For over a quarter century, Tom Plante has been editing the poetry journal, Exit 13, whose title suggests the geographical and psychological geographies that concern him. The actual Exit 13 is an exit off of the New Jersey Turnpike, where Plante, born in New York City, has lived the past thirty years. As the title of his new collection suggests, he is still mapping the soul in time and space. The title poem begins:
Where did I put the geography
the wholeness of this place?
Plante is engaged in drawing his personal map, so to speak, in these poems, which have been collected over a period of time. We know this from the first line of the first poem, "Love at Work," a lovesong to his wife Patricia, which begins, "Sitting at my typewriter / with an hour to go...." A typewriter? A typewriter? Remember the Eighties?
"Unfinished Work," an elegy to his father, takes place in April, 1997, on the occasion of Allen Ginsberg's death. Plante's father likewise died in April, in 1982. As he notes, "there'll always be unfinished work." And thus, in this map, there's always something that remains and revives.
The roses sprout leaves and new thorns.
Lilacs push mud aside. Slowly the pain of growth
and loss gives way to full bloom and fruit,
sunflowers and summer's abundant gardens.
Plante begins this collection, then, by mapping out how he got to where he is, in the scheme of his life, though without making bold claims about any milestones. Indeed, one of the last poems in the collection, "44th and Ocean, Brant Beach, NJ," ends with the wry lines:
and me on the tide's edge
keeping record in the sand.
Records in the sand are washed away with the next wave. Tom Plante makes me think of a Zen master tending to his own garden, or Walt Whitman "loafing with his soul." There's a real sense of peace and harmony in these poems, as of somebody who has come to terms with his existence — with his map.
The poems are always rooted in specific locations. Poems take place in New Jersey, New Orleans, North Carolina, San Francisco, Iraq. They come with a moral consciousness that is more reflective than lecturing. "Too Many Sergeants" is a lament for the young men and women from all over America killed in the Middle East wars of the past dozen years.
Too young, too old, too many.
And so many sergeants, servants
of our country who worked their way
up the ranks. So many towns with
rural roots and even the cities more
pastoral, peaceful, than far-off Iraq
and forgotten Afghanistan, our wars
of choice that offer brief geography lessons
to a people struggling to understand our kids,
our computers, our insurance policies, iPods....
"For the Souls of the Lower 9th Ward" is likewise a lament for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. "Asphalt Geography," on the other hand, celebrates "a pocket of peace" at "the corner of West First and Amsterdam" — "at the crossroads / of all we know" —
To the east is the Hudson,
to the west the Delaware,
closer yet the Rahway, and the Elizabeth.
In "Tune in Tomorrow for Another Adventure" the poet ruefully notes the days when he and his brother read comic books:
We knew the
dangers of kryptonite and Lex Luther and the limits
of X–ray vision but knew next to nothing
about the hazards of the DMZ in Korea
or the Berlin wall, what the heck was Indo–China
or what was going on along the back roads of Alabama.
"Ferry 'Cross the Delaware" (a sly reference to a 1964 Gerry and the Pacemakers' song), "Coral Avenue Morning, 8–31–05," "Looking for It on the Outer Banks," "On Magazine Street, New Orleans," "Autumn Serenade in Duck, North Carolina": revelations, ruminations, rejoicing and regret all occur in specific locations, the reflections inspired by their places, the places colored by the poet's thoughts.
So what does it all amount to, these "records kept in the sand"? Plante notes at the conclusion of the poem, "In Case":
is that you're ready for whatever,
as if you could be
ready for anything.