John Engels was born in South Bend, Indiana in 1931. He was a professor of English at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont for 45 years and published eleven collections of poetry. Among his books are, Cardinals in the Ice Age, which was a National Poetry Series selection in 1986 and Weather-Fear which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. He died in June of 2007 but left us a remarkable body of work.
His diction, never overstated, turns on a Germanic earthiness. It is palpable on the tongue. One can chew his words because they are full of things: talus, chestnuts, bean vines, salty stink, and what life there is the earth feeds on with a “dogged, voluptuous swallowing,” and the darkness “gulps.” There is a meticulous scrutiny about his images, as though they were chiseled. They are presented in such a way that lines continue to modify each other. His syntax is circuitous, hypotactic, not resting, but constantly moving toward another modification of the image and the underlying metaphysics of the witness. But finally, it all ends in the dissolution of the witness or his fear of oblivion. Memory and consciousness are merely like the natural forces he observes and, like them, have limits naturally imposed. Thus the witness witnesses within all of nature his own impending dissolution:
. . . I hear
The burgeoning tumor
That will measure me.
(“Terribilis est locus iste”)
. . . only season lacking source
Rolls round and round until in my turns I fall
Forever back, clutching my stone, my gun, my light.
(“When in Wisconsin”)
. . . the light began
its long reach, even now,
long afterward, still
rising, widening into the body of the sky,
into the last huge widenesses of the last
meetings of light beyond which I remember this
or not, beyond which
even then fearing my life
I wished to burn.
“(At Night on the Lake in the Eye of the Hunter”)
In this, he tries to scrape away layers of false comfort and face the bare terrifying fact of imminent death, the dead raging animal desire we all feel to howl against the abyss. “Bullhead” is an amazing example, the poem’s central comparison pivoting on a gaping catfish writhing for hours in his bucket after being caught and his own desire to “cry out/into the blackness beyond/the dumb immediate blackness” his own breath like a hook “snagged/in my gullet, the tongue/in my mouth like a worm.” Since, as he says, the agony of this end is connatural, he is dumb, mute—we are all mute against it. But there is also a heroic aspect of facing the danger for the beauty of the fleeting natural world, as in “Aurora,” “Earth Tremor, the Sky at Night; or “At the Top of Blood Mountain.” Although this last poem has ambiguities of lineation that leave one wondering about the nature of the fixed still point upon which the end pivots.
There are some excesses in his poems. Sometimes he overly explains things, not allowing the implied connections to remain implied, as, for instance, in “Barking Dog.” He doesn't do this every time, but it does happen. Occasionally his syntax can become winding and treacherous, overextending lines. Sometimes he splits complex subjects and interjects prepositional phrases, such as in “The Hunters” or “Anniversary.” It sustains the movement of the poem, although, occasionally, at the cost of clarity.
Ultimately, in spite of any shortcomings, I would recommend him for his images and diction, his sharp insights and affinity for what he observes. He is a poet deserving of much more attention than he receives. The force of his themes punches you in the metaphysical gut while his linguistic textures are as delicious on the tongue as a piece of warm, buttered bread. His poems are constructed from the same dust of the earth from which man was made.