Review: Retreating Aggressively into the Dark
5 ½” x 8 ½” Saddle-stapled chapbook with full-color cardstock cover
Big Table Publishing
Review originally published on 4/6/15
Harry Calhoun’s chapbook of poetry, Retreating Aggressively into the Dark, is a body of work centering on the details of daily life and how the sum of these details contains the heart of one’s life. His language is conversational and his tone always relaxed, but his poetry isn’t to be considered simple. The narrator of these poems speaks as someone who’s lived a life and is looking back with self-awareness and courage. As the title suggests, this collection is about retreating, about looking from the shadows and not running from what you’ve seen. The poems contain instances from Calhoun’s life that led to tiny revelations about love, death, and the human condition.
Written with a heavy hand of remembrance, many of the poems examine the death of the poet’s father and how his memories still linger, beginning the process of replacing who he actually was. In one of the opening poems of the collection, “Lost connections,” he describes the remaining bond that is only now tethered to the living world by himself:
sitting on my deck with his death
on my mind if not my conscience,
I smile a little sadly that this weak connection
has not been lost
or even dropped. (p. 3)
His relationship with his father, and the time leading up to his father’s death, is discovered as more complicated, as parental relationships tend to be, as the collection unfolds. In his poem, “This old house,” Calhoun compares his childhood home, his father’s house, to the current home he shares with his wife:
our suburban palace where something
wakes me at 3 a.m. thinking
of my father, no longer
even in his old house
who taught me to throw perfect spirals
and I hope someone can teach me
patience and faith (p. 22–23).
While the predominant figure of the collection is Calhoun’s father and his death, at times the collection also seems a love song to Calhoun’s current lover. In “Jackets,” he chronicles the journey of a painful break-up that ultimately led to a better love:
they have stood me well long after
she stood me up forever in cold December.
Ten years under the bridge
and today I pay tribute to the memory,
the cold conduit that led me
to the things that keep me warm. (p. 16)
The poems also tackle Calhoun’s own love of writing, particularly poetry, the importance of telling the truth, no matter how difficult it becomes, as well as his affection for his beloved black lab. By all accounts, they tell the story of ordinary life, which is the story of life.