Quinton Duval — Joe’s Rain


Quinton Duval’s book Joe’s Rain revels in the slow wisdom of knowing that losing one’s aspirations is a kind of achievement. The spirit of “hanging on” rises and animates nearly every poem in the book. The various speakers in the book, invariably mapped onto one shade or another of Duval, feel perfectly at home with the errant turn in life as well as reference made by the speaker to himself as “fat, bejeweled maggot.” That’d be pretty harsh stuff if it weren’t coming out of such an affable, self-deprecating guy.

Duval’s earnest and straightforward work matched the Mark Bowles Central Valley landscape paintings behind him—flatline horizons. Listening to Duval read his poems at The Art Foundry in Sacramento reminded me of an interview with B. B. King I heard recently. King’s outlook was always gracious for whatever fortune had smiled on him as he held firm to the things he claimed as his own. Duval keeps the familiar in his clutch at all times. The poems are laced with generous amounts of Central Valley ephemera and natural phenomenon. As is the frequent trope for many Sacramento poets, the familiar and home are mainstays. Sacramento is a place that inspires fierce loyalties and myriad reflections, and though happening upon the Central Valley by chance in the mid-60’s, Duval has firmly ensconced himself within the literary imagination that Sacramento’s weather and rivers inspire.

Joe’s Rain is a tidy collection. Slightly more than half of the poem titles are one or two-word titles. It is a collection of six groups of seven poems bookended by a welcoming and farewell poem. In this way it appears as though you’ve been visited by a very sociable and amiable fellow with good manners who knows not to stay too long nor say too much. These are characteristics I admire because, for me, they’re so damned elusive. One looks up after an evening with Joe’s Rain that isn’t too taxing or intimidating and discovers a relaxed feeling arriving unexpectedly. His presence is the kind one saves a special bottle for. The bottle is brought out solely for the two of you when he visits. Indeed, beer, wine and bourbon (but no saké) flow throughout the book, but in “Joe’s Rain,” another elixir is proffered.

Joe’s Rain

This late rain drives
into the dry soil
silent through the windows
that look out back.
One big robin bathes
in a saucer left out,
but that doesn’t mean much.
Two weeks ago a man stood
where the rain is falling,
frail, stooped, but standing,
forming words and making sense
about plants and birds and
what a garden does for your soul.
All the daylight is nearly burned,
smoke and ash of evening.
Lights from the house shine
back from wet concrete
this late rain has darkened.
The moon, we learn, reflects
the sun, so that’s what’s real.
I swear I hear a mockingbird
sound just like an alarm clock
mornings when I don’t have to
get up. So that is real too.
And today, wet streets
under the overpass, trucks above
barreling somewhere hurried,
a shower of cherries, shaken
from their crates around a curve
rained down in front of me
and adorned the roadway.
Farmers don’t like rain
when their crop is on the tree.
But I like rain almost always.
Bury us all near water,
scatter us all on water.
If it can rain cherries, it can rain
anything. Does this help?
Have a glass of rain on me.

Rhetorically speaking, this poem ends the way several poems in the collection do. The you understood suggests a giving of advice or a giving of directions. “Have a glass on me” is an invitation, but it s also a warning that slaking thirst can seem like a useless gesture in retrospect. The speaker knows that a glass of rain really isn’t going to help with the bitter pill, but he offers it nonetheless. In this way, “Joe’s Rain” can be offered as a kind of Duvalian ars poetica that says—“Hey, I’m just making these poems as a way to take care of what ails you, but I can’t vouch for their effectiveness at alleviating a lifetime of your pain.” Does this poem help or does that poem help? Duval isn’t presumptuous enough to even hazard a guess. However, in “Shine” he makes his humble proposal to embrace optimism such as it is.

Shine

This paper hides in back
of a book I’m reading
because it is sad and beautiful,
the last book of poetry
written by a man who knew
he was dying, and still he found
joy and life and shine in most things.
this paper with nothing on it
asks, I suppose, by its blankness,
to be filled.
I don’t believe in curses,
good or bad, rubbing off.
Maybe I have a pencil
and this paper to put down
how the turkey vulture came
straight toward the house
so I could see its red head
like stewmeat in the noon light.
Or across the bay, from this high,
a road looks like a backwards C,
like fingers and thumb showing
how much you missed something,
when what you missed by was slight.

