Rustin Larson’s The Wine-Dark House and the Poet’s Journey
Review by Steven P. Schneider
Rustin Larson has been quietly writing his poems in Southeastern Iowa for over twenty years now. Gradually, he accumulated a body of work that has attracted the attention of other poets, critics, and that increasingly rare specimen, readers. For his efforts Larson has won prizes for his poetry, has been featured as an Iowa poet at the Des Moines National Poetry Festival in 2002 and 2004 and has read his work on the public radio program Live from Prairie Lights.
Rustin has not only put his energy into his own writing, but through his community service work and community radio show “Irving Toast, Poetry Ghost” has promoted the careers of other poets. He has also promoted the work of other writers as editor of the Contemporary Review and as poetry editor of the Iowa Source and more recently as the coordinator of a poetry reading series at the M.U.M. library. It is no wonder then that his own poems express empathy for the human condition, with its foibles and exaltations, its needs for community and friendship to ward off existential loneliness. Larson’s poetry is distinguished by an impressive emotional range because of the empathy he feels for others.
Larson’s first book, Loving the Good Driver (1996), had several excellent poems. Two of them are sure to become contemporary classics. His poem “The Paternal Side,” published in The New Yorker, is skillful in its quiet evocation of his ancestors from Norway, who like other Scandinavian immigrants moved to the plains — to Iowa — for a better life: “to be someone with a little power over destiny / and cheese….” The other poem, “Melons,” is the kind of quirky lyric-narrative that characterizes some of Larson’s best work. In this poem he and his partner “wandered the earth dreaming / of the perfect incorruptible melon.” The poem concludes with the surprising and delightful image of the poet weighing his big round head in his hands, like a melon. The humor in this poem is contrapuntal to the more serious tone found in “The Paternal Side,” and his poetry often oscillates between these two strikingly different notes.
Larson imported several of the best poems from his first book into his second book, Crazy Star, selected for the Loess Hills Book’s Poetry Series in 2005. He also included several new poems and further established himself as a strong contemporary poet. His poem “Cleo” is a favorite among readers for its humorous yet poignant description of a “basset hound, overweight, lazy / and sad.” “Lord of the Apes” is a tragic narrative of love and redemption, the story of several characters who lead the kind of lives Thoreau described as “quiet desperation.” One of them, a teenage girl, shows up on the poet’s front porch one night, crying in distress over her boyfriend who in anger has punched his arm through a window in their mobile home. As in so many of his other poems, the poet provides human shelter and warmth to the distressed and dispossessed.
In his most recent book, The Wine-Dark House, Larson adds many memorable poems to his fine body of work. This is his most hefty volume, totaling 101 pages. He has clearly hit his mid-career stride and many of the poems have been published in excellent literary journals. Indeed, Rustin’s commitment to the “small, literary journal” throughout his career provides testimony to the importance of these journals for a poet. They have provided a good forum for his work, and he has provided them with consistently imaginative poetry. In this collection, as in the previous two books, Larson demonstrates his versatility as a poet.
The opening poem, “Baker’s,” rivals in excellence the earlier poem “The Paternal Side.” Both poems use description marvelously to evoke character and scene, which are normally the province of the fiction writer. Larson is adept at the lyric–narrative poem, in which a depth of emotion is conveyed and sustained within a narrative frame. In “Baker’s,” for example, the reader is treated to a view of the poet as a young boy, sitting patiently for a haircut in a place called “Baker’s.”
Buck fifty folded into
a package in my fist, I’d wait, feel the cool rails
of the chair, cold leather near the drip
drip hum of the air conditioner . . .
would take a crackle off his Pall Mall, breathe
a jet of smoke as he trimmed. (2)
Larson has an eye and an ear for the small town barbershop that reminds me of Tim O’Brien, the fiction writer and author of The Things They Carried. Like O’Brien, Larson situates this poem during the Vietnam War era, and while the boy in the barber’s chair reads comic books, the mature poet reflects that Baker surely dreamed the head of hair he trimmed would one day be returned in “a blue silk box from Asia.” Larson expresses both a nostalgia for Baker’s and the atmosphere of his barber shop as well as offers a wry political commentary on the times.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is simply entitled “Poem.” It is different from many of the others in the collection and invokes the way the mind, or the poem, can lose track of itself. In this regard, the “Poem” may be a commentary on Alzheimer’s or creeping senility. It is both frightful and humorous. Larson repeats the phrase “I had no idea” with consummate skill to convey the sense of mental “slippage.” He writes: “I had no idea I had no idea I forgot where/ ideas came from I had no idea I was / afraid of the ideas I was failing to have.” (18) This is a startling example of self-consciousness gone awry.
In the title poem, “The Wine-Dark House,” Larson, who is a master of the domestic scene, is reading late into the night Homer’s Odyssey. The poem’s title echoes the phrase “wind-dark sea,” which Homer used dozens of times in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Like Odysseus, Larson has been trying to find his way home, or at least to redefine that home. Larson’s vehicle for his journey is the process of writing itself, which he has dedicated himself to and which he knows can be both circuitous and serendipitous. But the writer who pursues his craft, like Odysseus who pursues the journey home, must have patience. Larson plays on the word “patience” in this poem. “There is a planter of impatiens / whistling in the hoop.” “I have taken / my lessons in patience/ from the wine-dark house.” The poem ends magically.
In the wine-dark house
the wine that has been poured
is darkness, you see?
I drink the wine
and the wine drinks me. (81)
Larson and the house become one; just as the poet and his journey are one. The wine is a metaphor for darkness but also inspiration, and the poet who “drinks the wine” surrenders part of himself to that inspiration, to the darkness in the house, to the quietness of reading a book, to the lushness of metaphor and to the wine of his own imagination.
These days to read a book of poetry is to engage in an act of subversion, to surrender the mind to the quiet act of discovery in a world full of noise and fear. In The Wine-Dark House the reader will find many treasures to marvel over and to stow away.
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