- Conditions of Grace
Conditions of Grace by Mark Sanders is a poetry of “plain speech for a plain people: / weather-words gray as old lumber.” Sanders conjoins landscape and wind with nouns and verbs, talking at once of language and the real things it attempts to describe and from which it derives: “A sentence like a pivot”—not only a center pivot but a sharp turn in a circle of thought.
There are harrowing poems in this book. In “Photograph of Three Sisters, 1954,” Sanders relates the deaths of “the littlest” as well as “the older,” who “bred and nurtured a cancer / that consumed her.” “Loss and need lay next to their dinner plates / like forks and spoons.” This poem sets the standard for the book. Even the worst events are presented without anger or tears. Understatement rules, a powerful restraint. The poet tells the facts but never blinks or breaks. Elsewhere, as in “For My Sister, 1961,” the mood of helplessness is relieved by flashes of bright images—“Neighbor kids are apples in the treetops”—revealing how Sanders turns to language to hearten and redeem: “Wild verbs and prepositional phrases, / . . . the breathless language of health and motion.”
The poems are rich with sensory details: “Hay smell, green and sugary” and “music is pigs clanging feeder lids.” The more stark and brutal details of “Butchering Chickens” anchors us fiercely in the daily chores of a working farm. Its scenes, from which we may well cringe, serve as the testing grounds and crucibles out of which the poet forges his fire. Essentially descriptive and explanatory, Sanders will never try to locate a poem in some non-place or merely mental situation. But rather from the real dirt and dust beneath his feet he finds the flint and steel from which the sparks fly that dazzle and illuminate: “Blood draining / from the spigot of necks, [End Page 179] flip / and flop of dying birds, wings shivering” “Like one feels / when doing something spiritual.” Immersion is the holy arc, a baptism into not a hereafter but the very present here and now. “Even here was immersion: life, death / and the attempt to live despite death.” Always the attempt, no matter how unlikely or inhibited the opportunity—this is a poet who no matter what will not be brought to silence, who will not be daunted, who persists. Because I am one whose griefs have all but stopped my mouth, choking my poetry, Sanders achieves for me a heroic stature in this book. Even when I can hardly bring myself to read some of the poems, knowing through their protocols the pain beneath their under-statement, the courage of the book wells up and consoles.
The book ranges widely. Sanders is not always down on the farm or lost in a painful childhood. In the poem on page 54 I find that I like a poet who does not pretend he does not know that he is writing poetry, that most beguiling and perverse of arts—which leads so many astray into insecurities of notoriety and self-importance. “The Poetry Reading, 1977” cuts through all wishful thinking and self-delusion. “After the famous poet’s reading, his entourage / congregates at the Ramada Inn lounge: / a male Snow White with all his many dwarves, / Bashful, Dopey, Staring, Silly, Horny, Babbling, and Gushing.” Have we not all been in this crowd?
Nearly every poem here offers vivid scenes and memorable phrases: “Playground’s bang / and pop of seesaw boards, / squeaking chains on swings” (“The Old School”); “the gurgling bowel of river” (“Night Fishing on Missouri’s James River”); “Electricity in the world is the spark of black-bird, / the shock of wren” (“Traveling to the Big Empty”); and “you dodge dogs as they run toward you, their tongues / falling from their faces” (“No Accounts, 1948”). Sometimes Sanders will work off of a famous poem by another Great Plains poet, here the Gary Gildner of “First Practice.” Instead of enduring Gildner’s brutal high school football experience, Sanders tells how a kidney problem “took him out of practice,” thus forever earning...