John Berryman‘s The Dream Songs. Berryman gave us Henry, an anguished character with a wicked sense of humor who is always tugging at the black thread that holds his soul and body together. King gives us The Gravedigger, a character occupied with the implications of his occupation. He contemplates the dead and the living, beginnings and ends, time and eternity, and the dirty reality of the work it takes to plant the remains of each individual adventure in consciousness back into the earth from which it arose. Unlike Henry, our Gravedigger doesn’t suffer from manic bitterness, and his humor is much gentler, his wit not caustic but vulnerable and sweet. It’s this sense of humor that keeps King’s sequence from sinking into the wistfully Romantic melancholy we find, for example, in Edgar Lee Masters‘ Spoon River Anthology, though The Gravedigger never turns away from the darker implications of mortality.
Take “The Gravedigger’s Black Apple Beating,” for example:
I am told the seeds that spillWe would be disappointed, of course, if the gothic promise of King’s concept didn’t surface amidst the more philosophical musings:
from a black apple
grow up again.
I am told the seeds that ooze
from a black heart
put down roots.
Not to rising sky they anchor,
and what is the value of dirt?
It has no wings unless I fling it.
My shovel is the heavy wing
flying too close to the earth.
Hawks hear it at the end of the their dives,
the choking sound it makes
as it pierces the ground.
I am told, I tell myself …
Oh, I must fill my ears with one sound:
thin roots popping as the blade moves through.
SnowhauntThere are surreal elements at work in King’s poems as well, often in brief dramas that take place in a charged but ambiguous dream-space, as in “Communion”:
The snow comes
and adds two feet to my digging.
I remember once, as I was
turning white and burrowing,
how I fell through a rotten box,
crashed into the open arms of bone.
The skeleton held my head to its chest
as if I were her child
crying home from a fight.
I had to break her arms to breathe,
rose above her, brushed
her cold white skin from my coat.
Still, a ghost shivers within me,
a memory watching
the snow fatten her again.
Head bend over, a uyoung man by candle lightI won’t quote more in the hope that you’ll buy the book to read the rest. But I can flaunt the titles of a few King poems, which in themselves capture a good deal of his black-comic stance: “Why the Dead Are so Passive,” “The Gravedigger at the Costume Party,” “Orphans Adopting Themselves,” “The Gravedigger’s Pay Dirt”. Like all of King’s work, the poems that go with these titles live up to them in surprising and insightful ways.
ate from a plate full of ashes.
He smiled at me, an old man.
“You are going to say phoenix, aren’t you?”
Teeth stealing light from the candle,
he lifted a warm, gray spoon:
“You see, old man, this is my father.”
“Won’t you join me,” he said,
reaching to shake my hand.