Facing the certainty of death and the uncertainty of God or an afterlife, Gary Blankenburg considers what, above all things, is important in this brief span of time granted to us before our ultimate extinction, in this first collection of poems he has published in a decade. Now in his seventies, Blankenburg gives serious attention to the things that matter — above all things. Those things, briefly, are the things that have always inspired him — love and nature.
Above All Things is composed of two sections, Natural Piety and Above All Things. The first section title comes from the concluding lines of Wordsworth's short poem, "My Heart Leaps Up." Indeed, in poem after poem Blankenburg writes movingly about his heart leaping up, up towards nature, love, the stars, the moon, the birds, his family. In "First Marriage," on a summer night long ago in an age of innocence, a girl smears glowing firefly guts around a boy's ring finger and around her own, and they are married "forever." It's a touching poem about vows in a time before the heat of lust has moved us, and it reinforces an idea about the value and appeal of love in its purest form. In the next poem, "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," Blankenburg considers the moon, demystified now by space exploration yet still potent enough to inspire him to "embrace it/as I once embraced my teenage girlfriend."
The first four poems of this collection, in fact, fuse images of the heavens, the night sky, with the sublimity of love. "Falling Star" reinforces this conflation in its final line, "Oh Love, what if you should ever fall from my heaven?" We assume Blankenburg is addressing his wife, to whom this book is dedicated, but he is also addressing Love itself, which forms part of the natural piety.
But in the next poem, "Bleeding Heart," the reality of existence, which preoccupies him throughout this collection — life is old age, sickness and death (the first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, by the way) — comes crashing in. As winter gives way to spring, he writes: "I think I want//to be in love again/with women/the way I am//forever head over heels/in love with nature./But, oh, I am//a foolish old man/longing for a young/man's heart." This is simply so poignant.
Yet as the titles of the remaining poems tell you, this section is devoted to the glory of nature which, with love, above all things makes this existence so precious, and therein lies the piety. "Weather," "If Birds Held Weddings," "Lady Cardinal," "Fall Fishing in the Mountains," "Early Spring, Early March": the splendor of the natural world compels him again and again. The final two poems of the section, "Forgotten" and "Above All Things," inject a note of what I can only call despair into these reflections, a note that, true, has already been played in earlier poems: "It's all forgotten at the end —//The world we thought we knew..." The final poem has an elegiac tone. "Above All Things" ... "he loved his cigar, his dog,/and the river...." Note the past tense.
Thus, in the second part, Above All Things, which comes from a line from Saint Augustine, the Catholic theologian, Blankenburg grapples with faith, his lack of it, the uncertainty of anything beyond the natural world he so cherishes.
Augustine says: "Let us love God above all things." Oh yeah? Again, the poem titles give you the overview: "Rapture," "Cosmology," "Epistle to Death," "Resurrection," "Miracles," "Prayer," "I Think I Know What God Wants from Me." There are several poems that feature vultures and other scavenger birds that feast on carrion. ("Three Vultures" concludes: "They are reluctant to fly away.") The poem "Neighbors" tells of a cow that has died while calving, the calf's head emerging from its mother. The neighbors cover them with a tarp to deal with next morning, but overnight the wind blows the tarp off the animals. What they find next day:
A crow is perched on the calf's head and picking
at one of its eyes for all of us and God to admire.
"Good Neighbors" and "Old Folks Home" tell stories of once—vigorous people reduced to feebleness by age. "Epistle to Death" carries the same reflections: "Each day/my breath becomes/more shallow/and the earth/more beautiful/and joyless."
Several poems come with epigraphs from St. Augustine, the original Catholic philosopher who likewise struggled with faith. Augustine once said, "Faith is to believe in what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe." Fair enough, but Blankenburg has difficulty making that leap of faith, certainly in the same way that his "heart leaps up" to nature. This doubt is best captured in the poem entitled, "Magician":
mage: Latin: to call forth
Oh great God
of Hocus Pocus,
work your magic
Cast a spell
to transform me
from what I am
and would be.
Oh, Zap me,
and — Presto —
for I have tried
bread and wine,
smells and bells,
sacred water and oil
all to no avail.
erupt and fly
forth from out
your sleeves —
of mercy and grace.
Sometimes it seems as if Blankenburg writes with complete sincerity, not an ounce of the ironic, but at others...
Without meaning to sound too ironic, all I can say is, God bless Gary Blankenburg.