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Poetry Review: "This Wild Joy That Thrills Outside the Law" by Bill Van Buskirk

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Earlier this month, the Mad Poets Society announced the award of its inaugural Joie De Vive Book Award to Bill Van Buskirk for his collection of Bill Van Buskirkpoems, This Wild Joy That Thrills Outside the Law. Selected by renowned poet and editor Louis McKee, This Wild Joy is a mature, cohesive, well-crafted collection exploring ancestry, identity, relationships, and how these three elements shift and change across one man’s lifetime.  

Van Buskirk’s poems vary in form and style—from compact lyrics to broad narratives that span decades. He contemplates heritage, not only as it comes from father and grandfather, but from cultural figures like Charles Bukowski, Elvis and Michelangelo. He is also mindful of his own impact on the young men in his life, and their impact on him.

So central is the theme of ancestry to Van Buskirk’s collection that the poems themselves have a sort of lineage. For instance, “Requiem for a Lightweight,” about a man fighting to retain the dignity of his boxing days, mimics the structure of “Naming the Heart,” which appears earlier in the collection. That earlier poem is something of a love poem to the cliché of love poems; it is about the foibles of language (and life) and how we succumb knowing full well that they are foibles, as in the following lines:

            An editor once told me

to lock you out of every poem—

that nothing original can be said about you anymore.

I call you exile.

I call you darkening wood.

By taking its form from “Naming the Heart,” “Requiem” becomes like a child born with characteristic features. And it holds up to that legacy, subtly assuming its predecessor’s passion, contradiction, power and devotion. 

Van Buskirk creates similar poetic lineage between “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and “Matthew Gandalf.” In the former, the speaker addresses his father (presumably):  “Your life’s project was to freeze yourself./ Mine is to find a way to melt[….]”  Then, later in the collection, contemplating the birth and immediate death of his unplanned son Matthew Gandalf, the speaker explains: “You see, at the time I had this project.../ I was building a world out of icicles[….]”  These poems are separated by several pages and other poems within the book, and it is unclear from their contexts how near or far they are supposed to be chronologically. But it is clear that the poems are related, just as these generations of men are related, just as the speaker has inherited his father’s emotional steel.

This collection is full of emotionally powerful, finely crafted poems.  But Van Buskirk is at his best when he’s giving it to us honest and straightforward in first person narratives like “Matthew Gandalf” or “Transactions.” In these poems, he is honest, self-effacing, and three-dimensional. “Transactions” is a poem about the various uncomfortable, but commonplace, interactions between a man and his father. Here, Van Buskirk neither reveres nor reviles the father; he doesn’t demonize or martyr himself. The speaker makes clear that the tension came from both sides of the father/son relationship in a way that is humble and self-aware. 

Likewise, “Matthew Gandalf” is almost disconcerting in its honesty.  Whereas the poem—about the death of a newborn—could become maudlin or cliché in the hands of a lesser poet, Van Buskirk seems to have tapped a hard emotional truth. Knowing that he was ill-prepared to be a father, the speaker suggests that the child is better off having died: “I handled you like a live grenade./ Then you did the smart thing--/ exploded from this world [….]” He seems clearly relieved by the child’s death, though not entirely unapologetic or dismissive. He doesn’t revel in the overly sentimental “what could have beens” but does seem to care that he might have been of some use to his fleeting child. 

This Wild Joy is not without its pitfalls. Whereas Van Buskirk’s first person narratives draw me in with their intimate honesty, he often zooms out to a 2nd or 3rd person point of view that feels very distant from the heart in those poems. The single most off-putting element of the collection is the lack of clarity in some of the earliest poems, like “Blackjack” and “Altar Boy.” In these poems, among others, the speaker refers to “he” without ever really clarifying who “he” is. Van Buskirk establishes at the outset, with the very first poem, that this is a collection about ancestry, about where one comes from and where one is going. But then he later leaves the reader to wonder where in the family tree these stories are nested. While the meaning or truth of the poems may be the same regardless of whom they are about, I generally consider a cryptic, unnamed “he” an unfair secret that the poet is keeping from the reader.  Unfortunately, this collection has more than a few of these secrets. 

All in all, Bill Van Buskirk’s This Wild Joy That Thrills Outside the Law is a joy to read—a fine collection from a fine poet. The Mad Poets Society will release the book later this summer, with a launch and awards ceremony to be announced. I’m looking forward to it.

For more information, check out www.madpoetssociety.com.