Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener
Cyrus Cassells’s most recent poetry collection, More Than Watchmen At Daybreak, is exactly what everyone needs to be reading during the nuanced, frightening, and insurgent time that is summer 2020. There are hundreds of reasons for this assertion; herein, I will discuss a few. While the book is a thin volume, its gravity far exceeds its pagination. The twelve poems take the reader into a landscape as incredibly lush as it is arid; the poems were crafted while their creator was literally off-grid—during “two hermitages” in rural New Mexico—as he notes in his introductory remarks.
A vivid beseeching to, summoning of, and expansiveness beyond the 130th psalm from which its title is derived, the collection embraces horses, light, and the celestial in a Whitman-esque manner, while peppering itself with hues grand and subtle. The poems’ grounding invokes a manual of recipes that have the possibility to bring us to redemption, disaster, or relief (perhaps all of these), highlighting a continuity of dream-like essences concurrent with a somehow insistent pragmatism.
Anyone who has spent any length of time in—or, traveled to or through—New Mexico knows that the constellations there are closer to the earth than seems true elsewhere, even in “big sky” country in nearby Colorado, or in Arizona, where astronomy—in its mystical as well as scientistic elements—arguably reigns supreme.
In the collection’s second poem, “Accepting the Peace of Saint Francis Hermitage,” Cassells—his poetical voice, in a narrator’s and querent’s tone—asks,
Dear beneficent prior,
Will I find impartial God
In the timeworn mountains that cradle
Cassiopeia and Cygnus, The Great Swan?
Will I learn to embrace the wind-blessed
Peace and serenity of Saint Francis?
In the breeze-plied December abbey,
Under the Dipper seeker,
Each midnight now I’m seized
By the imperial Milky Way,
The poem ends with a reference to “midnight river’s buffeted mirror”; intriguingly, this last line has a dash following its seemingly final word—as if a breath has been taken, and the poem’s end isn’t actually an ending, but the stage for the next couplets.
It is abundantly clear that Cassells has demonstrated secular grace (and religious grace, too) in having gifted readers with a profound text that offers us psalms, proverbs, and lamentations, simultaneously. While the poems’ sequencing is precise and vibrant, each individual example exists as its own exquisite instance and thrives on its own terms.
As happens with many great writers, Cassells elects to use blindness as a metaphor. However, the relatively brief instance passes without serious injury, since his approach is less disturbing as an idiom (at least to me, as a reader) than is often the case with many of his contemporaries, or the myriad poets of generations past (whose trenchant ableism is absent in this text). In the final section of the fifth poem, “Oh The Snow Is A Blinding Sight To See,” we encounter the following infusion of illumination and its paired absence:
And for a perishable hour, the regnant moon
Takes our monkish longings,
Our makeshift and human prayers
Back into her weightless,
The way a snow fox proffers
Its almost blinding fur . . .
This (or, any?) snow fox’s fur, offered to us deferentially, possibly as bright as or even brighter than the moon’s light, is so vast in its power and reach, it might “almost” lead to blindness—however temporary or short-lived.
Regardless of how some readers may greet or be greeted by this line, its end, and the poem, itself, lead all of us to an ellipsis. Cassells’s moon is a supreme leader and dominant presence during an hour of supplication that is occurring in a fallible context; this moon has made us “weightless,” too. The but wait, what’s next? ellipsis is a paradox in its definitive presence. As with the breath-dash cited above, and the book’s many other kinds of dashes (as they happen particularly in the midst and at the ends of several of the poems—including the last, the titular piece), this ellipsis is its own kind of “almost.” Its not yet or hold on, there’s more energy suggests an opening to possibility and discontinuity, despite the seeming seamlessness of the work. Permeability, impermanence, and unpredictability are mingled here with awe. This description applies to the entire poem, and to the book, as a whole.
In the seventh poem, “Mary’s Day,” Cassells brings the reader into intimate company with the Virgin Mother’s humanity. He begins with strong imagery, including “circling kestrels” and “unremitting nails” on a “rain-undoing Friday.” Then, we are told that we must understand this brutal day is also “Mary’s day.” “Hear me out,” the poet asserts. “Mary the mourner,” he writes, is “Witness to her son’s / Desecrated body[.]” She is “the fearless, intent listener, / Forever bending to gauge // The tenor of her small son’s cough—” Regardless of readers’ belief systems, Cassells underscores little boy and adult Jesus’s, Mary’s, and our own fragility and strength. The poem indexes the importance of paying attention to our beloveds’ needs without undermining ourselves.
“Diary of a Pentecost Sunday,” the eleventh and thus penultimate poem, contains multiple sections, including one invoking a “former student” who “hailed from a busy, ardent / Pentecostal family, // Yet was queer, God of Abraham, / Queer and found it impossible // To ever speak in tongues—” The mode of communication in this poem is intriguing. Is the God of Abraham the addressee to whom a plea is made and an assertion directed? The sacred and the profane meet in Cassells’s puns of tongues and sexuality.
With themes that include divine debility; human loss, resilience, and fallibility—in general and in specific; and the intersections of gender, queerness, race, love, and faith; More Than Watchmen At Daybreak is a bold while bittersweet celebration hinged upon the concurrence of human and ecological frailties and aesthetics, and their shared while distinct promises and potential.
Title: More Than Watchmen At Daybreak
Author: Cyrus Cassells
Publisher: Nine Mile Books
About the Reviewer
Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (Stockton University Press). Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe and Mollyhouse; her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness (Weasel Press). After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed Assistant Editor for the magazine. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach for the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, where she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. She has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. Diane is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). She blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.