Reviewed April 1, 2017 by Frank Montesonti.
When I think of the title Phantom Hour in my mind’s eye, I envision the hour before darkness where the world becomes ethereal, so crisp in color it borders the surreal, where it is its most vivid and graspable, yet teeters on the very edge of vanishing. James Meetze must inhabit this tenuous hour in his new collection, for it chronicles his father’s slow decline from Alzheimer’s disease. In terms of poetic projects, eulogy is one of our oldest poetic impulses. The Scops of Beowulf might bellow that the memories of the living are the only real bulwark against death. Meetze follows this ancient impulse. As the father’s memory fades, the son is consumed by the opposing urge to reconstruct family history in order to offer at least some measure against oblivion.
Yet, as a modern poet, Meetze knows the elegiac urge is complicated. Phantom Hour consists of two long poems. The first long poem “Dark Art” functions as a Dante-like prologue that explores the problems of meaning in art and representation in eulogy before the poet embarks on his journey to the underworld. “Dark Art” acknowledges how language is slippery and narratives have a way of taking on lives of their own, how dealing in “memory” is a problem in storytelling in general. The foremost issue is that language is ghostly; it does nothing but slip through our arms. Meetze establishes the trope of hauntings in the collection’s first poem:
Look, ghost, you too are legend, madman
a stanza in our larger story.
The words are only echoes returned
both origin and copy, body and shadow,
Eventually, the image wisps away, sings
and listens at each discreet transformation.
My prayer is narrative; it too is a form of song.
These hold together everything we remember.
In remembering one wants control, but the language we use is haunted by the past. Words are like ghosts obsessed with whatever preoccupations won’t let them rest. In each act of creation one must accept the necessary chaos of letting a new spirit free to wander the halls. In trying to reconstruct history this problem is especially apparent:
The specters of our past are with us to say.
In the oak, bare and crooked spoke
an historical man to me
of now and future history.
Do you pull a person from history or construct a history around a person? Or both? Eventually one must concede that this whole business of memory and narrative is a bit like magic. Like a magician making an assistant appear from behind a curtain, a person is invoked through magic words. Meetze uses magic as one of the first section’s main metaphors:
Stars pulled from the collapsible hat
become a bunny, or a lion, or an archer, then
everyone oohs and ahhhs.
Meetze has a little fun with human kind’s tendency toward magical thinking, ribbing the legend of Midas, “We can’t turn anything to gold/ so we keep looking up for it.” Midas is a symbol of the creative urge on overdrive, but at the same time he recognizes the productive space of nothingness from which art typically arises. “Poetry is the darkest art,” Meetze writes, “We are always in the process of/ not knowing.” It seems like a pessimistic philosophy, but it is not. Darkness and nothingness are the generative space from which art and knowledge spring. Meetze contemplates:
Silence is the place of true language
speaking with what breath all of us have
I sit here and say there, my tired heart
there are those words we know
and use only as incantations.
The words are only incantations, but incantations are powerful. They create something from nothing. Or to sum it up in a metaphor: “The story grows darker with the forest,/ The poem in the space between trees.”
It’s a double arrow — out of darkness knowledge springs, and into darkness memory fades. The first section of the book is a necessary philosophical set up for the second, for it reminds us that every act of oblivion is met with a contrapuntal beat of creation. In “Phantom Hour,” the slow decline of the father is met with an equal and opposite force: the desire of the son to hold on to the father’s memory, to see the poet’s self on the family tree as the paternal branch fades. Part of his project is historical. Meetze goes back in his family tree in an attempt to place his father and himself in a larger narrative:
The name is the connection but not the connectedness
is, in some small way, reverence.
This is a document intended to recover
and go home.
Through historical research the poet discovers the roots of his surname. He finds that his paternal ancestor was a Hessian soldier hired by Britain to fight in the Revolutionary War. He outlines his family’s long military history, most salient his father’s career as a naval officer. Climbing the family tree leads to meditations on war and violence. The decidedly less-militaristic son must come to terms with how war can’t be separated from his family history:
It is how my body knows
every America during war-time.
It is how I can preach, can plough, say gin, butcher’s knife, ballistic
missile defense, oarlocks, onboard engine, can say private listing, say
I lunge toward the past in this way
to know the story I wear.
If it doesn’t fit, can it be returned?
The answer to that rhetorical question is likely, no. History is compared to clothing, but also skin.
One prevailing metaphor in the collection is the idea of the “public face.” Meetze uses the plural pronoun: “This is our face. These are the last names and names are all we remember.” As “Dark Art” prophesizes, once these narratives are let loose they start to have a life of their own where they weave into the identity of the speaker. That weaving begins to happen in a pastiche of dictions. For example, Meetze mixes clinical and historical language.
Dementia is not always caused by the same disease. It is caused by Germans, mostly Hessian. It is confidently supposed it affects those ignorant of the English language generally spoken in America. Dementias can be classified by the character of the Americans. To make this fancied security in a variety of ways part of the brain is affected. The most incredible stories concerning the Americans get worse with time: progressive dementias are freely circulated about the Hessians. Dementias get worse with the British. (“Dementia has many causes” 2-9)
Naval terminology, historical oaths, church liturgy, German-American songs— various discourses form this “public face” that one is forced to wear. Encapsulating this idea Meetze writes, “Here, gradually the past enters/ indistinguishable from the now.”
Along with the historical exploration of family history, the book’s more straightforward project is a chronicle of the Father’s decline and meditations on the nature of forgetting. The collection examines a central paradox of memory: “Memory is the architect of forgetfulness.” One can forget only what one creates. The memory of the father slips as the son struggles to create and preserve. Meetze ponders his project: “It is, I guess, the reason, the writing, the writhing against this trajectory." Just because we are all destined to forget does not mean there is no point in the struggle. There is an artistic imperative in reflection that digs to a more existential level:
My patrilineal epode
the things I’m writing down so I don’t forget
when my time comes
I need to know
at what point
all of this
This is the kind of project we need poetry to take on. Death isn’t so simple. Phantom Hour isn’t just the time of setting, it is also a statement that our hours on this earth are ghostly. They have echoes and more echoes, which we need art to hear. Meetze writes: “The phantom is in the hour of the book, it is the book, and the work the words do in the absence of their author.” It’s wonderful to see this new collection by the talented Mr. Meetze. This is a mature work fully engaged in grappling with the high stakes of art. Poetry here isn’t an exercise, it is the intensely personal agency by which we struggle to know our loved ones and ourselves. I see the Phantom Hour as a time of the setting sun, but who is to say what is sunrise and what sunset when we stand on both sides of the world?