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In Memory of a Banyan Tree: Poems of the Outside World: 1985 to 2022
Three Wooden Trunks
The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Selected Poems
  George Looney

ISBN 978-0-9908193-4-9     $16  /  $20 (Canada)     5.5 x 8.5       

68 pp      
PUB DATE: Sept 2015       Poetry


George Looney’s Meditations Before the Windows Fail discovers that, in a world composed of loss, our task is two-fold: to translate the world into meaning, and to turn toward each other when that translation is found to be, as it always is, inadequate.


George Looney’s mastery of language and empathy are gifts to the reader in this unforgettable collection. A celebration of love and a balm for the broken hearted, Meditations Before the Windows Fail feels both personal and profound. One of the most passionate, sensitive, and moving books of contemporary poetry I’ve read in ages.

—Aimee Parkison, author of The Petals of Your Eyes

 Music haunts Meditations Before the Windows Fail. Jukeboxes and car radios, invisible violins, the voices of lovers, the voices that carry miles, the sad hotel strains of the world in which the lovers press together, their bodies following the music’s lead. There’s no small knowledge at work here in these poems: that the song isn’t called by the singer but the other way around, with light another leitmotif, fleshed and beckoned.

 —Robert Gibb, author of The Empty Room and Sheet Music

About the Author

George Looney

George Looney’s books include Structures the Wind Sings Through (a book-length poem, 2014), Monks Beginning to Waltz (2012), A Short Bestiary of Love and Madness (2011), Open Between Us (2010), The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels (2005), Attendant Ghosts (2000), Animals Housed in the Pleasure of Flesh (1995), and the novella Hymn of Ash (2008). He founded the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Penn State Erie and serves as editor-in-chief of the international literary journal Lake Effect, translation editor of Mid-American Review, and he is a co-founder of the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival.



Review by Mark Brazaitis
Meditations Before the Windows Fail
Poems by George Looney (Lost Horse Press, 2015)

It may be odd to say this about the poets Faith Shearin and George Looney, the former a Garrison Keillor “Writer’s Almanac” favorite, the latter the winner of several book-length poetry prizes, but here goes: they deeply deserve to be better known and more widely read.

This is true both because they are outstanding poets and because their poetry is the kind non-poets can read without feeling confused and frustrated.

. . . Turn to the last page of George Looney’s ninth book of poetry, Meditations Before the Windows Fail (Lost Horse Press, 2015), gaze at the author photo, and (mentally) remove his glasses. Do you see what I see? Does George Looney, via the magic of the mind and the words you’ve absorbed in the previous fifty-five pages, look a little like Marcus Aurelius? (Come on, they both have beards. . . .)

Like the Roman emperor in his Meditations, Looney is both gazing out at the world (and especially at a subtly changing sky) and within himself. He creates a compelling tension between the two perspectives. Readers sense he would like the sky to hold his complete attention, to dominate his eye and his imagination, but his mind, and particularly his memory, is too enticing a landscape. The poet notes the sky, but, although he remains in body to behold it, he is quick to journey into reveries about language, about time, about love and loss.

A reader can imagine Looney’s inspiration: each day, for fifty-one straight days, he sits in front of a window, gazing at the sky. Each day, soon thereafter or even in the moment, he records his experience in a poem: what he sees, what he thinks, what he remembers.

In lesser hands, the concept might prove dull, akin to a third-rate landscape painter painting the same garden day after day (look—there’s a bumblebee on the rose bush this morning!). But Looney’s are capable hands, and even as his (or his speaker’s) literal perception is limited to what’s outside the window, his philosophical and creative perception roams far, as in “The Glare Off These Panes”:

. . . Ghosts of
gulls strafe this window,
playful, intoxicated
by the pleasure of swooping
& careening. The way, in memory,
a lover’s lips move,
without sound, furtive, calming.

