In Don’t Look Back, Dabney Stuart recalls central people and emotions from his past and integrates them into a search for personal wholeness in the present. He honors a network of family members, calling up the richness of their lives and making room for them in his. There is his aloof and coldly majestic grandmother, a salty, aged grandfather, variations on a dream girl, and images of a mother, wives, father, sons, and an elusive brother. Undergirding these poems is an implied chronology of psychological growth: from floating prenatal consciousness, through adolescent jealousy and repression, to adult acceptance and grief.
Although the autobiographical aspect of Stuart’s poems anchors them in a drama of generations, it also serves as a springboard into thoughtful and profound searchings. In the five-part poem, “The Birds,” the poet ponders the flow of events in life and the intangible forces that influence that flow. The birds of the title represent, and are somehow intimate with, these forces. Although not inclined to divulge them, the birds have answers to human question about pain, loss and regeneration.
In such a time, in April, you could almost imagine
a child standing under the pines,
shadowed. He could lift his hand to them
and open it, releasing among their needles
an affable light, a flying instant
which might nest in them, a birthday covenant
of impossible flight
The poems in Don’t Look Back are ambitious, complex meditation rendered with grace and clarity.
Dabney Stuart, professor of English at Washington and Lee University, is the editor of Shenandoah. He is the author of eight books of poetry, including Common Ground, Don’t Look Back, and Narcissus Dreaming, as well as a book of criticism on Nabokov. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, the Southern Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and other publications. Stuart has received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship.
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