The Toll: W.S. Di Piero's TOMBO

Robert O'Connell

Tombo CoverWhen we were young enough to want to be firefighters or dancers, their appeal depended on our not knowing their difficulties. We did not imagine the risk of life or the bloodied toes; we saw only adventure and spotlight and uniforms that looked like costumes. We envied those who did these things because we did not understand the difficulties inherent to the triumphant moment.

A similar envy hits you, following closely behind astonishment and admiration, as you read the early pages of TOMBO, W.S. Di Piero’s latest poetry collection, published by McSweeney’s in 2014. Early in the work, Di Piero establishes himself as a masterful observer, precisely matching word to image and building fleeting scenes both familiar and subtly alien. He writes in “The Running Dog,” the collection’s first poem:


the body
quivers through its days
unawares but sensate,
like a dreaming dog
in the still, marbled air
of its own running.

The simile, tactile and imaginative, is just one of the first in a book full of sublime images, a book that will make you wonder what it feels like to look at the ordinary, as Di Piero seems to, and get some glimpse of inherent nature or cosmic truth. The world as he renders it reads true but wholly original; nights are deeper, days more dawdling, losses keener. Di Piero seems awake to reality in a way that we, reading, would very much like to be.

But though TOMBO is about a number of things—love, San Francisco, waking up, falling asleep, stars, leaves, sunsets, the ocean, and birds among them—it centers on the irony of art: namely, that the process of creating beauty is not always beautiful. In many poems, the narrator grapples with a nervous impulse to create, as in “Starting Over”:


The vagrant imagination
rushes toward the world
in fear of forgetting anything:
witness and invent, it says,
and stay in motion in every
invented place.

The “fear of forgetting,” tracked through the collection, becomes a shadow attending each beautiful image. Di Piero reminds us that he is no idle collector; these wonders are hard-won. The first of the book’s three sections ends with a poem called “Nocturne.” All of the collection’s dissonance is present here, as the narrator finds himself worrying over lack of inspiration in the night. It starts, “Where are you now / my poems, / my sleepwalkers? / No mumbles tonight?” And though at least one sleepwalker visits in the middle lines—“The sodium streetlights / burr outside my window”—the worry lasts until the poem’s end: “Where are you now, / when I need you most? / It’s late. I’m old. / Come soon, you feral cats / among the dahlias.” The lines upset the familiar notion of artist and muse; Di Piero’s, it seems, is called not by repose but by desperation.

Do not think, though, that this book is a bummer; Di Piero’s language and syntax are too delightful for you to stay despairing. See how he renders a domestic scene in “Other Ways To Heaven”:


A husband slices morning toast.
The wife,
still asleep, wanders among secrets scratched
like starlines in the skull’s hysterical heavens.

Here, he shows his knack for putting words with disparate associations close to one another, the physicality of “slices,” “scratched,” and “skull” rubbing up against the ethereality of “starlines” and “heavens.” He ends a later poem, “The Horizon Line,” by writing of a woman returning from the ocean to the shore: “When you flopped / on our fleecy blanket, / tart water seeds / popped from your hair. / I tasted them.” This final line, preceded by the easy naturalism of those before it, is among the happiest of the collection.

For all its consistent and excellent sensory detail, TOMBO is home to poems that cover massive thematic ground. In “The Smell of Spearmint,” Di Piero writes of a son remembering shaving the face of his dying father; in “The Black Paintings: The Mouth,” he writes of Goya and the animal appetite (Di Piero is an art critic in addition to being a poet and has some significant expertise). He writes poems that start as cityscapes and end as isolated ruminations, while crafting other poems that use the image as a final refuge from pondering.

As the collection goes on, Di Piero seems to reach some tenuous peace with the poetic impulse. In “Que Tal,” a poem from the book’s third section, he writes, “Let me be fool enough / to read meaning into / the twiggy lightning that cracks / the darkening distance, / such meaning as animals / like me need to see.” Here he writes in the language of prayer, his earlier desperation having given to a simple request.

TOMBO is full of proof of that request’s being granted, of language tipped trickily and plainly, of images that slip easily into your head and, once there, expand. In “Hayes Street Evening Fugue,” Di Piero’s narrator looks at a line of windows in the night: “What happens in those rooms? Everybody’s a secret / with a secret. The light locks them up. A photo hound / deploys draperies and shades. Looming lingerie / fills with flesh. A woman in pajamas, maybe in love, / sways to sounds only she can hear." I mean, damn.


TOMBO
by W.S. Di Piero
McSweeney's, 2014
ISBN: 9781938073762

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