BILL SCALIA Reviews
Restoration Poems, 1972 – 2007 by Ed Baker
(Country Valley Press, Gardnerville, Nevada, 2008)
The two photographs on Ed Baker’s anthology Restoration Poems are telling in regard to the poetry; in the true sense of Baker’s work, I should say revealing. The cover photograph depicts a two story, unrefined cottage and a small figure of a man, looking downward, almost out of frame at right. The back cover “author’s photo” shows a humble-looking man, casually dressed, holding a rusted pipe wrench. The sense of humility and simplicity of this choice of photographs invites me into the book. This poet is someone whose language I want to know.
Ed Baker fits poetry on the reader as you would fit a comfortable shirt on yourself; it feels a part of you; its presence seems self-evident. The language Baker chooses is careworn, fit into place as smoothly as not to draw attention to itself. Whereas Whitman adds sharpness to his depictions by adding ever increasing (increase! increase!) lists of details, Baker works in the opposite direction: one has the feeling Baker has felt the experience of a wrench, for example, and has removed everything possible that stands between the human and the experience. There are barely 20 words per page of this interesting book. I believe that if I were to count the total number of words in the book (there are perhaps 80 pages), there would be less than 1000 -- but to count is to quantify, and quantification is antithetical to the experience of the book.
The book suggests critique in terms of Aristotle’s four “causes.” The material cause is the lexicon at Baker’s disposal; the formal cause is the shape, the ideal form in the poet’s mind; the final cause is the book itself, publication, the telos of making the work public. The interest to us, the reader, is the efficient cause: the poet himself. His task is to match the formal cause (the idea) with the final cause (telos).
Thus, the lynchpin of the book is restoration. Baker is restoring words themselves to their simplicity; better, Baker is after the essence of experience through the questionable medium of language. Essence, in Baker’s writing, is experience, and both precede language. Baker is pursuing, in a sense, the grand Emersonian project of reattaching words to things (the wrench in the photograph is an important symbol in the book: of “wrenching” structures apart, of attaching a word to its fundamental idea. An impossibility, of course; but the value of the work is that it returns language to the condition of sacrament. Baker’s “flutter / pattern / on / wall” is a manifestation of spirit; if the “pump / not / used / in 67 / years” is left standing at the bottom of the page, it is we who have turned away from the water.
More so, Baker astonishes by attenuating a sense of ambiguity -- not in the sense of lack of clarity, but in the sense of the mystical. We often think of ambiguity in the mystical sense as hovering over experience, outside of life, as somehow escaping (like “ether out of the phial” (to use Hawthorne’s expression). This is the reading of “ambiguity” the French films critics of the Positif group continually criticized in the writing of André Bazin. But what the Positif group failed to realize was that Bazin’s metaphysics revealed reality -- the so-called “Bazanian realism” -- that sees sacramentality in the world, through the experience of the world. Baker’s tactile writing breaks through reality to reach ambiguity; and therein lies the secret beauty of his work.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). His book Conversing in Figures: Emerson, Poetry, Cinema is forthcoming. Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.