David Axelrod’s new collection of poems, Folly, is perhaps his most personal, vivid and honest work to date. Taking Desderius Erasmus as his noble guide, Axelrod follows the road of folly, error and ignorance that constitute our common life. Along the way we meet Dostoyevsky while Nordic skiing, get a haircut, watch a divorced woman and her daughter fly kites, hold a crippled bird in our hands, consider the virtue of shovels and the perversity of old chainsaws, cross a river with Basho, and blow up an oven heating bagels. Striking notes of real praise alongside bewilderment, this new collection from the author of What Next Old Knife?, reminds us over and over of our privilege and reverence for this existence and our “dumb luck.”
“Dumbfounded by the improbability of being,” the figure of the fool on his or her joyous and hapless journey through life can be associated with any number of anti-heroes: Dionysus, Don Quixote, Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, the king’s jester who is both clownish and wise. In Folly, David Axelrod’s marvelous new book of poems, the fool at mid-life speaks of the human enterprise with mockery and tenderness, making us both laugh out loud and, in turn, see ourselves more truly. His haplessness links us to earth. His madness links us to the divine.
The poems in David Axelrod’s Folly chart the wild landscapes of eastern Oregon, where the poet has shoveled out a life in the shadow of the Blue Mountains, whose hillsides and trails he has tramped, whose sky he has labored beneath. I’m drawn to their imagery and clear language, and the hand of a practical philosophy opening its rough palm under their winter sun.
Before you is a book of origins powered by an unapologetic, fiercely introspective, philosophical heart. Anchored by a reverence for the natural world, moored to landscapes both real and imagined, and tempered by a complicated interrogation of the political, Folly marks the finest publication by an already wise and accomplished poet.
About the Author
David Axelrod has published seven collections of poems, most recently, What Next, Old Knife? also from Lost Horse Press, and a collection of non-fiction, Troubled Intimacies. He teaches at Eastern Oregon University, where he directs the Ars Poetica Lecture Series and edits—along with Jodi Varon—the award-winning basalt: a journal of fine and literary arts. In addition, he is the co-director of the EOU low-residency MFA. He is currently at work on new collections of poems and essays, as well as editing a new edition of the poems of the late Walt Pavlich.
FOLLY by David Axelrod
Reviewed by James Crews
THE RUMPUS • May 21st, 2014
The sections of David Axelrod’s latest collection of poetry, Folly, are each set off with epigraphs drawn from In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536). It’s no accident that Axelrod has chosen the words of this Dutch humanist, priest, and social critic to frame his exquisite poems, since this book is nothing if not a full interrogation of the author’s and our own human confusions as we tangle with systems of faith that are inadequate in the face of so many disappointments and mysteries. As in his past work, Axelrod is still asking the most essential questions: “All this going to sleep and then/waking up, what does it come to?”
Though many of these poems are odes to the transience of our lives, showing us a retired sawyer next door breathing his last breaths, or eulogizing the old porcelain stove that finally blew up, Axelrod nonetheless strikes a balance between the sometimes stark realities we encounter and those few small moments that make it all worthwhile. Whether he’s making love at the Day’s End Motel, contemplating “the juicy flesh of Brandywine tomatoes” or leaving behind those apples that “remain always just out of reach” as a kind of “tithe” for the bounty he’s already picked, this speaker knows how to tease transcendence out of even the worst circumstances. “In This Room of Imperfect Forms” finds the poet visiting his childhood neighbors who, though now ill, have managed to outlive their son. Axelrod does his best to make sense of this and his own unearned grace:
I’m assured we’re more alive here
than the bloodless, eternal horde that haunts the heights,
where a bush burns but isn’t consumed,
as though that were the miracle, an ideal
form worthy of the ill-defined shadows
cast by divine light–I mean us,
we three, miserable, unforgiven
and perishing shadows of human fools,
laughing out loud at our dumb luck.
