by J.G. McClure
The back cover of Jeffrey Schultz’s Civil Twilight, selected for the National Poetry Series by David St. John, explains that
Civil twilight occurs just before dawn and just after dusk, when there is still light enough to distinguish the shapes and contours of objects but not the richness of their detail.
Beginning with the idea that nothing can be seen clearly in the light of the present, the poems in Civil Twilight attempt to resuscitate lyric’s revelatory impulse by taking nothing for granted . . .
The title is spot-on for the collection, which is indeed obsessed with the ways in which our society obscures our ability to see clearly. But the suggestion that these poems take “nothing for granted” is only half-true. In fact, Schultz’s poems take all kinds of things for granted: throughout Civil Twilight, Schultz’s method is to treat the bureaucratic status quo as the inescapable starting point of our thoughts, and to follow that line of thinking to its bleak conclusions. Take the collection’s opening poem, “Stare Decisis Et Non Quieta Movere”:
If, our irises unflexing, their novae’s bursts succumbing to apertures’
Black, our pupils becoming willing to admit what they might admit,
However insufficient, however insignificant in the scheme of things
We imagine must even now unfold somehow beyond our understanding,
Beyond us, if to look up widening into the night sky and stare at the stars,
Those grains of salt scattered across obsidian, those pale fires,
Those distant repositories of whatever we put there, those whatever,
Is in fact to stare into the past, then to live in the city is to live without
History. Or is at least to live blind to it, mistake it for something else,
Some cobble exposed as the asphalt chips, little by little, away,
Some incompleteness that yet offers us a sense of completion, a sense
Some something must have led to all this, some strategic planning
Commission’s guiding hand, some intelligent designer’s intelligent design.
From the beginning, the poem’s title insists upon the impossibility of a clean slate: stare decisis is the legal principle by which judges are bound to precedents. And while the first image we’re given seems to be an image of clear sight (“our irises unflexing”), it’s quickly buried by clause after overly complicated clause, so that it becomes extremely difficult to follow the otherwise straightforward logic of the argument (e.g., if to see the stars is to see into the past, then to live in the city where you can’t see the stars is to live without history).
To further complicate things, the argument works to undermine itself as it unfolds. As we wade through the dense language, we soon realize that what we see isn’t so much the stars but the stars as a palimpsest of symbols, “distant repositories of whatever we put there.” (Even the seemingly throwaway image of the stars as “pale fires” is overloaded in this way: the phrase alludes to Nabokov’s novel, which in turn alludes to Shakespeare). Having undercut the idea of seeing the stars, the poem then undercuts the other part of the argument: the lack of history. While we may at first imagine that we “live without / History,” in fact we only “mistake it for something else.” History is always there, always shaping what seems to us to be pure perception, so that when we look in wonder at the stars, what we see is “some strategic planning / Commission’s guiding hand.” In other words, because of our place in history, we can’t even imagine a God outside of the context of bureaucratic committees. Later in the poem, the Demiurge (the artisan-like creative force responsible for the universe in Platonic/Gnostic thought) makes an appearance, and the speaker assures us that
. . . the Demiurge is busy upgrading
Broadband access. The Demiurge desires that all our images be crisp
And archivable and formed in forms accessible to it for periodic review,
Desires that our imaginations be bound by the images it has abstracted
From us. The Demiurge even purchased the Weekly and since the takeover
Has personally overseen the advice column: Don’t be so sentimental!
All that can be thought’s been thought. All that can be felt’s been felt.
Maybe the creator of all things isn’t a strategic planning committee; maybe it’s a Demiurge that covers its totalitarian impulses with broadband access, crisp images, and an advice column urging complacency—that’s better, right?
The implication, of course, is that we shouldn’t be complacent. At the same time, though, the poem doesn’t allow itself to become an easy, feel-good call for action. Instead, the speaker acknowledges our shared collusion:
And you try, Lord knows you try to act right, keep things simple,
Show up to meetings mostly on time and looking like you might belong,
Like you’re committed to the institution and its mission, though not,
You know, too committed, nothing that would arouse suspicion you’re
Anything but perfectly professional, perfectly detached . . .
The “you” (both speaker and reader) plays by the rules all too well. So when the poem ends with the Demiurge advising us that “If the smog’s too thick, see a film of your city’s sky. / They clean that stuff up in post—. Try not to raise a fuss. Just be fucking civil,” we feel at once the importance of resisting the demand for complacency and the near-impossibility of doing so.
Civil Twilight is often interested in exploring how the speaker participates in the very thing being critiqued. For example, “Resolution in Loving Memory of Sky & Gooseflesh” adopts the same longwinded committee-speak that it critiques:
Let us therefore resolve again never again, and make of our bodies the shape
Of hope as it’s portrayed in the artist’s conception of its future reenactment,
A shape the contours of which—and this is hardly avoidable, the poverty
Of concrete possibilities having narrowed down to what, only a few years ago,
Would have seemed like unimaginably austere notions of necessity—
Take something first of Officialdom’s and then of the primetime procedural’s
Form, and we mention this now, I should mention, if for no other reason
Than to at least begin to account for what will strike us all as a heightened
Police presence, but which, in reality, is nothing out of the ordinary, the sky
No longer there to provide us anything other than police helicopters’ circling . . .
Schultz is skilled in this kind of darkly humorous irony, and uses it effectively throughout the collection. But what I’ve long admired about Schultz’s work is the way that, in the midst of all its irony, it still allows for very sincere pathos. Take the close of the poem “Civil Twilight.” For all its anger, for all its bitter looks at “helicopters’ rattling again overhead / Or prefab bulk institutional wall art, the sort of thing that hangs / In lobbies of interstate-adjacent motels and psych-ward waiting rooms,” the poem is able to turn, surprisingly and inevitably, to the human connections that hold us together, and the human failings that keep us apart:
By the time they found your body, it had long since stopped swaying
In that small rented room off the alley, the funding for your bed long since
Slashed. I didn’t hear about it for months afterward. Now, I can’t
Remember much of that last time I saw you. I could hardly bear
To look, your eyes blank, what in your mind was wild, and everything else,
Subdued finally. My eyes kept wandering to that framed print behind you
As I went on about the job I’d gotten, the girl I was about
To marry. I think it was either a sunset or sunrise, something bright and
In the distance. From what I can remember, it was a very pretty picture.