title poem, the speaker is on the road where
A man pours beer and brags
of the tank he drove into the desert. Two million bucks.
So much easier to blow things up than get them right,
a marriage, a country, a small town forty miles
from the nearest beer. It isn’t just this poem
that’s loose, gliding from scenery to disaster,
floating through the gorgeous, deadly world.
It’s not just me. Say what you will about the dark—
it won’t leave you contented, or alone. It saunters
at its own pace down the long bluff, up the streets
of the finest little town in Arkansas. I’m trying
[stanza break in the poem]
to remember where the keys are, which road I’ll take
out of town. Remembering a voice: I’m tired, yes
The boys are fine. Call Tuesday. Bring yourself home.(26)
One answer to the dangers of the road, then, is simply (or not so simply) to go home—to kids, wife, town, burgers on the
grill. But just getting home isn’t all these poems want to do. There’s beauty on the road that has to be accounted for, the
Kentucky hills where
desire is the woven body of the world, there in every tree, every blade of grass, every wildflower
and crushed armadillo (33). Even Fort Wayne, Indiana on a rainy night can shimmer:
And what could be a light or a whole new space blossoms out between the ground and the clouds ahead, a wide orange glow and of course it’s the lights of Fort Wayne and a hundred thousand of us swirling all around on the surface of the earth, nothing so special, unless it’s you.
And was I just awe-struck, was I just frozen, was I just taken, was I just awakened. Was I just heading steady, steady, steady down the road.
When the rain stops it’s as though the world makes sense. When the rain stops I’m ready to quit worrying that these cars are filled with drunks and dopers, splashing through the dark.... (44)
Later in the book Gundy asks—again rhetorically—
Can you live in two worlds if you’re not ashamed of either? (77) The
ultimate answer to that question, to the problem of road and home and the problem of all the poles and opposites of the
book—is finally to accept that they aren’t opposites, but more like rivers and roads that merge together. In
poem exactly in the center of this collection, the world is a grand equilibrium. Gravity, the
beautiful necessity, everything
I hate and need desperately, holds the world’s
radiance and grief, its darkness and dazzle, its words and flesh, its
What do we have but the suck of the world? Sunlight and words and the muscles and tubes of these fleshy hunks we ride like angry ghosts. Words are no more free than golden birds. The emperor is dead, and eternal. Long live gravity. Long live the whirring world. (47)
What we can do, finally, is claim the paradox and go steady, steady, steady down the road with as much joy and grace as we can muster. The questions don’t go away; desire is never vanquished in these poems, but subsumed, encircled, accepted.
If the book’s initial questions seem to echo those of Robert Frost, Rhapsody with Dark Matter’s answers are closer to those
of another poet of rural life, William Stafford. Gundy quotes Stafford in an epigraph to the book’s final poem,
with Daily Life.
God is not big, he is right, says Stafford as if some imaginary questioner had phrased the question
about God’s power in the wrong terms. That seems the right stance toward questions and definitions for ending of this
book. The world isn’t evil or good, just big and tragic and beautiful all at once. Nobody writes about the Midwest and small
town life with such hard-won satisfaction and lyricism as Jeff Gundy, and the final poem is one of the most beautiful in the
book. This is the last half of the poem:
I’m not milkweed
or thistle or three-leaf ivy
though like them I live my other,
daily life. Now here we are.
The thistles don’t care. The grass
tries one way, then another,
then just stays. I can’t help
it, I love this place. I leave.
Tonight we will sleep in the daily bed,
trees breathing near the window,
the two of us inside, steady
in the tall sweet grass. (88)
The issue of Mennonites’ own problems with polarity and unity, desire and duty, isn’t the main thrust of Rhapsody with
Dark Matter, but it’s impossible in a review for a Mennonite publication to ignore one last poem—Gundy’s wonderful,
only half-sarcastic anthem,
The Cookie Poem where every time the poem says
cookies, we’re obviously meant to read
Mennonites. Here are the poem’s first and third stanzas:
The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.
The broken sweet cookies. The cookies
of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies
of Palestine. The gummy and delicious
olive and honey cookie. The pasty
damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand....
The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. the wild-eyed
cookie of Muenster. the salty Atlantic cookie.
Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,
in business suits, cookies in bonnets
and coverings and heels, cookies scratching
their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly
and shamelessly naked before the beloved. (52)
This goes on for forty more lines through cookies
with issues to
single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color until
finally all are
God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies
marked each one by the Imago Dei,
oh the Father the Son the Mother the Daughter
and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,
love all cookies, God’s mouth is full
of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings
hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly
everywhere, oh God loves us all. (53)
What is there to say to that but Amen?