A Poet Ages With Grace: A Review of David Allan Evans’ This Water. These Rocks.

The ninth collection of poetry by South Dakota poet laureate David Allan Evans, entitled This Water. These Rocks. (San Francisco Bay Press, 2009) is characterized by a deliberate wisdom, a practiced third eye that takes the time to contemplate both the congruities and the incongruities of life. A professor of English and writer-in residence at South Dakota State University for thirty-nine years, Evans’ long tenure as a poet and author obviously lends itself to the authentic quality of his poetry. The poems in This Water. These Rocks. feel lived in, inhabited by the entirety of the poet’s life experience, but they are also highly accessible. Evans writes with plainspoken strength and clarity, crafting poems that humbly bare themselves to the reader, inviting him/her to step inside the lines as well. Divided into three sections of poems, the book is not concerned with any one particular topic or theme, but rather explores a myriad of thematic concepts. Through careful observation, contemplation, wonder, and revelation, these poems grapple with aging, natural immersion, the power of memory, mortality, and the search for meaning, all while remaining grounded in the narrative of day-to-day human existence.
The book’s first section, entitled “South Dakota,” opens with the poem “Abandoned Car in Winter,” which is a perfect example of the restrained style used throughout the collection. The title of the poem, like so many titles in the book, does an excellent job of setting the scene, and from there Evans wastes no time getting down to showing the readers exactly what he wants them to see. He thrusts the readers immediately into the image of the poem, describing the hypothetical last days of an abandoned car with wonderfully minute detail:
For the last time, somebody
pulled a nail out of its
last flat tire with a pair
of pliers, fixed it,
put it back on, and
snugged all four lugs.
Using only that simple image, Evans is able to comment simultaneously on the impermanence of material goods and the permanence of nature. The car is abandoned by a person who
parked it just east of
the shelterbelt, turned off the key
emptied the glove compartment, got out,
shut the door, and began
to forget about it,
but in the final stanza of the poem the poet invites the reader to witness for themselves the permanence of nature reclaiming what humankind leaves behind:
But wait – it’s December.
If you take a look out
the kitchen window, you’ll see the old Chevy
covered by its new owner:
the snow.
“Abandoned Car in Winter” is a fitting preview for what follows in the first section as well as in the rest of This Water. These Rocks. Evans, who also writes and publishes fiction, is as deft a story-teller in his poetry as he is in his prose. Several of the poems in the first section read as though they might be the opening paragraph to a short story. “A Winter Journey” is beautiful poem that is quite nearly a short-story all on its own. Again, Evans opens the poem by immersing the reader immediately in the action of the image: “There I was, where I hadn’t / planned to be: in new snow / up to my calves, walking north / toward her house.” The poem goes on to detail the powerful memories that the place the speaker is in awakens within him, memories of fishing and playing on the ice of the frozen lake as a kid, the same ice he must now cross carefully on his way to the house of an old lover. a lover who’s “lovely, / perilous voice” is irresistible to him. The poem, which is the action of the speaker crossing the lake as well as the story of his deep-rooted attachment to the memories of place, is a perfect example of how Evan’s skill with narrative lends itself to his poetry.
Contemplations of nature, like those in “Abandoned Car in Winter” are heavily featured in the book’s opening section. In “If Only,” Evans speaks of an innate human desire to reconnect with the natural world. He illustrates that like our early ancestors, who “after all those / tens of thousands of years / of wandering” “began to build a roof / over their heads, and stay put,” we too have made homes for ourselves, yet our conception of home has progressively distanced itself from the natural world, as we live now “in a new century, / sitting in air-conditioned / high-rises 20 stories up.” Evans goes on to show that no matter how far we try and get from nature, our innate connection to it is inescapable, and everyone, either consciously or unconsciously “longs for something / far beyond the city limits.”
In other poems, like “Spearfish Falls” and “Sioux Falls” Evans entertains fantasies of a complete immersion into the natural world, rejections of the frenzied pace and consumerist waste of modern society that again explore humankind’s innate desire to connect with our natural surroundings on a deeper level. In “Spearfish Falls” Evans opens with a John Lennon-like proposal:
Imagine a world without
whirring machines,
buzzing power lines,
TV’s, highways. A world
with more hawks,
pines, aspen, spruce,
starlight, and the nimble
silence of cougars.
The poem ends with a rather journalistic stanza that discusses how the water is no longer being diverted from Spearfish Falls for the purpose of industry, which leaves the natural setting to return to its normal way of functioning in which
cold, clear water is
falling over the
same high rocks
into the same deep gulch,
a profound image that illustrates perfectly the permanence of nature. In “Sioux Falls,” the same longing for immersion into the stable permanence of nature is expressed. The speaker longs for a view of the Sioux Falls from the comfort of his back deck, where he would be able to wake up “every June morning to the sound / of water crashing over rocks”. Though the speaker is glad that such a pristine natural area remains untouched by the hand of developers, he admits that
