Advice from Dead Poets (and Some Living): James Crews on what we lose

The thing about poetry books is that they are often slim: they fit easily into purses and suitcases, fall unnoticed into the crack behind your bed. That’s where I found my copy of “The Book of What Stays” (2011) yesterday.

The author, James Crews, is not dead. He lives on an organic farm in Vermont, according to my occasional Google searches. “The Book of What Stays” is his first collection of poetry. Since I discovered it two years ago in a Colorado bookstore, its spine emerging from the single shelf marked “Poetry,” Crews’s collection has stayed with me. It has traveled on planes and buses and spilled its words onto the margins of my math notebook.

I’ve taken it with me even when I shouldn’t have. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Revision,” deals with moments from the past that we can remember but never relive. It ends with the speaker stepping out of a room in his memory, where his ex-wife is bathing during their honeymoon, leaving her to sing to herself undisturbed.

Naturally, this was the poem I chose to read aloud to a guy who, soon after, I would spend months trying to get over.

Afterwards, whenever I read the poem’s opening lines — “What hubris to believe you could save / this moment or that and tuck it away” — they didn’t comfort me. They reminded me of the moment I had wanted to tuck away: sitting cross-legged on my bed, reading the poem aloud to someone I really liked, who had gazed up at me intently (probably confused as to how he had stumbled into an unsolicited reading). The lines made me feel that loss.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? We can’t talk about “what stays” without first talking about what doesn’t stay.

In “What Light Does,” Crews writes, “And how / can I not think then of what Willa Cather said once, / that burnished talk of shine and beams and shafts can never / capture the sun’s real movements, how the words / ring hollow as false notes. No, she wrote, you must trace / the absences of light, those shadows, to say what light does.”

Crews excels at tracing shadows. “The Book of What Stays” is inspired in part by the dissolution of his marriage when he came out as gay. Some of the central poems also channel the grief he felt after his father died. He renders loss so skillfully that my mom cried in the car after I had read a short poem to her from the passenger seat. But Crews isn’t interested in “the absences of light” because they’re sad, or because they’re fodder for self-pity: he’s interested in them since they allow us to understand “what light does.” He’s interested in what is lost because it tells us what stays.

I am probably not finished holding onto moments that I would be better off letting go of. But when I read “Revision” now, I don’t feel a pinch in my chest. Crews seems to say that yes, sometimes things are lost, but sometimes they are things we need to lose.


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