Douglas Crase, The Astropastorals, (Pressed Wafer $10.00)
Douglas Crase’s The Astropastorals is a slim pamphlet of the ten poems Crase has chosen to publish since he published The Revisionist in 1981. The Revisionist gained immediate praise; its dustjacket had puffs from John Ashbery and James Merrill. David Kalstone introduced a reading by Ashbery and Crase by suggesting that The Revisionist ‘appeared with that sense of completeness of utterance and identity that must have come with the first books of Wallace Stevens – Harmonium – and Elizabeth Bishop – North and South.’ Its reviewers ranged from Jay Parini and Margorie Perloff, to William H. Pritchard. In his major History of Modern Poetry, David Perkins comments that in The Revisionist ‘[Crase] has absorbed Ashbery. I am thinking of Crase’s bland tone, his occasional deliberate vagueness as to who is addressed or what is referred to, the clear, even intelligence of his writing which is continually observant, thoughtfully generalising, mildly witty, and at the same time, comfortable, friendly and low-keyed.’ Perkins goes on to suggest that ‘Crase’s subject matter [is] American history as it is reflected in particular places’ but that ‘the deeper meaning of his poetry lies in his vision of process, of unresting, somehow orderly change in natural things and also in buildings, cities or “history.”’
I have quoted Perkins at length to suggest that with this one book, Crase established an immediate place in contemporary American poetry, which was followed by almost complete silence. If you want to obtain The Revisionist now, you are going to have to pay a lot of money for second hand copies and even more for new ones, as this major book has been out of print for a very long time. In a note which accompanies the poems, Crase himself seems to suggest that the pieces in The Astropastorals come from a period between 1979, before the publication of The Revisionist, and the year 2000. If that is the case, then somewhere a major American voice has lost its way. And a major book is, unconscionably, out of print.
The Revisionist begins with the poem ‘America began in houses’, which, itself, starts ‘Unlike other countries, this one/ Begins in houses, specific houses and the upstairs room/ Where constitutions vibrate in the blockfront drawers,/ A Queen Anne highboy, or maybe the widow’s walk/ On a farmhouse hundreds of miles inland and believed/ By the family to be a lookout for Indians though clearly/It was a pioneer’s conceit, fresh as the latest politics/ From home:’ This might seem Perkins’ ‘American history as it is reflected in particular places.’ Crase moves, cinematically, from the camera moving into the house, surveying some of the content and then moving out into that perennial American subject, the American landscape and man and woman’s place in it. And the style is one of long, flowing sentences, and the slight archaism of the capital letter at the start of each line.
The poems in The Astropastorals have stylistic similarities to those in The Revisionist. The first word in the line emphasises its start with that capital letter. There are a lot of long sentences, but there are also short poems, and short sentences, too. The opening poem, ‘Once the sole province’ continues, ‘…of genius at home,/ What it this, our idea of access to a larger world/ That invented the world itself (first, second,/ Third) past accuracy we are bound to inhabit now/ As targets,’. Below, Crase continues, ‘For we are either ready or/ We must be ready or not, an expensive mix/ of life-based chemistry perpetually on the verge/ Of going to heaven in a vapor, and almost making it,’.
This kind of futurology might seem a long way from that earlier world of blockfront drawers and Queen Anne highboys. And there is a sense that Crase’s gaze has moved from the past to the future. However, as Perkins notes, there is the way in which, in the earlier poem, Crase’s imagination invests the situation with the process of the imagination of that time. The widow’s walk through Indian territory is, itself, a ‘conceit’ which has its analogies in an orientation towards to an idealised ‘home’ which has its own politics, its own imagined set of negotiated power relations. Here, Crase plays with an ironizing view of the pioneer past. The Astropastorals’ ‘Once the Sole Province’ contains similar ironies. Its future worlds are also the products of a ‘genius at home’. This genius at home has pushed into other world ‘as targets’; targets in both senses here: targets of planetary exploration, but also targets in themselves, targets of the attacks of others, as the pioneers saw themselves as targets of ‘Indians.’
If Perkins is correct, then Crase’s view of the human process is one of moving towards and away from safety ‘perpetually on the verge’; a projection of humanity’s impulses for both home making and home threatening, particularly the ‘home’ of the Other. As Crase puts it in the poem ‘Dog Star Sale’, ‘All involved on the earth with your chores of pollution/ And never likely to pause/ Let alone practice what we/ Observe: as far as you touch/ Other worlds, that much you save yours’. Crase seeks to observe ‘other worlds’ and implores us to preserve them. The Astropastorals might play on both the idea of pastoral poetry by presenting a heavily ironized, interplanetary idyll, which ‘meets their needs in scale: shops,/ Ammo dumps, taverns and houses of prayer.’ ‘Theme Park’. But there is also the sense of these pieces as pastoral letters, again speaking ironically to the spiritual needs of those who inhabit the future. If both these kinds of pastorals are ironized, then Crase seems to suggest that we have to work harder at preserving what we have, not so much ‘astropastorals’ as ‘anti-astropastorals’.