Being human, though: if it were
for sale, and I had the money,
I can see owning it.
This water. These Rocks.
The second section of the book, entitled “Some Guys”, is perhaps the most interesting in that it seems to stand alone. The section is comprised entirely of poems that are essentially character studies of individual American males. Featuring titles that are simply the full name of the characters whose stories Evans proceeds to tell, the poems explore the different ways in which the American male searches for the meaning and sustenance of life. In “Ronnie Perkins,” Evans gives us a man who justifies his existence by exaggerating his accomplishments:
Go ahead: mention to him
the bona fide fact that you cleared
six feet in high school track.
“Yeah,” he’ll say, “I did 6-3”.
In “Herb Denton” Evans shows a man who finds meaning in the consistent routine of a steady truck driving job, despite having a drinking problem:
And yet every wide-eyed
weekday morning at seven sharp
(going on 39 years) count on it:
he’s in his truck and on the move.
In the sharply humorous “Adrian Bentley,” Evans shows us man’s inclination to find sustenance in vice. Adrian does not smoke or do drugs but has an addiction to potato chips. He eats a full bag every night with a couple of light beers, and the poem chronicles his attempts to quit his addition. At the end of the poem he is able to kick the habit, but as his potato chip intake decreases, his beer intake increases, and in this way Evans shows how we all have our vices that make life more tolerable.
The poems in “Some Guys” do not stray from the sparse, uncomplicated style that Evans establishes in the first book. The language here is devoid of elevated diction, dense abstraction, and convoluted metaphor. Evans leaves only the bare bones and polishes them until they shine with poetic luster and resonate with simple, everyday truth. Also intriguing is his use of the word “you” in many of the character study poems. “Jessie Tobin”,” for instance, opens with the following stanza:
The first day you meet him,
he tells you about the time,
as a kid in Alabama, he gunny-
sacked 70 or 80 poisonous
water snakes just walking right
down the middle of a creek.
By using ‘you’ Evans invites the reader to engage the characters on a much more personal level, to read the poem as though they are actually sitting on a barstool next to Ronnie Perkins, listening to him blow his high jump prowess out of proportion, and reminds them that they probably have known someone like him or Jessie Tobin in their lives. The result is a section of poems that are wonderfully accessible and relatable, poems that dissect the ways in which some people search for meaning and lead us to question how we search for it ourselves.
In the final section of This Water. These Rocks. entitled “Hearing Claws on Bark,” Evans transitions smoothly into a poetic dissection of aging and the memory of youth. The main characters of many of these poems are entering their old age, and are grappling with the adjustments the toll of time has caused them to make in their lives. In “First Winter of Retirement, First Snowfall,” the speaker sits on his back porch bemoaning how he has become fatter and more inactive in his old age, rubbing his arthritic knee. While he “searches for a line in a book / he was reading the night before,” he pauses to mull over the different “ layers” of his life, going back through the decades and recounting the physical activities he used to engage in: running as a young boy, playing football as a young man, fishing with his small son in his 30’s, racquetball in his 40’s and 50’s, and now in his 60’s, running or biking. While the speaker laments his diminished physical abilities, he finds comfort when he finally finds the line in the book he was looking for: “live in the layers.” At the end of the poem Evans let’s us share in the speakers revelation, that there is joy to be found in every phase of the life cycle, a beautiful acceptance of aging.
However, other poems seem obsessed with the negatives of old age. In “Uncle Elmer” the speaker watches the way his Uncle reacts at a funeral, hating how “he / too would one day be hated / for dying, by loved ones, sitting / there at his funeral, looking / down at their hands.” In “Hong Kong,” the speaker and his wife are confronted by a hostile pedestrian as they are walking through the city, and the speaker yearns to be able to unleash the strength of his youth, the days in which he boxed. Though he knows that to confront the younger man physically would be foolish he thinks about it anyway, figuring “it would be good at least to / rehearse the scenario in a half-drunk / brain, and not flinch. Even at 59.”
There seems to be an examination of both the grace and disgrace of aging at play in the final section of the book, and Evans’ writing clearly shows that he has had his own struggles with getting older, as all of us inevitably do. But one thing that rings true in all of the poems in this collection is the value of life, and the worth of experience. Though we may yearn for youth, there is much to be gained from aging as well, and it is Evan’s commitment to noting, observing, and ruminating on how our experiences shape us as people, as human beings. This Water. These Rocks. is a perfect example of how the grace of aging can manifest itself through poetry. Though David Allan Evans no longer teaches at South Dakota State University he remains the poet laureate of the South Dakota and an active writer who has not yet retired his keen eye for poetic expression, and for that, anyone who has read his work should be thankful.

Works by David Allan Evans

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