July 17, 2018
ames Najarian writes about the real and makes it astonishing, while never leaving out the messy facts. Goats are transcendent, but they are also goats. It’s these juxtapositions that make The Goat Songs, winner of the 2017 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, a remarkable book.
Najarian opens with several narrative poems about his boyhood on a goat farm in Pennsylvania. The story is intriguing, the dialog is realistic, the iambic pentameter adds to the meaning, and the poem ends at a satisfying point. But in the best narrative verse, there is what B.H. Fairchild calls “lyrical depth,” and James Najarian is a master of these moments.
The first poem, “Goat Song,” begins with a familiar activity of flipping through old photo albums. You can hear the voices of the family members: “To this day, in my family’s photo albums/the people have been butted out by goats./’There’s Bippy,’ we cry out, ‘There’s Charmian.’” This utterly natural language is written in perfect iambic pentameter, showing Najarian’s skill and ease with meter.
He contrasts what is both very good and very real about these creatures, describing their “shit-and-lemon/cologne.” He is in turn sad and funny:
But goats live only six or seven years.
In our herd, they seem to die unceasingly
like heroines from nineteenth century opera.
And he pairs reality and poignancy to create the lyrical moments: “…How they hated/two things above all: being alone, and rain.”
Sometimes Najarian reaches those moments of lyricism by employing an abrupt, almost impatient tone that contains within it helplessness, frustration, and longing. It recognizes the need to let go and believe in unseen things. In “First Kidding,” the narrator, helping a doe in labor, says, “Now go./Go home. A doe will recognize her own.” And in “With the Herd,” this same insistent voice says, “Stop calling them. Stand still. They will not stir/until you turn the light on your known face.”
Najarian also writes about love and giving up on love. He uses surprising metaphors to describe our overwhelming need to trust this most untrustworthy of emotions. “Resilience” starts with this striking image of loss: “The lake has lost grip of its geese,” and then proceeds to dismiss the heart when it comes to understanding this loss:
The heart adores surfaces. A mayfly,
it grazes a pond’s face, then proclaims:
“I feel. I know.” Yet it only guesses.
In “Against Desire,” he rails against desire’s treachery and allure:
So why bring up the old fact of desire?
A rock waiting for a ship to wreck,
it is always there.
Or, an attentive student of music,
it is eager to break out its squeaky violin
and play a song for us that is still familiar.
The theme culminates in the gorgeous “An Introduction to the Devout Life.” This wry, ironic poem gives the lovelorn permission to take a break from these intense emotions:
Go on a furlough: exempt yourself
from the bric-a-brac of the affections:
from dawns, dusks, mountaintop glimpses,
desperate rocks and significant clouds.
And when you finally recover from love:
there will be a time when you are able
to look at a particularly redolent scene
and notice the sky is no more than blue,
the grasses merely a very bright green.
A few of the lyric poems lack these startling metaphors. The final lines of “The Hands of an Ex-Lover,” “your hands were made of pearl./Now they are metal,” are beautiful, but without a larger contrasting metaphor, they don’t create the lyric moment present in other poems.
Najarian explores another kind of loss in “The Dark Ages,” winner of the 2016 Frost Farm Poetry Contest. Contrasting vastly different subjects, he compares his mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s to the decline of the Roman Empire in Britain. At the onset of both declines, “Villas crumbled./Those who stayed grew barley in the ruins.” Then as the disease progresses for his mother, “Her kingdom dwindled to a bed and toilet,” while “Canterbury/dwindled to a pasture, York a marsh.”
“Kleptomania” is a playful take on loss. Najarian’s exact meter and rhymes create a humorous effect, reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:
Now steal something better:
a breath or a letter.
Then take someone’s time.
Practice makes perfect, and the perfect crime.
Najarian often uses slant rhyme for a subtler aural effect, as in “Longed-for Rain,” where it adds to the sense of unfulfillment: “Then, in an afternoon, the sky grew dim,/trembling with an ancient hum.”
He experiments with form in “Barcarolle,” where he translates a musical form, the barcarolle, into a poetic one, using hexameter to replicate the 6/8 rhythm of these traditional Venetian folk songs sung by gondoliers. The poem contains the songs’ water theme as well as the moderate regular tempo meant to invoke the gondolier’s rowing, as he continues his exploration of loss:
The ocean, like a tongue, cannot be stilled or stopped.
It mimes the permanent, but turns with every name.
A third theme of the book is Najarian’s Armenian heritage—the beauty, humanity, and tragedy of this culture. The Armenian language is “spoken embroidery,” capturing at the same time the visual and aural characteristics of the language along with the sense of a voice from the past speaking of things that will not come around again. In “Armenian Lesson,” his exact rhymes conjure up deepest grief:
…in sample sentences whose slight effects
predict none of this country’s coming disasters:
Each boy has received seven piastres.
”Armenian Song” is a heartbreaking poem about an old woman recalling her youth “before the war, before before or after.” Najarian captures the Armenian tragedy in the final lines: “on this bright day in June, the poppies are/the reddest spots the sisters can imagine.”
As a collection, the poems offer a wide range of theme, form, and language. But what underlies them all is the ability to show the real, plus a little bit more. Lemons are “not quite/gilt or honey, topaz or saffron,/but another yellow entirely,” drawing you into a world of yellow and leaving you to try and imagine this particular shade. The poems in The Goat Songs draw you into James Najarian’s very real world, while revealing another world entirely.