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Life Lines 

Seasoned poet John Engels harvests a half century of verse

It's really strange to pick that thing up and hold it in my hand and see embalmed in there my emotional history, almost 50 years," poet John Engels says of his new collected works, Recounting the Seasons. "If I'm not careful, I look at it as a summing up. I've really got to watch that."

Not many poets earn the privilege of publishing a hefty volume of collected works -- 600 pages in Engels' case, with selections from 11 previously published volumes and a couple dozen new poems to round out the picture. The 74-year-old St. Michael's College professor has published in Harper's and The New Yorker, been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and earned support from Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Rockefeller fellowships and the National Endowment for the Arts. In the Foreword to Recounting the Seasons, University of Vermont professor David Huddle calls Engels a "master you may never have heard of" for whom "language performs . . . in ways it won't for other poets."

Yet "I always think after every book that I'll never write again," Engels says. It's not just a matter of writer's block. As his collection's title suggests, Engels' poems return again and again to a motif of cycle and flux, in which a seemingly dead winter gives way inevitably, and yet always amazingly, to a fruitful spring. To create, Engels suggests, one must have the resourcefulness to weather that winter: "There comes a moment in the process of a poem where you're flooded by silence," he says. "Everything is potential. You have no idea what's going to happen. All you know is there's an energy there waiting to be formulated, to be given a shape."

The shapes that emerge from Engels' free verse are as various as the world itself, or what he calls in "Adam Awakening & Thinking of the Garden" the "glorious mess of the contingent." Their subjects range from death, apocalypse and resurrection to a recipe for "Cranberry-Orange Relish" and advice on tying a salmon fly. Their speakers include Van Gogh and Mahler, Adam and Eve. But the voice is generally that of the poet himself, and the mood is often one of contemplation. Things that are "contingent" are subject to chance and change, from the salmon hooked by the fly to the white pine "killed by road salt" to the human being who must someday die. Engels' speakers confront that common fate as they experience the world, often presented in the microcosm of a small, domestic space like a garden.

Engels lives on Shelburne Street, in the thick of Burlington commuter traffic, with his wife. Screened by cedars, the house feels secluded. In the poem "My Mother's Heritage," Engels writes lovingly of his mother's taste in interior decor: "you gave me over / helpless to motley and gorgeous / scatterings of stuff." With its walls covered in family photos and artwork, its Persian rugs and cabinets of glassware, his home reflects the same preference for keeping "every corner / forever beautifully unsquare."

One of the wall decorations is a framed set of intricate salmon flies that Engels created from feathers he's been amassing for almost 60 years -- gorgeous combinations of blood-red, peacock-blue, russet brown. Back problems have made it difficult for Engels to fish, "which used to be pretty much the center of my existence," he says. So tying flies has become a "passion."

"It's like writing poems," he explains. "You're always fitting little things together. Every time you begin you think you can't finish it, and when you finish it it's unsatisfactory." Are the flies designed to attract fish? Engels chuckles: "To attract me." Fish, he points out, can be caught with far simpler lures, but in this, as in poetry, sometimes complexity is its own reward.

Selecting the pieces for this collection was eye-opening. Going over 40-year-old poems with his editor, Engels says, he found that they "did not seem to have any connection with anybody I knew." His early poems felt as if they had been "written by an impostor, some young person who had adopted my personality for a time."

Nonetheless, from the outside, Engels' career seems to exhibit a fair bit of continuity. He was born in 1931 in South Bend, Indiana, where his father taught English at the University of Notre Dame. Both parents published poems; Engels says that poetry was "in the air," and supportive teachers reinforced his early efforts. He graduated from Notre Dame, spent three years in the Navy, and studied in Ireland and at the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Engels recalls that when he came to Iowa, his poetry "was wild stuff, crazy, but very exciting, exhilarating. None of it survived, thank God. In the workshops, the emphasis was on conventional forms. It was the tail end of the so-called academic poetry." The style of his early published poems was accordingly buttoned down, using rhyme and metrical schemes. "Then I decided I was feeling constrained, and I deliberately set out to loosen things up," says Engels.

He describes his second collection, Signals from the Safety Coffin, as "the result of an emotional blow-up." Engels wrote the book after losing both his mother and an infant son. In retrospect, it's his least favorite of his books; he prefers the quieter poems that followed in Blood Mountain and his favorite collection, Vivaldi in Early Fall. In his later poems, he says, "I've worked to write as plainly and directly as possible, in more of a conversational mode." He cites Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur as inspirations, if not direct influences.

After a teaching stint in Wisconsin, Engels came to St. Michael's College in 1964. The job proved to be a great fit. While health problems may force him to retire -- he had a slight stroke in February -- he's "not looking forward to it," he says. "I'll try to teach a class or two as long as I can." He describes St. Mike's as "a stimulating place to be" and says of teaching, "I like being with these youngsters. I like their excitement at coming to new understanding."

At the same time, Engels acknowledges that he's seen "terrible changes" over the years. "The big issue now is that even my very best students have not done the kind of reading that my generation did, because there are too many distractions," he explains. "Nobody teaches poetry anymore, except sort of incidentally." Despite their lack of preparation, he finds his students "very receptive. They know where the gaps are and try very hard to make up for them."

Since coming to Vermont, Engels has lived in just three houses. One of them, in Williston, provided the richly detailed natural setting for the poems in volumes such as The Seasons in Vermont and Weather-Fear. In "The Cold in This Place," the poet comes on some cellar holes in the woods near Lincoln and imagines the lives of early Vermont settlers:

. . . the cold rising

and flowering on their windows, each winter seeming

never to have been before, beyond cold even . . .

[. . .]

. . . each morning at dawn

the sun shattered into

rosy flakes of cloud, and the fields

pink and salmon between them and the bitter

mountains.

In Vermont, the caprices of weather can't be ignored, says Engels. "It so determines your feelings, your moods, your responses to the world." Talking to his daughter, who lives in mild Los Angeles, he's "often wondered what that kind of weather does to poets."

The title of this collection, Recounting the Seasons, is also the name of a poem in Engels' previous book, 2001's House and Garden, which "was organized on a seasonal basis," he says. The conceit of that book is one of "Adam and Eve speaking, beginning before the Garden and ending up living in a house in Burlington, just like this."

Adam and Eve in Burlington? Engels says House and Garden reflects the experience of divorcing his first wife, with whom he was married for 40 years, and had five children. "That's a book about being together and being unable to speak to one another. Never does Adam speak to Eve or she to him."

Yet in Engels' poems both Adam and Eve maintain an intense, ongoing relationship with the natural world. Adam's Biblical charge, after all, was to give a name to everything in nature, much as does the poet. In the poem "Adam Thinking Back," Engels has Adam say of the Fall, "We've lost / the kingdom, but borne away / this greatest of its treasures."

What does this mean? Engels suggests, "We've taken away a capacity for hope, for aspiration, that simply would not have been a part of life in the Garden, because everything was there. There was nothing to want, nothing to hope for; everything was given." While this explanation may not be "theologically sound," he admits, "I think maybe the human sense of loss is in a way our greatest treasure. It's out of this that all art comes. We're trying to replace something that we've lost and that we know we can never have again."

When it's successful, a poem creates connection. "Art is the one human undertaking that demonstrates to us that we have a capacity to speak and be understood and to be spoken to and understand. We make from our opaque little beings these objects and we present them to the community in the hope that the community will say, 'Yes, that's the way it is for me, too. I just never knew the name of it before.'"

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Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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