During is the best book by a brilliant poet who has already written many brilliant books of poetry. Richardson is probably best know for his aphorisms, which, with inhuman humility, bracing concision, subtle but ingenious wit, and ageless wisdom, are among the best English-language examples of this ageless form—ever. Here are a few new ones from this book:
At last I break my chains, only to find that those I was chained to are more relieved than I am.
Self-criticism: superiority to the idiot I was a minute ago.
Bouquets the excited dead
toss from their graves. You next!
There's enough matter here to keep a mind grinding for years. But, what's most remarkable about this book is that Richardson's new poems have caught up to the pared-down power of his aphorisms. They are absolutely arresting examples of later-life reflection. Richardson (who, I should disclose, is a dear friend, though I would be in awe of his work regardless) is not old, but his decades of experience in living and writing have yielded major new poetry, in which the vagaries of the past become painfully clear in the present. For instance, I have read no more penetrating poem on parenthood and childhood than this one:
And then when it was almost too late I bent to whisper
It’s true what you always suspected. You were not my real parents,
but at a certain age, out of need, and a parent myself,
I chose you freely, this adoption
a secret I have kept from you all these years.
Sleep, it is better this way. It is you I love and mourn,
not the unknown parents I was born to.
This is new poetry made in the old way—like Keats, Yeats, Hardy—made to transform grief, regret, and hope into song. It's made to help us live, not by cheering us up but by helping us feel less alone in our hardest-to-share but most universal feelings and thoughts. Take these lines from “Essay on Wood,” a meditation on, among other things, the passage of time and the human (in)capacity to withstand that passage:
Of all the elements, it is happiest in our houses.
It will sit with us, eat with us, lie down
and hold our books, themselves a rustling woods,
bearing our floors and roofs without weariness,
for unlike us it does not resent faithfulness
or question why, for what, how long?
I've needed this book for years; I will need it for the rest of my life. I want to lend it to everyone, except that I can't bear to part with my copy.