Book Review: Wiping Stars from Your Sleeves
Wiping Stars from Your Sleeves
by David James
Shanti Arts Publishing, 2021
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
Cover image: Greg Rakozy on unsplash.com
As I was wiping the dust of 2021 from the edges of the new year, it was good to be reading Wiping Stars from Your Sleeves, by David James. These poems are full of acceptance of life as it really is, of aging and change, and of all the joys to be found near at hand if we are looking for them. There is also humor and resistance, pushback, and coming to the brink. For example, the book opens with a kind of absolute optimism just when we think we are on the brink of absolute pessimism: “I woke up this morning / on the wrong side of history.” But the poem itself, called “It’s Just What You Do If Given the Chance,” which sounds like it could be an excuse for bad behavior, turns out to be a litany of good wishes for the whole world!
Likewise, in the very next poem, called “Walking Down the Mountain” (which is hard to do if you have bad knees), the speaker is quite comfortable saying, “my career // as a human being is coming to an end.” He has come to understand “what really matters” and “so i roll up my sleeves // and hold each moment a little longer, blessed to still be around.” The poem stays lower-cased, even the “i,” even “scrooge” from A Christmas Carol, another fine seasonal coincidence* of the timing of my reading. As in, “maybe this is how wisdom arrives—like scrooge, // the future is suddenly in my line of sight…” I noticed that the speakers in James’s poems easily connect to other enlightened beings: “like scrooge,” “Like Christ,” “Like God”—all part of the humor as well as the wisdom. And many of the poems are “to,” or “for,” or “after” a particular person or comrade poet. He is not alone.
*And a little later on, in the poem “In the Great Book of Dreams,” I couldn’t help but hear an echo of It’s a Wonderful Life, another classic Christmas movie, in the line, “Let’s assume you were never born.” But the ending is marvelously haunting, and still, somehow, maybe because of the toast to auld lang syne, strangely calm, strangely fine:
You would thank
your would-be parents, now long dead.
You and your absent siblings
would sit around a table,
remembering all you never did,
raising an empty glass
to no one.
So the darkness and light are both here, the surrender and the fighting back. “Out With a Bang” rages, conversationally, against 1) the dying of the light 2) going out with a whimper. As with its epigraph, “Who wouldn’t want to fade out in a blaze of glory?” (Dennis O’Driscoll, “Tulipomania”), what a last stanza, and what a way to go:
You want the bright lights and sparkle. You want to speed
down the road, outrun the sirens, jump the river
and rise up, wiping stars from your sleeves.
Likewise, in “Gravity’s Rule,” the speaker so grateful for each day, each sunset, and even the drooping candles, wishes he could “tack on thirty / or forty good years” more to an already good life. But “we’re all undone / over time, leaning into the earth.” Because gravity…rules.
The first half of the book contains poems written in Michigan; the second, poems written in Ireland. I love the wise and humble epigraph to part two, by George Bernard Shaw: “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery—it’s the sincerest form of learning.” And many of these poems honor other poets—and may be mainly responses, not imitations, after all, ways of taking up a challenge or answering a question posed by another poem.
I love the joy in this book, the simple pleasures and daily beauties, how the love of wife, children, and grandchildren spreads out into love of the world. I love the many little surprises—the humor, the confessed foibles. In “Out of the Limelight,” he admits
In a weak moment, I wonder why
most of the world ignores me
and my work, but then I realize it’s pure conceit
asking that question. Instead, I’ll explore
the aisles of everyday living.
To carry on the grocery store metaphor, I love this stanza in “My, How Time Changes”:
I push my body like a shopping cart down the aisle,
delaying the checkout while I can, wandering all over
this lovely place.
Supply chain be damned! Hoarding, be done! This is a lovely place. Let’s delay the checkout as long as we can and enjoy it. Together.