“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations. Looney isn’t quite so content to follow the emperor’s precursor to the Stephen Stills’ song “Love the One You’re With.” A number of the poems in Looney’s Meditations return to a pair of lovers in a hotel room, possibly the poet and his beloved. Is it a memory? A fantasy? Are the lovers in a hotel room because their love is extramarital? Or is the hotel simply a convenient midpoint between the lives they must lead separately?

We don’t know, and we don’t need to. The lovers in Looney’s poems function in several ways, one of which is as a counterpoint to philosophical flights of fancy. Even if we would like to fly off forever into Platonic contemplation, our bodies, and their needs and muscle memory, bring us back to earth. Our minds can be part of the sky; our bodies are burdened by gravity. Paradoxically, though, our bodies may be more adept vessels of communication than our words, as in “Whatever Light Needs to Be Forgiven Of”:

. . . Confession has
nothing on two bodies
naked & holding each other
on a bed where the sheets haven’t had
time enough to dry.

The mind’s hunger is no less fierce than the body’s. But the mind is meandering whereas the body is direct. Meditation is wonderful, but so, as in “Meditation at Night on a Lover in Another State,” is an embrace:

. . . The clouds
would be gray with any light at all,
& remind us that being held,
if you’re held in the right arms,
is the best any of us can hope for.

Toward the end of his collection, in “First Victim of Not Enough Light,” Looney is even more definitive about what we need most: “No sky can take the place of a lover.”

About the Reviewer

Mark Brazaitis is the author of seven books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award; The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose; and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition. He wrote the script for the award-winning Peace Corps film, How Far Are You Willing to Go to Make a Difference?


Meditations Before the Windows Fail
Poems by George Looney (Lost Horse Press, 2015)
Blueline: A Literary Magazine Dedicated to the Spirit of the Adirondacks (Volume 37, 2016)
Reviewed by Donald J. McNutt

When used too often by lesser poets, personification quickly loses its force. George Looney isn’t one of those poets. In his fine collection of 55 poems, Meditations Before the Windows Fail, Looney personifies the natural world with obvious skill, recurrently bringing what appears to be commonplace into vibrant life. Looney’s many personifications also enable him to incorporate the natural world into poems that appear, at first glance, focused only on human landscapes. In “The Road Humming a Sinatra Tune,” for instance, the speaker makes clear that daylight can’t be taken for granted as anything simple. Instead, light has agency and substance. It clarifies even as it recedes into night:

Light, they say, fades. They have it wrong.
Light ignores what folks whisper

& dons a leather jacket like James Dean wore
around the bend into oblivion . . .

The poem’s final stanza sustains the personification and its energy. The result is a new self-awareness: “Light slips on his shades / & you see yourself, small & delicate, // reflected in them. You find yourself / humming the Sinatra tune Light whistles.” Cool and musical, the light becomes the Light, welcoming us into the poem’s layered meaning. An impersonal “they” in stanza two becomes “you” in the end, reflected fittingly in Light’s sunglasses.

Looney’s poems are quite original even as they pay homage to Emily Dickinson and the devices she employs in “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” the poem from which Looney derives the title of this collection. In Dickinson’s poem, the speaker conflates common things—a room, a fly, daylight, windows—as she reflects on life’s ending, when her “Windows failed.” In many ways Looney writes as Dickinson did, composing tightly compressed meanings within stanzas that resist easy paraphrase. At the same time, Looney departs from the focus on death in “I heard a Fly buzz,” reminding us instead of life’s energies and how people respond to them. “Without Grace, Out of the Sky” opens with personification as “the sky vacillates,” an inviting enough image. The concluding two stanzas, however, enliven nature in such a way that it mimics the thrill of a passionate encounter:

In northwest Ohio, the Black Swamp
rises, as gas, & makes
snow mime how a man & woman

dance, naked, in a hotel room, risen
from a bed damp with sex, believing
touch negates every argument.

Here again we see nature acting, at first, in an uninspiring way: the swamp merely rises as a gas. But within several single-syllable words, the swamp “makes snow mime” the intimacy that two lovers share in a hotel room. In this scene, the lovers themselves rise from their passion to dance, reminding each other that “touch negates every argument.”

