World, Perception, and Faith: A Review of Eric Pankey’s The Pear as One Example: New & Selected Poems 1984 – 2008

The Pear as One Example

The Pear as One Example, by Eric Pankey
(Ausable Press, 2008)

Eric Pankey’s The Pear as One Example: New & Selected Poems 1984 – 2008 (Ausable  Press, 2008) draws upon all seven of the poet’s previous collections as well as providing a generous selection of new work.  The appearance of this volume makes possible investigation of significant elements in Pankey’s poetry; this short review will focus briefly on three that seem of particular importance: the physical world, human perception, and the question of faith.

For Pankey, the world is too immense and too complex ever to be experienced except in fragmentary form; in his poetry, this idea manifests itself in the form of works that are very much image-driven,  to the extent that poems will sometimes consist simply of lists of images drawn from both the natural world and the realm of human experience.  A poem such as “Splendid Things” (p. 222) serves to illustrate. The poem  begins:

The word for rain, the words for autumn skies,
Still legible on burnt paper.
Twice the owl’s one note.  The dead of winter.

Figments and fragments.  An arrow’s release.

Here we find the natural world (the owl, winter) juxtaposed against the human (words, arrows), and in a few instances the two are fused (“The word for rain”).  Only the title “Splendid Things” provides a clue to the purpose of this grouping; nothing within the poem itself ever reveals that.  What about these things is “splendid” is left entirely to the reader to discern;  the juxtapositions themselves are intended to imply something about what makes these catalogued items “splendid.”  Further, the phrase “[f]igments and fragments” itself is indicative of Pankey’s frequent method in a substantial portion of his work; the poems which employ this technique consist in  a very real sense of fragments. a grouping of concrete elements — almost always sensory in nature —  which don’t initially always seem connected, and which at times appear random.  What relationships there are often are suggested only through implication and at best appear tentative, suggestive rather than certain.  The tentativeness and uncertainty are fundamental elements of Pankey’s work.

The fragmentary nature of the world as experienced is reinforced for Pankey by the limitations of human perception.  For instance, as the title poem of the collection “The Pear as One Example” (pp. 77 – 78) shows, one’s knowledge of the world is limited to surface appearances by the senses and even those aren’t entirely reliable:

Light, the common denominator,
Does not conceive, but cloaks and covers . . . .

The pear curves the lines the blinds let through.

Even when one can identify an external object through distorted light, there are still other limitations; touch, for instance, releases

A hint of honey and magnolia,

Grape and almond.  None of it the pear
But the otherness of the pear.

If something as simple as a pear is not fully knowable, then what of more complex subjects, such as “Eros”?

Is it the unknown made intimate,

Or the known masked by light’s flimsy veil?

But although the senses are limited in terms of allowing accurate knowledge of the external world, at least even through their ambiguities they can at least affirm the existence of a world outside and independent of the speaker.  ”The Plum on the Sill” (p. 60) illustrates this idea.  Although to the imagination, the plum may appear to be a planet, a complete world in and of itself, it isn’t:

The cold at its poles and blush
Of blue at its equator
Do not equal a planet.

The plum remains exactly what it is, regardless of what it’s perceived to be.  Human imagination and perception may be limited, but at least there is some kind of objective reality.

The problems of a fragmentary world and limited, even inaccurate, perception come into sharper focus when addressing what is perhaps the most central concern of Pankey’s work, the question of religious faith.  In the prose poem “Comes a Time” (p. 130), for instance, he raises the question of whether there “comes a time” when one is no longer content with the physical world or even the self:

I — that charred wick, that ruined column that once held up the world . . . .  Did you believe you were ever poor,
hungry for more than the little that filled you day to day?

There is a point at which there is a need for some kind of belief in something beyond both the self and the world.  Finding that which deserves to be believed in, however, is at best difficult.  In “The Coordinates” (p. 160), he indicates that it’s difficult to find something to believe in within the world accessible to the senses:

When did the mere sublime fall out of favor?
When did the ineffable lose the sacred?

Unlike poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge who could perceive or at least imagine a divine presence in the physical world, he can have at best only an occasional and fragmentary glimpse (“ragtag notes”) of such a presence; unlike them, for whom the wind was often an image of divine presence, for him the wind’s revelations are at best contradictory and fragmentary:

. . . I wasn’t going to mention the wind,

That ghost-driven given,dry, pollen-thick,
Everywhere at once, then nowhere, where it lives.

Even if one turns to the realm of revealed truth, the Bible, for instance, there are still difficulties in possessing faith, not least because the perceptible world at times appears to contradict the truths of revealed religion.  For instance, in “To Christ Our Lord” (p. 89) Pankey’s speaker describes the destruction by fire of brambles, seeds, and rye, then states that “[o]nly you” (i. e., Christ) would find pleasure in the vines which succeed that which is destroyed and in the “bitter smell” of smoke.  Further, the coming of fall will kill even those things which succeed those destroyed by fire, and even the moon looks away from such destruction.  But Christ will not because

You love all things equally
And that is your flaw.  Tell me,
What is loved compared to shame?

Christ is culpable of the destruction of living things because he allows some to be destroyed to bring others into existence.  Is a divinity which allows this sort of thing, the suffering and even death of the innocent,  worthy as an object of belief?  What the physical world shows challenges the truth of what faith reveals.  Ultimately, of course, faith is something that has to be based on the choice to believe rather than any evidence of the physical world or the senses, and even that is difficult.  In “If You Can” (p. 42), Pankey’s speaker addresses his daughter Clare, telling her that there are times when she will “bruise your heel . . . on a sharp rock,” and that nothing he does can prevent its happening.  He goes on to tell her that he had

[o]nce . . . believed I was saved

. . . . But saved by whom or for what
I don’t know.  But somehow I was.
If you can, please, believe.

Faith won’t prevent her from being injured, but it will “cushion[ ] the hurt” if she can manage to believe, and that is perhaps the best that can be hoped for.

The central portion of Pankey’s work, then, deals with issues of epistemological and spiritual uncertainty, of the difficult of knowing and believing; in this regard, his work resembles that of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, not stylistically but in that all three at times confront the problems associated with the difficulty of having faith.  Of course, Pankey’s work is not limited to this subject; his work exhibits a considerable variety; there are narrative pieces, some of which are clearly autobiographical, dramatic monologues with fictional characters (including a sequence centering on Shakespeare’s Prospero), and a number of longer poems, as well.  But his meditative lyrics are perhaps the core of his work and likely his most important; in them, he joins that relatively small group of contemporary poets — Mark Jarman, Vassar Miller, Andrew Hudgins, and Margaret Gibson, for instance — who seriously confront questions of religious faith in their works.

–Howard Miller