These four sections of 53 poems by Jeff Gundy include poems which are variously titled as meditations, mumbles, warnings, explanations and epiphanies—mixed in with numerous "ancient themes." The opening poem, "Deerfly"sets up the poet's stance. The poem's voice has assumed various forms of experience—once a water lily, then the sun, the path and even Jeff—adaptations for ways of knowing. Finally, the persona was a deerfly, we assume for this collection, since this is the introductory poem, an invitation like Frost's "going out to clean the pasture spring." The invitation offered here by the poet is to come along to watch the deerfly at work: "When I was a deerfly I zoomed around everybody's head, as if I/ could persuade them my troubles were their own" (16).
Gundy's poetry, like the openly curious first book called Inquiries, is about the human capacity for knowing, how things work, what we can know, what we can't know, and the poet's fascination with that pursuit. The tone of Inquiries was that of a laughing philosopher, intrigued and drawn in by the unknowable and the serendipity of what can be known through this quirky existence. Deerflies offers a more tired and grizzled eye about the human pursuit of the unknowable. One has the sense that the poet has aged, grown more cynical about knowing; there is more mumbling and complaining. Yet, the poems are determined to keep at it: "Now, I know/my soul-bird is a penguin, stupid/but an excellent swimmer" (19) in "Brief History of Life."
One could catalog the diverse poems in this collection in various ways. There are the many poems that are inquiries. There are the dream-poems in which the poet ruminates in a trance. There are the crazy poems of wild juxtaposition—a hallmark of Gundy's—like his "Impersonations of an Ordinary Woman," after Elizabeth Bishop: "My underwear was filled/ with little bits of straw—it makes one feel/like Miss Wisconsin" (51). There are war/peace poems like "Epiphany with Sirens": "Will we ever be safe? Not in this world" (79).
There are the confessional poems like one of those seven on "ancient themes," this one to the poet's first teacher: "Yes this is personal, hard as the pine tables of that long-gone/basement room where you broke every chunk of my soul/ you could reach" (53). There are the "domestic" poems like "Crawl Space," a prose poem about the family hamsters, which elicits well the poet's angst in this collection and provides a fitting thematic question in its opening segment: "Even the stupid hamster has fallen asleep, wearied at last of pushing at the top of her cage, the clank, clank of her efforts just an echo in my whirly head. I can't sleep tonight. Isn't that what I want, to push out through the wire mesh, burst the earthly bond, float free in the soupy whirls of love" (65). That question is quintessential Gundy: The world is too much with us. How can we escape to freedom?
The poet remains throughout the persistent, troubling deerfly practicing the poetic formula established in that first poem. "White Chicken," a reference to "The Red Wheelbarrow" and modern angst provides the poet's own deconstruction of his poetic practice and the deerfly approach: "Who needs more about art about art, coy in-jokes/about one's friends and friendly enemies, all so safe and cozy/here in the warm heart of the Empire. No, it's just me again,/overcome by ressentiment, trapped into apologizing for my feelings/just because they're irrational" (96). The poet's rant here, like Lowell's confessional voice admits that he is sick of self. Disgusted, the poet notes that his life is less dismal than he deserves, the gesture is all that he trusts, all stylish and scenic and phony. Self-mocking, he admits that this is the part where (in the poet's own characteristic way of making poems) the poet would tell of chickens he has known—"thousands, I picked their eggs up/ three at a time, four sometimes, and filled flat after cardboard flat/ with them, I herded white chickens into nets and cages and caught them/by their scaly legs and handed them to my father or my grandfather/ who pulled the hot knife down on their homicidal beaks,"(97). It goes on. And it is, ultimately, the poet's self-recognition as privileged contemporary thinker, angst-filled, guilt-ridden, tired of his own gestures toward meaning, but unable to resist the effort. "White Chicken" is a great poem, at once taking on the history of American poetry and incorporating the cultural folk story of everybody's grandfather: "you think you got it bad . . . listen to this!"
This book's poems are filled with the crazy tension of tracking the world for meaning, with a particular knack for finding its troubled underbelly, a la the deerfly, all the while completely self-conscious as a poetic voice, trying to resist the human need to symbolize, make meaning. For example, "Letter to John from R.,"—presumably from Ragdale—"For hours we stay in our rooms,/while the Hispanic gardeners clip and rake/in their red jackets. This is not metaphor" (68). That is Gundy's problem. The world is not metaphor. It is real. It troubles him.
And belief is so hard. But sometimes neither Gundy nor the reader can resist. A lyric poem results one morning when the black flies sleep. The poet breaks free from the mode of the deerfly troubling the world to heed God's commandment to "hold this day like an egg, hold and cherish it as you dream of being touched yourself"(70) . But paradise through God's voice becomes paradox in the voice of the poet:
God says all this has been given you,
the whine of the crane and the whir of engines
pulling tired women to their bad jobs
and the drumlin where the last glacier
gave up its journey and grumbled away.
God says remember, God says
don't give up. God says give up. (71)
—Or is it paradox? Perhaps rather the gift of the poet, redefinition. For a moment, relief. For a moment, meaning. Don't turn the page.