Meditations Before the Windows Fail is filled with hotel rooms. These settings might seem anonymously common, places where visitors only spend a night or two before they move on. In Looney’s vision, hotel rooms have an altogether different function. They become significantly expressive. They concentrate memory and sustain it, framing unforgettable moments. In “Ode to a Lover’s Lips,” we find these lines:

Wrapped in this numb shroud of light,
I remember a dim motel room

& a lover’s lips that could have uttered
the words to bring back the dead.

Recalling past experience through a present memory, the imagery is clear and immediate: the “numb shroud of light” has agency enough to revive the memory of a lover whose lips and words come just short of raising the dead. In “Something Whimsical With Light,” another poem set in another hotel room, a third-person speaker fuses personified nature with human passion. The effect is delightful:

. . . A chuckle

might be possible, if a cloud
did something whimsical with light.

And in dim hotel rooms, lovers
laugh at the silly positions

they sometimes find themselves in, passion
a mystery often comic.

By describing hotel rooms so insistently, Looney demonstrates that life’s thrilling joys can await us anywhere. Furthermore, as William Wordsworth reminded us in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” we all have the ability to find creative wealth in our pasts by rediscovering them through our imaginations and within our own words. This process appears in “Ode to a Lover’s Lips,” where the speaker concludes, “It’s all in the manner of saying. / Those lips could have kissed this sky clear.” The poem opens with a day that’s only “blind with clouds,” but the lines gain energy as the speaker recalls a hotel room, the setting for reimagined passion. To paraphrase in simple terms, the memory of the lover’s lips there turns a drab sky clear. At another level, “this sky” points to an expansive feeling within the speaker: he has guided us to a revelation and arrived there himself. The poem’s initially blind sky develops a new meaning because the speaker makes it his own, transforming a common natural event—a cloudy day—into something promising and vital.

In this way Looney reminds us why poets such as Dickinson and Wordsworth loom behind so much contemporary nature poetry. At the same time, Looney isn’t just recycling Romantic sensibilities. He composes most memorably when he combines personified nature with a kind of self-consciousness about language, especially about making meaning permanent through words themselves. Looney often creates images that center on the act of writing or of imprinting meaning on some surface, real or figurative. For instance, in “The Sky Might As Well Be A Priest,” we find these lines: “death, glimpsing itself in [the moon’s] orange blade, / smiled & took the night off.” The next stanza deepens the impression with a jarring image of violent inscription: “This morning, the memory / of that blade of a moon / carves graffiti on my rough heart.” Something similar happens in “The Hieroglyph of the Horizon,” one of my personal favorites:

Memory can’t keep a body bandaged
& whole & warm. It is

a hieroglyph scrawled inside the body,
its lyric bird head
looking off to the horizon,

as if a rigid line could hold some solace
a body could breathe in & live off.

Casting memory as a hieroglyph, Looney gestures again to the Romantic poets, in this instance to their fascination with symbolic inscriptions in stone. Hieroglyphs challenged the Romantic imagination because they evoked ancient and apparently natural languages composed by long-dead writers. Looney alludes to these meanings as he reimagines them: configured as signs scrawled inside a body, a vaguely painful Memory turns positive and expressive as “its lyric bird head” looks to a horizon that offers “some solace,” associated here with breath and life rather than death and oblivion.

Much like Dickinson’s verse, Looney’s poems are always worth the interpretive work. His overall message becomes unmistakable, as it does in “The Hieroglyph of the Horizon”: memories that keep a mind in bandages will stifle it. In Meditations Before the Windows Fail, resonant memories, nature and its personifications, the everyday places we inhabit—they all constellate as powerfully creative forces. They allow us to see in ways that are at once passionate, mysterious, and joyful.

Ode to a Lover’s Lips

The sky, today, is blind with clouds,
the only birds vague, unnameable.

Wrapped in this numb shroud of light,
I remember a dim hotel room

& a lover’s lips that could have uttered
the words to bring back the dead.

It’s all in the manner of saying.
Those lips could have kissed this sky clear.

—George Looney