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Review: Treatise on Touch, by David Baker

Treatise on Touch, a selection of poems spanning six books from 1981 to 2001, offers a welcome introduction to the work of a talented, insightful poet. A professor at Denison University in Ohio, David Baker writes with great attention to form and detail, exploring a variety of subjects that range from the personal and lyrical to the historical and biographical. Several selections from his recent collection Changeable Thunder (2001), fro example, examine literary history from the vantage point of well-known authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edward Taylor, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walt Whitman. The results are often quite compelling; Emerson grieves for his dead wife Ellen in Romanticism, finding that Dreams & beasts are two keys by which we are/ to find out the secrets of our own natures. The collection's opening poem, Benton's Clouds, offers an intriguing blend of the personal and historical, invoking the painter Thomas Hart Benton's landscapes where We could see it all in an instant's clear/ likeness, where the future is not coming / but is already part of the story. The six-part poem Midwest: Georgics alludes to Virgil's poetry of hard work, contrasting Midwestern labour with the desire of an unnamed poet to achieve visionary transcendence:

What I am
trying to get at is a general,
all-purpose experience- like those stretch
socks that fit all sizes. The particular
occasion is of lesser interest
to me than the way a happening or
experience filters through me.

To this elusive, perhaps illusory desire, Baker's speaker provides a succinct rebuttal:

I wish we could all be like the poet,
out-of-body, misrepresentative
of our bad luck and lot, no one's story.
but this is what it means to have our life.

Such pithy rejoinders can be found throughout Treatise on Touch, where the immaterial is frequently met and confounded by the physicality of experience. In Ohio Fields after Rain, for instance, the landscape is a vivid, sensory locale that is time- and site-specific:

What a place we have come to, scooped
hollow of hillsides, cut valleys, drumlins
and plains. And where the rain settles,
the grey beasts growing tame on the shore.

Such pastoral evocations are countered in another Ohio poem, Unconditional Election, that depicts landscape as intensely temporal and threatened:

We have decided now to kill the doves
November the third, nineteen ninety-nine
who gather in great numbers in the fields
of Ohio, vast and diminishing.

Along with the persistent interest in the natural world that permeates the collection Baker also investigates the role of labour in our personal lives and histories. In Dust to Dust from The Truth about Small Towns (1998), Baker's speaker admits that I have a good life and hands too soft for labour and wishes to praise one thing made so well. The Mimosa recollects the lives of working fathers, men who built the town where the speaker lived:

Once we lived within earshot of our fathers in labour
as if labour were their love,
their longings measured
by a lifeline of shift whistles, freight trains,
the big building like a body
accustomed to pain.

Memories of these men are the only inheritance of the present, a time and place that can sustain them no longer. In their stead, the speaker can only pose a more immaterial wish:

I will never know
such longing as our fathers, nor
such labour as theirs,
nor love. But let me touch fire in an odour
like starlight, like fever.

Such impossible, irresistible longings are expressed throughout Treatise on Touch, an impressive collection that aptly demonstrates, in lines taken from After the Reunion, that There is nothing / that does not connect and so sustain.