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Michael Lavers

After Earth: Poems

University of Tampa Press, 2019

Part elegy, part ode, part pastoral, part sci-fi, After Earth looks back through history in order to consider history’s end. Many of the poems are drawn from the concerns of a father for his children, from the impulse to record the Earth, to preserve what’s slipping away, and to heal, if poems can, the bifurcation of nature and civilization. Reveling in the ornate as well as the plain, these poems cultivate astonishment not in the promise of another world, but in the here and now, turning “what is is wavering or tattered into permanence,” and praising all they can, as Auden says we must, “for being and for happening.”

Review by Lance Larsen at Faculty Book Lunch

Rather than fritter away my time cataloging the dozens of top-drawer journals where Michael Lavers’ poems have appeared, like Southern Review, Georgia Review, and Antioch Review, or enumerating his many honors, like the Canberra Vice Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize (which he has received twice), I want to concentrate on Michael’s recent poetry collection, After Earth.

This collection, which received the Tampa Review prize after beating out 400-500 other manuscripts in a national competition, appeared in 2019. If you do the math, that’s an acceptance rate of roughly one quarter of 1%. Not exactly encouraging odds. What does this manuscript possess that the others didn’t? In a conversation at AWP a couple of years ago, the assistant editor of Georgia Review hinted at an answer: “People just don’t write poems like this anymore.”

Meaning poems with well-turned phrases you’d trade your firstborn for, poems with subtleties of syntax and diction bejeweled in figurative language, poems with sonic pleasures galore and meter meted out in rhyme—full, half, and sideways. He has already become a contemporary master of blank verse, English’s most flexible workhorse. To extend the metaphor probably too far: in Michael’s hands, sometimes that workhorse is a Clydesdale, sometimes a mostly well-behaved quarter horse, sometimes a wild mustang wandering the moony desert, sometimes Pegasus. In short, Michael is a poet’s poet, one who brilliantly fashions imaginary gardens, then fills them with real toads, to borrow from Marianne Moore. And in every poem, in virtually every line, he makes good on Keats’ recommendation “to load every rift of your subject with ore.”

I don’t have time to do an exegesis of specific pieces, but let me describe what you’ll find if you crack this exquisite book: lyrics and lullabies, advice and invective, epistles and elegies and epic lists, eclogues and georgics, pastoral and prayer and plenty of dramatic monologues. Who would dare to speak in the voice of Daedalus or Prospero or a prophet or an angel? Well, Michael for one. And what will you hear? From the opening poem, a celebration of the here and now: “Sometimes in the night’s thick velvet, openings appear: this sorrow, that bowl of oranges, those stars.” And from the concluding poem, a hint about why we’re here: “Salvation from our own smoking detritus / in cliches of a better world? / Unsatisfactory. The end must be / to cultivate perpetual astonishment / right now and watch light bail / darkness from the flooding sky.”