I know, I’m not going anywhere
like the eucalyptus that waves
back at something constantly.
I can only describe what’s out there
and try to make it shine
like a ring pressing into a finger,
like the shallow water
the boats are careful to steer around,
like, like, like the sun dropping,
the blood spatter on that one gull’s beak.
Pencil on paper, I still have things
to say. Here’s to everyone trying
in some way to make shine out of shinola.
You know what I mean. It’s the difference
between the vulture’s beaded eye
behind his meat face, the rain
pouting miles offshore, the lizard
that comes out to share the sun,
the one my wife doesn’t like
but I think is a bright little motor
pulsing up and down in this light.

Here Duval sides with the little guy (doing his push-ups in order to survive). That lizard isn’t “going anywhere like the eucalyptus.” If I weren’t sure that Duval doesn’t have green skin and a tail, I’d swear he had manifested himself as this reptile sunbathing in the nude. The speaker seems to be getting at the ole accepted wisdom that there is truth ringing through all the sorrow and disappointment. A little shrine of abdications can be built to glimmer in the afternoon heat, fending off a world of menace.

Duval makes great sport of ridiculing the grandiose and celebrating the simple pleasures of common experience. Everywhere in his work there are gestures made to common experience. He is very self-conscious about sounding like a poet with a capital p, like in “Trying to Read Mythology,”—“Or more beautiful,/a pitcher of moonlight spills over/the heat-faint garden and lights up/ a fig tree laden with ancient, ripe fruit.
Maybe we should shut up and eat.” Here the poetic gesture is trumped by more basic demands. This kind of deflation is pervasive in Duval’s poems, and it tends to nestle into the body of a poem between the yearning and wrenching detail the way a cactus wren hunkers down in a scabbed-over hole in a saguaro.

In I Remember Salt Duval takes the reader to a non-descript Spanish-speaking venue—my best guess places me in Mexico, but I wouldn’t rule out Neruda’s Antofagasta plains ( I must admit, though, that this second option is unlikely as Duval usually opts for direct experience as his subject matter rather than traveling through to an imagined space). Once there, the reader is greeted by a rather harsh and bitter domain. Life is hard—sleeping and eating and laundry, the trifecta of a barren life. The scenes are working class scenes, and Duval becomes aware of his alienation in such a place where “salt is taken in kind and bitter olives yield the oil year after year.” Here again, the focus is on expectations dashed. In such a place dreams are not even worthy of idle chatter. Revealing something like a dream might get one arrested for indecent exposure. Residents of this visited place might be too familiar with the truism Duval offers in “Honey”—“we rarely get to taste the honey we’ve made.” And when we do taste it, Duval in “On a Hot Summer Day” reminds, “being grown up is accepting/the diminishing of all things/we imagined ours forever.” Duval seems specifically in tune with this sensibility of accepting the echoing sentiment of nostalgia in “Into the Sea.”

Into the Sea

Take your tarnished halo
and sail it into the pale blue
line between sky and water
this evening offers you
here at the edge of the world.
Take your faded blue shirt
and strip it to bandages
for the wounded souls
you’ll meet along the way.
Bring what you can carry
and remember that no one can tell
what lingers behind your smile.
You know some songs, yes,
but the words seem to have fallen
from the board, as the birds
this evening fall off the face
of the sky and into the ocean’s turmoil.
How many songs have you ever known
with “pilgrim” inside, wander
the directive, and the needle
pointing north? A squad of pelicans
clears the space west of you.
Your path leads to woods, a bridge,
a hill, a bluff, a bench
where rest the weary. The sunset’s
glorious, it’s not so cold,
and everything goes off, everything
except your full heart, your waving hand,
your watery eyes. Into the sea
everything goes.

At the end of the book, the reader might feel like he/she has been witness to a lemon-sucking contest. The leftover lemon rinds are the dregs that serve as reminders of tattered lives, still loved like stuffed bears with their patina of wear and tear. The hard truth of the matter, though, is that the reader is probably better off than those dismembered lemons. The Germans call this schadenfreude, joy at another’s misfortunes. It is a strange way to get to catharsis for Americans, but I presume Duval would allow for any of his readers to get there any way they might manage. Besides, all the self-deprecating humor Duval employs, Americans generally don’t get that anyway. When was the last time you heard an American tell a joke that started out, “There were these three Americans . . .” Duval is one American who might just rise to this occasion.

Originally posted by Victor Schnickelfritz on Sept. 26, 2005

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