Poet Gary Blankenburg's 'Above All Things' reaches a conciliatory resolution after a long hiatus

City Paper

After years of writing about doomed juvenile affections, heavy drinking, reckless sex with “so many nameless lovers,” affairs, awful married life, and misguided cravings for beauty, Gary Blankenburg returns with a book charged with piety and faith.

“If you’ve known my previous works,” Blankenburg says while reading from his latest book, “Above All Things”—a harmonious collection of poetry and colorful, therapeutic-looking drawings—at the Ivy Bookshop a few weeks ago, “you know, you’ll see some change.”

The word “change” doesn’t quite encapsulate the huge leap Blankenburg’s work took after a 10-year hiatus from publishing books. Readers of 2001’s “At the Edge of Beauty” and 2005’s “Dancing with Strangers” became familiar with an author of dark, pungent narratives in both prose and poetry.

“Above All Things” is split into two sections, titled “Natural Piety” and “Above All Things.” In the beginning of each section, Blankenburg quotes the original sources of the phrases—“and I could wish my days to be/ bound each to each by natural piety,” by William Wordsworth, and “Let us love God above all things,” by St. Augustine. Many poems in “Natural Piety,” using plain yet honest language, discuss the resonating beauty of nature. The speaker is a keen observer—it is his way of getting involved in his surroundings. In ‘Falling Star,’ he admires the passing moments and objects, such as the moon, daffodils, thunder, crocus, leaves, birds, and the river, while “smoking a cigar after a late supper/ and watching the sky scattered with stars” from his porch.

The second part is more introspective as Blankenburg transforms his prayers into poetry. His confessional voice emerges and directly addresses God, often using Bible-related references, via Adam, Eve, Saul, Moses, and John Milton. Here daily life often leads to contemplating both God’s presence and Blankenburg’s fear of looming death, which transpierces several pieces including ‘Epistle to Death,’ in which he holds onto “Christ,/ who should be/ my savior from/ fear.”

Nature and God, the two main topics of “Above All Things,” have hardly appeared in Blankenburg’s past works. He has tended to focus, rather overwhelmingly, on the humanness of humans, and his idea of “humanness” is far from “humaneness.” His illustration of human lives is full of flaws, instinctual pleasure, lust, agony, turbulence, and primal fear. He used to pour all these unsettling stories, full of woes, on the readers and slip away with no concrete resolution in the end. But this lingering discomfort and strange sadness is now almost nonexistent. He has separated himself from the human world and built a haven in the nature, in God’s domain. The fatalistic cynic has disappeared. Now we see a cigar-smoking old man on the sunny porch, staying somewhat aloof from everything, even his own life, and praying to God whenever he feels like he is losing his grip on Him.

Blankenburg hasn’t completely metamorphosed into pious man though. His twisted, pessimistic sense of humor keeps rearing its head. In the first poem ‘First Marriage,’ he describes a young couple promising their love by killing a firefly and smearing its dead luminous body on their fingers as wedding rings. Even in this bleakness, however, instead of leaving readers to sit with this depressing imagery, he offers a closing twist—“Now . . ./ you and I are married/ forever.” This poor, freshly killed firefly becomes part of a loaded expression of love with the potential to span time and space, after all. Unlike his earlier works, here he suggests something resembling a resolution. And after numerous struggles and agonies depicted in his previous works, “Above All Things” itself somehow works toward a conciliatory resolution, an answer for peace, or a proof of enlightenment he has finally reached by embracing himself and God. He is content with it.

When the Ivy Bookshop audience laughs at his comment on his own work, how there’s been a “change,” he adds, “But those of you who’ve known me better, you’d know that this is what I’ve always wanted.” 

Gary Blankenburg’s Book Release Party is at LitMore on June 18 at 7 p.m.
admission is free.

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