Dan Gerber, The End of Michelangelo (Copper Canyon), 109pp. Paperback, $17.00.

In his poem “Presence,” Dan Gerber is on a walk with his dogs in an aspen grove in Idaho. He stops. Something about the brush pile up ahead is out of place, “too dark, too dense.” A bear? Worse—a moose. The dogs quiver. “Time was all around us now, meaning / one more siphoned breath of / the air the moose was breathing, too.”

This poem, at the heart of Gerber’s new book, The End of Michelangelo, is a masterpiece of brief suspense in verse. At 111 short lines, “Presence” (originally published in Narrative in 2019) is the perfect length for the moment of breathless fear that strikes the hapless victim at the sudden sight of a deadly monster. (A neighbor, we learn, had been “stomped to death / the summer before.”) Everything is arrested, and the slightest motion—the buzz of a fly, the flutter of a leaf—takes on the heightened significance of lyric poetry. Luckily for the poet, the enormous bull moose turns and goes on his way, “a primeval wave of midday / darkness through the fragile trees.”

Such encounters with the natural world fill the verses of The End of Michelangelo and of Gerber’s poetry more generally, of which this is the tenth collection. (His first, The Revenant, was published in 1971; his strongest, A Primer on Parallel Lives, appeared in 2007.) These short poems often appeal to the sounds and motions of animals, especially those in flight, such as “bats rapt in the sonar of their desire.” Avian phenomena often elevate the poet into ecstatic states of wonder; in an earlier poem, for instance (from the 2017 collection Particles), he wrote compellingly of an owl’s feathered wing that “brushed my busy life into silence.”

Now living in the Santa Ynez Valley, Gerber—an octogenarian scion of the Gerber Baby Food dynasty—reflects on his own mortality by attuning himself to the rhythms and patterns of his immediate environment. The book’s title refers to the sonnets composed by the great Renaissance artist, who wrote that nature itself must be old and nearing death—and, conscious of that end, ever more earnestly striving to create with a mixture of terror and beauty.

The title also suggests a scholarly quality to these poems. And Gerber is certainly an erudite writer, happily alluding to the giants of the past: Li Po, Baudelaire, Valéry, Rilke. But the learned references don’t really bring with them the heavy weight of time-honored tradition and institutional canonicity. Rather, the verses keep flitting, moving without rather than within, like a marble statue with electric eyes.

Far from academic exercises, these poems are much more personal and straightforward. “Always a poet of conversational diction,” notes Todd Davis, “Gerber’s consistent use of liquid sounds and long vowels highlights his careful attention to line breaks that help the reader move clearly through the poem’s elegant lyricism.” The poems here bear some resemblance to those of Ted Kooser, one of the chums mentioned in Gerber’s Acknowledgments, and they convey a sense of loss for departed friends, such as the Western writer Jim Harrison, who died in 2016.

Gerber, like Harrison, has been known for a commitment to Zen Buddhism, and many verses here can be characterized by a mindfulness, or full consciousness, of the present moment. “Mono no aware” (the title is a Japanese term for awareness of the impermanence of things) is one of the standouts, describing the poet’s own experience of life as “a silent, / second actor in / every closely watched scene.” Other poems acknowledge themselves as vain attempts to catch at the ungraspable; time and again, Gerber mentions “this fleeting identity” or “our fleeting selves.” Nothing here is monumentalized in an ode to permanence. It’s a quiet book, the product of patiently attentive yet inactive repose.

Avian phenomena often elevate the poet into ecstatic states of wonder.

What especially distinguishes Gerber’s new poems is the appropriate touch of humor that eliminates the odor of self-seriousness. Even in “Presence,” we sense a wry grin when the poet suggests that the monster’s “mooseness was implacable.” In another poem, “Staying Home,” Gerber and his wife consider it a sign when they each see, from opposite sides of their house, “a soaring hawk let go / a great white glittering shit, / a handful of tinsel in the wind.” But that humor can just as swiftly shift to profound reverence. In “After Dinner,” it’s Gerber who relieves himself outdoors, when a falcon alights on a roof tile “not five feet above / my eye”:

    The air went missing and everything

I might have sensed moving fled
with my breath under the quick

solemn snap-roll glances of this compact
new lord of impending night, honoring me,

I took it that way, my heartbeat

chanting thank you, thank you, thank you, without quite
caring who you was.

The repeated enjambment here creates the illusion of motion, but the sense conveyed is of utter motionlessness; air itself has fled. The chanting is purely internal, a heartbeat rather than a voice. The lordly falcon deigns to honor Gerber with a glance, and all of nature responds accordingly.

The End of Michelangelo initially suggests a funereal theme, but there’s far more life than death here. And age is no tragedy. At multiple points, Gerber contends against Dylan Thomas’s famous “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Whereas Thomas would “rage against the dying of the light,” Gerber, in the poem “Against the Dying of the Light,” finds that nothing is really dying—no fading, no dimming, everything instead wonderfully illuminated. “Rue, not rage,” he quotes Samuel Menashe on the book’s final page, is what focuses his attention and fuels his creativity. Evening may be approaching, but there is more day to dawn.

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