Monday, May 20, 2024

What Do You Think? by Ken Weir


WHAT DO YOU THINK?, Ken Weir. Austin Macauley Publishers, New York, NY, 2023, 137 pages, $19.95, paperback.


Modern poetry began with the shift from an either / or mentality to a more ubiquitous both / and. Precursors to that inclusiveness include Blake—his capacity to see unity in diversity, as in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”—and Keats’ negative capability, not only an ability to simultaneously hold contradictory thoughts but to embrace the uncertainty about them. Of course, Dickinson and Whitman ushered in modern poetry—Dickinson’s unconventional use of dashes, e.g., offered constant oppositional assertions, and paved the way for later poets to experiment with craft and content. And Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself” is practically a watchword for twentieth century American poetry. Much twenty-first century poetry coming from MFA programs today, seems to be an expression of pre-determined views rather than operating in the tradition that these poets began—one of discovery rather than of expression. Ken Weir’s What Do You Think harkens back to a time when poets worked within a multiverse of views and challenged readers to take an active role in the poem’s re-creation as it was read and spoken.

            Appropriate to Weir’s task, he quotes Oliver Cromwell in his introduction, setting the stage for his approach to poetry as inquiry: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” In the 17th century, when Cromwell, in a letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland penned these words, Copernicus and Gallileo had come under harsh censure by the church and in the end, their books that promoted heliocentrism were banned and burned—as Weir’s would have been in that century, particularly because of his poems that begin with science facts and riff on them, such as “Conceit.”

We stand on this planet,

one amongst billions,

as sand on the shore,


Beyond the nearest star

the universe expands

through millions of light years.


For 300,000 years

(the flare of a match),

Homo sapiens imagined we came from the Sun,

from Mount Olympus,

or a personal God,

who listens to our every plea.


Prosaic as it may be,

we emerged from the sea

and return to the earth.


            The collection is divided into five sections: Transience; Medicine and Science; Religion and Politics; Aging, Love and Family; and History and Remembrance. “Conceit” is from the Transience section and is emblematic of Weir’s layered poems—conceit working both as the prominent metaphor of expansiveness as sand throughout the poem, denoting the billions of planets in our universe and connoting the endless possibilities for conjuring the origins of our existence, as well as the common meaning of conceit as self-centeredness. Another poem from section I utilizing concrete imagery and particularity to flesh out its title is “The Shards of Time.”


The dinosaur that stands fossilized

Upon my desk, ran on the earth

200 million years ago.

In the terrain of papers and pens,

She is reunited with

The ammonites and trilobites


That populated her world.

Homo sapiens, a species

A thousand-fold younger,

Now steers the ark.

On whose desk will we rest

A million years hence?


In this poem, even more so than in “Conceit,” Weir’s talent for rendering the actual feeling of experience connects with his ability to make lines and sentences their own forms of experience. I mean that, along with the accuracy and fidelity of a first-rate realist, Weir has an entirely unique metaphorical imagination—allowing him to honor and render the mysteries as well as the facts of personal and collective life.


            The best poems in this collection maintain that unity of two elements that are usually at odds: both the abstract feelings and the concrete details of experience. “Breakfast Time” is another such poem, utilizing concrete images of “Juncos,” “A hairy woodpecker” and “A Cooper’s hawk,” contrasted with editorials in the daily newspaper. In addition, Weir’s timing is flawless, in delivering his knock-out-punch of the last line.


The editorials are benign.

Juncos forage in the snow,

below the brimming feeder.

A hairy woodpecker pecks

staccato on the oak.

A Cooper’s hawk plunges down,

feathers drift across

my window; time to read

the obituaries.


Death sprouts from the natural world as any other observation, and is as non-threatening, although as surprising as in actual experience—reminiscent of the voice of William Stafford. Other noteworthy poems in this collection are “Volatility” (from section II, Medicine and Science), “Gene Pool” and “If You Have These” from section IV, Aging, Love and Family. In “Volatility,” Weir makes wonderful music with half-rhymes and near-rhymes:


Despite the cold, the sun

feels warm upon my back.

The feeder’s full and on the ground

the small-cap juncos peck.

Should I spread the wealth,

kick sunflower seed below?

But no, emerging markets urge

the flight to Southern climes.


Yet wait, there’s thistle seed

awasting and dividends to

pluck before we fly.

Perhaps a short diversion North

in search of golden grains?

The NASDAQ and the sun’s still high,

why have the faint-hearts fled?

The high-flying indices plunge down;

their talons tear my nest apart.


“Emerging / urge,” “wait / awasting,” “there’s / thistle,” “diversion / search,”—even the regular use of “the” (“the cold, the sun” and “The feeder’s…the ground”) sing their own meanings to us throughout the poem, so that the final line is delivered with even greater intensity, once again enacting the poem’s abstract title in one final stroke of concrete metaphor.


      In “Gene Pool,” the final lines of the first of two stanzas create a strong metaphorical image of the list of evidences of an intelligent woman with “…all stacked / in the library of her mind.” To parallel, the final lines of stanza two speak of the unstacking of memories with disease:


Later, it seemed, she

could no longer find

the right shelf. Rummaged

around to recall those

who had eaten at her table

the previous night.

My Mother had…what’s his name?

You know…that…

that disease.


“If You Have These” is a list poem of aspiration experiences the poet has for his son that intimates a swelling tide toward the final section with, particularly with its final line.


The smell of turf smoke,

roar of Atlantic rollers,

the splash of purple heather,

blaze of orange montbretia,

the dark promise of blackberries,

the crackle of grasshoppers,

keeping of a gull

or rasp of the crows,

the hand of a man who knew your father,

the laughter of friends,

the silence of the full moon,

the stone on which

my brothers sat,


I have no more to give.


            In What Do You Think, Ken Weir has inserted himself into the poetic cannon with poems of craft, intellectual substance, and emotional connection that all poets and lovers of poetry would do well to read. They look backwards to the 20th century’s broad field of ideation and possibility, without attempting to make up readers’ minds or hearts about what is, what is important, and why—a fresh approach to age-old questions in the midst of the culture wars of the 21st century. I’m convinced that poems like “The Shards of Time,” “Conceit,” and “If You Have These,” among others, will captivate and move their readers for many years to come.


I close with the collection’s antepenultimate poem, “Ready or Not” which brings to mind Whitman’s final words from Song of Myself: “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place, search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you”:


I go ahead,

down by the lake,

where the white squirrel nests

and the wood-ducks dive

I will be waiting.


In early Spring,

when the ice crackles

on the frozen shore,

you will hear my voice

when the wild geese call.


Ken Weir was born in Ireland during the Second World War. He went to school in England (Oundle), got his BA at Oxford (Pembroke College), and his medical degrees (BM. BCh. and DM) were also from Oxford. His clinical training in cardiology was at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, where he and his wife, Elizabeth V. Pearman, first met. His research training was at the CVP Lab of the University of Colorado in Denver, as a Fulbright scholar. His clinical, research, and teaching careers have been at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and the University of Minnesota Medical School. He has edited 11 scientific books and is an author of over 200 scientific papers but these poems, which have been written in the Twin Cities over the last twenty years, are his first volume of poetry.

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