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Max Garland's Into the Good World Again

Charles Holdefer

Into the Good World Again
Max Garland
Holy Cow! Press, 2023


n the unscientific and somewhat arbitrary sample of poetry that I encounter, much of the work tends toward the personal (label: confessional) or the polemical (label: politically engaged) or a mixture thereof (label: pissed-off-politically-about-the-personal). I don’t seek out such labels, but all too often, they come to me as easily as sorting socks. The problem is that intellectually, or critically, these labels are about as interesting as sorting socks. Poetry, though, is so much more.

The means brought to the page must serve ends that resist caricature. These ends are perhaps not ends at all, but openings.

This is a truth that Max Garland effectively grasps in his latest collection, Into the Good World Again. Born in Kentucky, he has lived for many years in Wisconsin, where he is a former Poet Laureate. In this, his fourth book, it’s easy to find poems that are highly personal or politically aware, but they are also consistently defamiliarizing, fluid and full of unpredictable turns. Trying to label Garland would be foolish, but if I had to, I would describe him as an opener.

Divided into three sections, the book starts with a stand-alone piece called “Riff,” where Garland puts forward his aesthetic in negative terms: he enumerates what his poetry is not. It’s not “for the sake of craft” or a “moral” or in “homage to the lack embedded in the language.” It’s not “humble-brag nobody’s buying.” This is only part of the list, and I won’t cite the entire poem, but it succinctly sums up much of poetic practice and criticism as it is presently understood.

Instead, like Dylan Thomas in “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” he uses a negative ars poetica to defend something more elusive. Thomas claims to write for “lovers” who are indifferent to his poetry. It’s an ironic last gasp of romanticism. Garland, in contrast, is fascinated by the present, in trying to do justice to “the grit of the ongoing.

What does that entail? Garland’s formulation seems to refer to a kind of heightened awareness enabled by a lyric impulse. It doesn’t exclude prior practices, which remain welcome insofar as they might contribute to the process. But the work “only moves by hopeful riff / in search of song, in spite of everything.

How this plays out emerges over the course of thirty-seven poems. Apart from a few exceptions, most of them rely on short stanzas and respect speech rhythms. Many are informed by science. For instance, in “Images from Space”:

     Light tends to pulse apart

that which it illuminates. I try to remind myself
change is all the real there is. To want otherwise
is to pin the butterfly of being to the wall,

which is good for neither. Still, it’s pretty up there.
And time is the only weather worth complaining
About today . . .

Observations about deep space and physics coalesce startlingly into what turns out to be a tender love poem. Garland contrasts the ephemerality of affection with vast stretches of time:

I mentioned your eyes? That’s what I’ll remember
when I’m ash, still pouting a little in the breeze
they’ve tossed me into

In this poem and others, the speaker includes a larger backdrop against which the preoccupations and woes of homo sapiens are small indeed. But the speaker is interestingly unflappable about this situation, and often is even cheerful, actively observing, fascinated. Nature poems like “Carbon” and “Invasive” are not about the picturesque but about processes, in which we play a part, however modest. In “Morels,” the pleasure of eating mushrooms is an occasion for awareness of a long sequence of time and events that made the experience of this pleasure, at this precise moment—the ongoing—possible.

The Covid pandemic figures in other poems, but characteristically, Garland grapples with how recent hardships offer openings and opportunities for a renewed attentiveness. In “Minor Blessing,” the speaker observes, “I notice I’m starting to notice again.” Or in “Social Distancing,”

What I mean is sometimes worry needs to be ignited,
launched into words, if only to blaze awhile among
flotillas of sorrows we thought were ours alone.

This is not the poetry of facile inspiration or easy uplift. But reading these poems, one feels less alone, in the presence of someone who is marvelously good at paying attention, and who has the gift to articulate previously unnoticed aspects of experience. As the speaker of “Ocracoke” affirms: “The deeper the listening, / the richer the world.” In Into the Good World Again, Max Garland opens up a rich world indeed.


Charles Holdefer