Dune Heath, Selected Poems by Allen Planz. Canio’s Editions 1997, paper 118pp. $15.
Review by Martin Abramson, first published in Book/Mark, Summer 2006
Because I believe my friend Allen Planz to be one of the best American poets of the 20th century, this essay will not be in any sense a critique of his work. It will be somewhere between appreciation and homage. The only criticism I will mention now, at the outset, will be of Allen’s editors or proof readers who left some typos and syntactically meaningless constructs for the reader to stumble over. And to be fair, mayhap the author was not an ideally cooperative agent in this respect. But the gratitude we owe to Canio’s Editions merely for collecting and preserving these poems in their original form must vastly outweigh the cost of a few errors. As with Shakespeare’s folios, we leave it to future scholars to wrangle over fine points in the text.
Allen Planz is arguably the finest sea poet since Melville because, like Melville, his material comes from working much of his life on ships. But as with Melville, to categorize Planz as a “sea poet” is to miss the universality of his oeuvre. He is also the acerbic social critic of his bayside town and fishing port, Sag Harbor. He is endlessly the lover and mythologizer of woman. He is a tireless advocate for the environment and a saddened chronicler of local and global pollution. He is the earthy, brass tacks commentator of the contemporary scene. His ocean and beach-based poems, with their incredible knowledge of marine biology and zoology, achieve what people have been awaiting since the publication of C.P. Snow’s, The Two Cultures: the fusion of science and art into an alloy wherein each strengthens the other.
“I know what’s up on the continental shelf,” begins ‘Mariculture’ p.99. “A gyre has sheared the thermocline and plankton/ sweet as grass blooms on the edge.” If the hallmark of literary greatness is mastery of language, Planz has it in spades. Nor need I hunt about this book for examples. They spring up anywhere I look:
...steel and tarmac stun tiderips
along these beaches once stitched by hurricane (p.33)
This/ is the salt marsh, brackish
yielding mineral to the sea
& one woman against gold going over
sings wet to the hips
of her task, harvesting
cherrystone quahog scallop (p.24)
Wind backing into the northeast
burrs new buds of the basswood.
Deer faint forward
to the edge of the swamp.
We named our child for the mountain laurel
that blooms flush with the spring (p.41)
Captain Planz’ subjects are wind, in its restless searching; sea in its mystery and minutia; fog and the phantoms it conceals; sand and marsh and the life that thrives amid them; shorelines, shore side cities and their endless give and take with the sea; women, spiritually soaring, sexually dense, liquid, sun hot; the compass rose parsing the earth’s magnetic and geographic fields; the constellations that have guided sailors from antique times; the planets that have provided our myths and calendars; the earth’s geologic history and existential present.
And all of these expressed in metaphors of harsh, masculine roughness; of people known to one who has sailed and worked in all weathers and who, in his later years, still works the fishing boats by day and sleeps over a garage by night as often as not with a woman next to him. Planz, the exuberant poet-adventurer: often struggling with his doppelganger, the Zen acolyte who studies and meditates with Peter Mathiessen.
My Village Under a Northeaster (p.52)
Driven wild, nunbuoys spindle in the rip.
Hogchokers flop on shore, nearly airborne
on bladderwort and sputnik weed still bearing rock.
Spoondrift raze riprap where no one walks
but one gull drunk from riding updrafts.
In the fishing station, our hearts pump piss.
Mclaine curses the weather that whiskey
raises with the wind and the dead.
But now I remember the pain
when I called you nogood sunovabitch
for what you wrote of Vietnam
and Mcclaine and the Baymen swayed into silence
and you started talking of your death,
so soon to come, and of mine, scare
dividing flesh from flesh. village
from nation. Where’s the guys who’d rather
fish than drink, John? Where the hell’s
when widows and whalemen face the sea?
If lines like that don’t stir your heart, you were raised in a different universe than I. And a poet who can find joy in the animus mundi even amid the junk and detritus of civilization, is one whose spiritual power cannot be minimized.
When a man dies, a bird is born
If these poems are to be interpreted at all, I’m not the one to do it. They exist like a forest of oaks. Each tree being exactly what it is, infinitely complex, yet without ambiguity. Each branch, leaf, flower and fruit perfectly formed: a kind of magic realism, flawless beyond critique. Perhaps this is why the scholars have circumvented them: all one can do is read them, experience their beauty and their power and gaze out to the horizon, pondering.
The sea is sweet
when read at night
full of the light of its own invention.
If next solstice you face Atlantis
you’ll water overfalling water,
the cliffs and terraces of the continental shelf
inverted over the horizon, a starry archipelago north
and a delta of fog fainting as you look at
no fata morgana but the mayan likeness
of canyonlands underwater ten thousand years. (p.114)