Notice how Axelrod says they are “ill-defined” and then “perishing shadows,” implying that the only way to truly appreciate our “dumb luck” is to remember that ours too will someday run out. Though he might humbly cast himself as a “fool,” Axelrod’s intellectual rigor and willingness to engage with the darker sides of humanity have kept me reading and admiring his poems for many years now. It would be easier as an artist, after all, to gloss over the ignorance and cruelty that punctuate our days with an empty, hollow praise. But it takes someone far braver to place hope and despair alongside one another as two sides of the same coin, and to claim them as his constant currency. In fact, his poem, “After Re-reading The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton” reminds us how heartless even Bashō can seem when he encounters a starving child and “gives what food he has and departs/without so much as a word of regret.” Something about that scene of the child left to die keeps gnawing at Axelrod, though he asks himself the inevitable question:
Do I believe that child is the only one
ever to die like that, a rare event
as if justice was the common bread we break,
and pity wasn’t powerless?
He articulates here and elsewhere what most of us would like to believe, that a tragic death like this child’s is the exception rather than the rule, even though many of us (myself included) often speed by the homeless and suffering each day without so much as a glance back. Axelrod ultimately admits that nothing he can do will redeem that child’s death or the plight of others left to starve and die alone, though we sense again his honest confusion when he writes of the safety and comfort of his own home, “Everything in the room glows with dusty light–/pine bookcase, oval jades, geraniums.” The central question of Folly seems to be: How do we make sense of our own good fortune and privilege while also encountering such suffering along the way? How do we process injustice so widespread and commonplace that we come upon it even in the works of a 17th Century Japanese poet?
Axelrod’s answer, then, is to “try to praise this mutilated world,” in the famous words of Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. Indeed, David Axelrod’s fierce and brutally realistic poems remind me over and over of those other great Polish poets of the twentieth century, Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz, who refused to keep silent about the historical moments they witnessed, yet also knew how to find the hidden, concrete, sometimes ironic beauty of everyday life. This same impulse is evident throughout Folly, and especially in the poem, “The Disquiet,” in which a maiden aunt “from Beyond the Pale” tracks down the poet. We are drawn into the memory with Axelrod, watching as she
. . . disembarks, out-at-the-elbows
in three layers of moth-eaten wool, slaps
her forehead, lifts her hands to the sky, pulls
my face down close to hers, and says, “Kinnehora!
After all the shit of the world, you’re still one of us.”
Like that aunt, each of these poems utter their own version of kinnehora, the Yiddish “curse in reverse,” said to ward off the evil eye. Though tragedy might strike at any moment, though life has scattered us across the globe, this poet urges us (for the time being) to seek out the earthly pleasures offered each day. Axelrod trains our gaze on the plainer, but no less astonishing things of this world, and he keeps us from getting mired in false hope by turning his attention toward both the suffering and the joy. There is no escaping the pain of being human, but as he writes in “After a Fast, in a Field of Germinated Wheat”: “How alive our bodies are! The ache is lasting and wonderful.”
James Crews’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Times Literary Supplement, Ploughshares, and other journals. His manuscript, The Book of What Stays, won the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. James lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Some apples remain always just out of reach
of three-legged ladders and our outstretched
hands, as in October, when yellow jackets growl
inside overripe fruit that never seems to fall,
no matter the wind. Russet globes hang in trees,
rusting, mushy, molding, but very sweet
under the skin, a drunken feast for those of us
who haven’t forgotten our wings nor how we use
these to fly. It’s not really a generous concession,
a tenth part, though it’s no less our boon when—
in the crowns of those trees in January,
sky low and bleak, nuthatch, waxwing, towhee,
and the loud, misanthropic jay, all hungry
vagrants of the snow, jabber as though at a Jubilee.
Excerpt: I Missed My Parents Today
Excerpt: Skiing with Dostoyevsky
Excerpt: How It Is With Human Beings
Excerpt: After A Fast, In A Field Of Germinated Wheat
Excerpt: Word All Over, Beautiful As Sky
Excerpt: Status Quo