FIRST LITERARY REVIEW-EAST
VANISHING POINTS, by Gary Metras
(Dos Madres Press, 2021)
Reviewer: Cindy Hochman
Some say the world will end in fire,
some say in ice
—Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”
Today we face the world
as it is: rust, debris and small bones
beneath melting snow
—Gary Metras, “Everywhere at Once”
Long before connecting serendipitously with him on social media, I was familiar with printer/publisher and, later, poet laureate of Easthampton, MA, Gary Metras’s name, along with his long-running (since 1979) literary press, Adastra. Before the advent of online resources for poetry publication, many of us relied on The Poets’ Market (in print, of course) to find avenues for submission. Adastra Press was among them, and because it began with the letter “A,” it was one of the first publishers I spied while browsing, excitedly, through the entries. But “A” is not only for “Adastra”; it’s also for “anecdote,” and this anecdote gives some context for my thoughts on Mr. Metras’s latest collection, Vanishing Points, a timely and timeless book of poetry that makes me very glad that, through all these years, I remembered the name Gary Metras. Now I not only know his name, but I’m also a huge fan.
It is apt to characterize Metras as a “seasoned” poet, not only given his skillful craftsmanship, but because the seasons themselves inform so much of his worldview and permeate the vast landscape of his visual and sensory scenes. And this comes with a serene facility that is the hallmark of a masterly writer, one who is comfortable in his own words, thus making the reader at ease in the reading of them. There is a cohesive clarity to these poems, and while the subject matter is often fierce, the poet’s tone is tranquil. It is also accurate to say that these lines are as solid—and yet as sudden and surprising—as the forecast. Yes, Metras can truly make you shiver with the chill or feel the burn.
Encompassing all manner of atmospheric conditions, nature is of course a prominent theme in poetry, but its motifs have always been wide-ranging and varied. An aficionado of Mary Oliver’s poetry, for instance, would be hard-pressed to liken her breezy approach to the natural world to Metras’s; her vision of the elements is gentle and benign, while his is bleak and brutal. There is also a rustic quality to this poet’s settings, as in “In the Cellar,” where he indulges in a clandestine cigarette, “flicking ash into the empty pickle jar that serves as ashtray,” and ending with an amusing image of the furtive poet (“Did I mention it’s almost / midnight and I’ve just come out of the bath / and stand naked in a basement putting out / my cigarette and closing a book of poems?”).
Though Metras’s amiable locution is free of Robert Frost’s curmudgeonly demeanor, these poems have clearly been influenced by Frost (both the proper noun and lowercase noun, as it were), as evidenced, among other aspects, by the contrast of hot and cold in Frost’s “Fire and Ice” that Metras makes in his own poem “Cold as Omen”:
For Good-Night a cheek peck, mouths closed,
lips tight against a two-day cough sure to blossom
during this single-digit night ...
When you see a star shooting over an icy meadow,
kiss the person beside you, full, hot on the mouth.
For Metras, all (icy) roads lead back to Old Man Winter, and the hibernal season is depicted as harsh and harrowing. In “The Flame,” the winds demonstrate how powerless both houses and humans are when pitted against a merciless Mother Nature.
flame and shadow,
where the world
to a house reduced
by hungry wind.
Wind and snow.
A white persistence
as unforgiving as night.
The sensation of arctic freeze in this poem is so stark and desolate that the reader feels encased in a snow globe, but when this one is shaken, the white flakes that scatter foretell our mortality. Indeed, throughout these poems, Metras invokes the concept of memento mori—in this case, the wind and snow provide a tangible reminder of the inevitability of death, along with a further dichotomy of warmth (i.e., the flame). An attentive reader can easily discern the poet’s many intimations of our fragility and tenuous grip on life. Hence, Metras portrays the weather as both actual phenomenon and metaphor, and the two become interchangeable.
the squash in the garden
huddle with fear of impermanence
I sit atop the worn
wood table beneath the oak of those
lopped off limb tips like another
vision of this place, one more thing
that will not survive the season.
The title “Approaching Harvest” seems to belie the underlying implications and import of the poem itself. Harvest time is usually associated with ripeness, bounty, and celebration. But rather than reveling in the thawing out from winter’s destructiveness, Metras uses personification to warn us once again of our friability. The word impermanence is pivotal in forcing us to confront the reality of our brief existence on earth. This conceit shows up again in the last two lines of “Beached Whale,” where the poet declares “we will open / a door in your side and empty you like a closet / full of clues to our own death.”
And in case the point has been missed in those not-so-subtle lines, the ironically macabre poem “Bad Day” is enough to (literally) drive it home:
and the coffin bounds on asphalt,
the lid breaking open,
the body flying on the sidewalk,
dying a second time.
One would think that at this point the poet would be gleefully heralding the coming of spring. Oddly enough, though, Metras seems loath to leave winter’s carnage, almost willing it to linger, perhaps an acknowledgment that its true meaning continues to loom. So even despite the robins singing in the cheerfully titled “The Promise of Song,” Metras hearkens back to “winter’s ghostly uniform / that all must wear a little longer.”
Snow still whispered its hardships ...
It is the child who speaks to my future.
But spring does finally arrive and, by design, is aligned with youth. The final section of Vanishing Points ties up all the stuff of life: elders dying, babies being born; love, loss, lament, and even lint (a multi-layered but humorous poem in which Metras notes that he is “the son of a bricklayer with hands / so smooth they’re only fit for picking lint”). The concluding poem, tender and endearing, reignites the taboo cigarette enjoyed in the cellar, with Metras wolfing down his son-in-law’s mint chocolate so that his granddaughter’s dreams will be sweet.
This collection of haunting poems, then, ends on a hopeful note of regeneration and rejuvenescence. And it is therefore safe to say that Gary Metras is surely a poet for all seasons—but especially winter.
Gary Metras is the author of eight books of poetry and thirteen chapbooks. His poems have appeared in such journals as America, The Common, One Art, Poetry, Poetry East, and Poetry Salzburg Review. A retired educator, he fly fishes his home waters in western Massachusetts as often as possible.
You can order a copy of Vanishing Points here: https://www.dosmadres.com/product-tag/gary-metras/