Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Open Between Us, by George Looney

Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis
From Prairie Schooner, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Summer 2011)

If you google George Looney, you'll be asked if you meant to google George Clooney.

I would love to hear George the Actor read poems from George the Poet's latest collection, Open Between Us. Pre Up in the Air, Clooney wouldn't have possessed the maturity of tone to carry off this duty. Now he's ready. Poems on cd, anyone?

Looney's poems are dense, somber, contemplative. More important, they're the poems of someone who has lived with his eyes wide open, someone who, like most of us, isn't given a map to navigate life but must bushwhack his way toward where he's going. There are pleasures along the way. There is also pain and sadness. With luck, there's wisdom. There's certainly wisdom in Looney's work.

The enlightened Clooney at the end of Up in the Air, his heart broken, his lifestyle exposed as vacant, would know how to read Looney's "The Worst We Can Do," which is a love poem to love itself. But it isn't love as romantic inspiration or love as pseudonym for sex. It's love as an endurance test, a marathon of the heart. The speaker's father is shown coming home drunk and falling asleep in front of the television. The mother copes as best she can, sometimes leaving him to sleep in his chair, sometimes waking him and urging him upstairs to bed.

It hurt her, and I couldn't understand how
she could limp through such pain
and still love him. But she did.

If love is true, the poem concludes, it "makes it through the worst we can do to it." Love isn't a conqueror, it's a survivor.

Looney's collection is filled with such insights. Whereas younger poets—or, anyway, poets who haven't reconciled what they hope life is versus what it actually is—might be tempted to flavor the themes Looney addresses with grand observations and stirring epiphanies, Looney is content to allow his work a quieter wisdom.

Take, for example, the collection's opening poem, "How It All Is." Read out of context, the concluding stanza might seem grandiose:

How predictable this sore world can be.
Always take as much of it in
as you can, my friend, to love.

But what comes before offers no fireworks. It is honest in its understatement, its adherence to the way life, in most instances, is lived: quietly. But if consolation is sometimes small, at least it's present:

A woman practices the cello
across the courtyard. Sometimes
at night I watch her feed her cat.

It's a comfort to know something,
at least, is well cared for.

Coupled with its quiet prelude, the ending of "How It All Is" isn't grandiose at all. It is merely the inevitable conclusion to what precedes it. The advice it offers, one imagines, isn't intended to be blared to a large audience but to be whispered to a companion.

In Open Between Us, Looney pays homage to his poetic heroes, especially James Wright and Richard Hugo. It isn't hard to see the influence of both poets on Looney's writing in this and his other work. (Looney's previous books of poetry are The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels, Attendant Ghosts, and Animals Housed in the Pleasure of Flesh. He is also the author of the novella Hymn of Ash. All of his books have won awards.) Certainly Looney's unsentimental gaze is akin to Wright's, whose "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" could easily have inspired a dozen of the poems in Open Between Us, in tone if not in subject.

It's hard not to admire a poet who not only admits to his influences but highlights them. Looney dedicates the book's sixth poem, "Into the River You Lost," to Wright. The poem opens "It was pain that moved you to speak of the river . . ." (Wright, of course, wrote about rivers the way Bessie Smith sang the blues: beautifully and with a certain ache.) Four poems later ("Learning to Name the Water"), Wright provides the epigraph.

"In the Stunned Body" features a Richard Hugo epigraph, but although Hugo factors into the poem's opening, it is the speaker's wife and son who provide its heart. And it is the written word—Hugo's, Wright's, Looney's, any author's—that is the life force:

You plan to raise your son,
in the love of words. Line by line
he'll grow more human.

There's another lovely line worth quoting from "In the Stunned Body": "Scars are the past trying to / take the shape of our flesh." One can imagine these words, soon or years from now, appearing as the epigraph to a poem in a similar collection of hard-earned wisdom.

Acknowledging one's influences isn't the same as admitting to being wholeheartedly influenced. These are not James Wright's poems or Richard Hugo's poems or Alexander Pope's poems (Pope provides another epigraph.) They are distinctly Looney's.

There isn't a great deal of formal variation in Looney's collection. He favors a three-line stanza, and the majority of his poems are a little over a page in length. This isn't a quibble. Nor is, say, the paucity of humor in the book. (George Clooney does comedy. In Open Between Us, George Looney does not.) The book derives its strength from its uniformity, its consistency of tone and voice. In this respect, it reads like a good short novel, moving us steadily through the world it conjures.

One might say Open Between Us has a happy ending. The eponymous final poem is an imagined encounter with a doppelganger who is struggling to fix a broken-down Ford. The two men, the poem's speaker and the car repairer, become friends. If the greatest struggle in literature is the heart in conflict with itself, here's a resolution in which both self and heart win:

We wouldn't care who stayed and who left,
only that whoever stayed would be able to
make the engine in that Ford turn over.

I promise I haven't spoiled the ending. To truly appreciate it, you must read the book. Do.