(Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015)
At some point while reading Eric Pankey’s Crow-Work, I set the book down and Google’d “Who invented time?” I am embarrassed to admit it. A foolish question, I know, and not one that I expected to find an answer to, or even needed an answer to in order to connect with these poems. But to encounter Pankey’s work is to enroll in a meditation on temporality, among many other things. In these poems, time slips, morphs, destabilizes, fractures, solidifies, and unravels as Pankey relentlessly investigates it, but comes to no easy conclusions. Something in me was desperate for a fact, a foundation to cling to among the swirl of time. Even as a person who prides himself on being at ease in fluidity, I was happy to be compelled such, to be forced to reach for an understanding Pankey and I both know is unreachable.
“The past is a raveled tapestry/ A furrow cleaved open like scripture,” Pankey writes in “Depth of Field,” and concludes the same poem with the single line, “The past—imperfect, at a remove—remains.” Only a few pages later, in “The Dictates of Gravity,” he writes that “If one can remember a thing/ One never experienced,/ Think how easy the forgetting.” Time, inextricable in these poems from memory, entombs a past that is enduring and transient, factual and fictional, simultaneously. He articulates this paradox most concisely in “Objects in Giorgio Morandi’s Studio,” when he says, “The hour (call it noon sunk in the shallows)/ Is although it moves on to isn’t.”
Understanding time as continuously shifting is only the beginning of the exploration of Crow-Work. Pankey’s real investigation is of the things— art, mathematics, religion, death—in which we humans tend to trust to retain some truth unaltered through time. But he finds as much to distrust as to trust in these vehicles. Take, for example, one poem’s title: “The Original Scriptures No Longer Exist, Merely Translations of Translations of Corrupted Texts.” Additionally, in “Ars Poetica,” Pankey reveals the surprising endurance of art, but then seems to question that very concept in “Study for Salome Dancing Before Herod” when he opens the poem with the words, “In the movement toward disappearance.”
Of death, supposedly the ultimate frieze, Pankey seems to be the most skeptical. In “My Brother’s Ghost,” his brother has “missed out, it seems, on the fullness of death” because he persists on this earth, continuing to move through time. In other words, his brother’s problem is that he is fated to both exist and be nonexistent. But in “To Open the Body,” after the incision of flesh, Pankey observes that
One begins to doubt a correspondence
Between the animal and the spiritual,
Or, rather, one begins to perceive
No vessel or cranny to hold the soul,
Which certainly must have substance
To counterbalance all that is substantial.
In this poem, it is the body that is flawed. In its substance, it fails at its one task: to hold the soul. Here, it is not the ghost that is doomed after life, but rather the body during life. Death exposes a lifelong failure of the body; when it is opened, there is only absence. But Pankey’s poems do not abhor this absence, because from these holes comes creation. In “Fragments from an Excavation,” Pankey celebrates the fact that “In vitrines and bell jars: objects commemorate absence.” The cause for celebration is that “What one longs for is artifice,” after all.
Perhaps in this realization, Pankey’s Crow-Work finds its place of rest. But after such frequent assessing and reassessing of abstractions in his poems, it is difficult to feel at ease in rest. The uneasiness and the desire to continue the search is the very power of the collection. If there is any place Pankey asks us to rest, it is in contemplation, which proves to be an extremely restless place.
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Jake Bauer is an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University.