Dan Veach is a man of many talents. He has received accolades not only for his own poetry but also for his translations of Chinese, Iraqi and Anglo-Saxon works. He founded the international poetry journal Atlanta Review, which he also edits, not to mention Poetry Atlanta Press, a local publisher of poetry books.
In addition to his accomplishments as a writer and editor, Veach helps compile a calendar of live poetry events in the metro area on the Poetry Atlanta blog. Oh, and as if his literary endeavors were not enough, Veach also plays the saxophone, recently appearing in Hidden Away: the Library at Night, Nicole Livieratos and Phillip DePoy’s popular performance piece at the Decatur Library.
Elephant Water (Finishing Line Press, 80 pp.), published last year, has won him the 2013 Georgia Writers Association’s Author of the Year Award in poetry. It collects work written over nearly four decades in a lovely volume that he designed and illustrated. In a nod to traditional Chinese poet-painters, Veach complements his poetry with his own brush and ink drawings. These whimsical sketches often visually accentuate the poems, as in “The Seal,” in which the seal swims between the poem’s two stanzas.
The book is divided into three sections, each titled with a region of the United States — “Out West,” “Up North” and Down South” — where Veach has lived. He often compares these regions, geographies, histories. Each section begins with a short narrative piece in prose, which sets up the subsequent poems.
In the book’s title poem, the speaker stands among kids at the zoo, watching a mischievous old elephant with her trunk in the pond. Everyone waits in excited anticipation: will the elephant spray them? When she finally does, Veach likens the sprinkling to a baptism, a blessing of sorts. “Long after the children leave / I’m still standing there / Immersed in the ponderous, graceful air / and a drop of elephant water.”
Animals and the natural world populate Veach’s work. There are poems about trees (“Sonnet on an Elm,” “Ten Years of Winter,” “Thinking Among the Pines”), insects (“Millers,” “In Honor of Roaches,” “Gnats Fizz”), birds (“Egret,” “Feeding the Wind,” “The Silver Swans of Sligo”), reptiles (“Alligator Pond,” “Desert Spring”) and mammals (“Elephant Water,” “The Seal,” “Br’er Briar”). He also demonstrates a deep sensitivity to changing seasons and landscapes.
Far from simple pastorals, these poems often use vivid and lyrical descriptions of the natural world as a jumping-off point for wider observations about the intrusion of the human into nature or the transience of existence. In “Extinction” Veach depicts an abandoned barbeque grill wrapped in vines. “Leaves twine about the gridiron on its top,” turning “this altar of burnt carnivorous offerings / into a trelliswork for flowers.” The poem’s second stanza relates the extinction of the grill to the poet’s own mortality: “let these coals be a warning / to my restless, pacing / predatory thoughts.”
Veach also writes with disarming candor, humor and irony about the poet’s all-too-human desires for recognition and uniqueness. In the funny, grandiosely titled “My Claim to Fame” he writes: “There are 19 lemons / Sitting on my desk / At this very moment. / How many other people / Can say as much?”
The center of the universe is the main character of an eponymous poem. It walks around Boston, wanders into a Chinese bookstore, enjoys the smell of pizza it can’t afford to buy. “A little tired, a little lonely, / another day of being only / the center of the universe.” These lines, with their rhyming couplet, illustrate Veach’s wit, as well as his formal ingenuity.
Throughout Elephant Water Veach explores a wide range of formal elements, including wordplay (check out the wrapped/rapt pun in “Extinction”), visually arresting stanza shapes (as in “Millers”), lines of differing lengths (“Ancient of Nights”), the sonnet form in a variety of iterations (especially charming is “In Honor of Roaches”), and the concision of traditional Chinese forms (in poems such as “Tree House” and “Tennessee”).
Veach consistently and flexibly uses rhyme in lively ways, especially to end a poem. Here’s an example from the last stanza of “26th Birthday Puddle:” “These Boston passersby won’t understand / an almost grown-up man (these days) / and his strange, puddle-staring / country ways.”
And this one, from “The Gardener and the Poet:” “I envy the work and rest I cannot share / Never sleeping, always aware / My unripe fruit is sour in my veins / Green acid of life / I have you for my pains.”
Another, from “Einstein Listens to Beethoven:” “After all / there is no way of knowing / what you are going to need / where you are going.”
Veach ends his book with a culminating reflection on his love for music and his envious desire to create poetry that carries its power as well as his gratitude for the beauty and fragility of the natural world. “Sweet Rain” is a return to the blessing of water, reminiscent of the single drop in “Elephant Water.” Here he sits alone “beneath the short skirts of the eaves,” letting the rain fall on his knees and into his cup. “Tonight I listen to the light / sweet rain / falling on all alike / and envy no one.”