The Poetry Project

A Torch for Orphans by John Godfrey

Review by Morgan Vo

Though the book certainly does convey Godfrey’s appreciation for the lost, abandoned or otherwise on their own, A Torch for Orphans reads most palpably for me with the stress on the torch. Put another way, a torch for orphans is the light by which a loner sees.

Sun squeezes into tight sky
Man walks blocks in search

The central details here are chiefly ephemeral—angles of light, sirens in the distance—things which can be perceived with exposure to the passing day and night, what one typically notices in interstitial spaces, waiting on the corner or crossing the street. But these poems are more than just slice-of-life reveries. With an accumulation of losses, with “No more separate ways to go... No one left to hide,” Godfrey isn’t dealing in the simple enjoyment of the everyday so much as confronting a condition of incessant in-betweenness, a looped cycle of on-foot wanderlust wherein endless encounters with the world’s quiet details are growing more and more reverberant with the fact of mortality.

Dusk either end of day
sounds most real
Goes on forever it seems
though I know, I know

How palpably he renders echoes. Godfrey’s poems process images through a medium of aftershock—not a detachment from the present, but a present that’s fat with recall: “Acute feelings of my body / don’t come from my body anymore.” A motif of emptiness is thus informed by the contours of what used to be. We get that through several levels of intimacy, through the closeness of physical embrace (“My arms are / empty seats” and “I halve your current distance / Elbow still fits in my palm”) and the publicness of watching the neighborhood change (“Street corner elements who kept rents low, long ago”). And emptiness carries forward into the future, with meditations on his own death (“Let’s say my next step is finality and / the one after is empty staves”) as well as, throughout the book, acknowledgements that we’re reaching the end of this planet’s collaboration with human life (“sometimes beams / on an earth / that is not mine / though it dies for me”).

Here, Godfrey’s spelling out something pretty fundamental: the consequences of our actions will be felt for a long time after we’re gone. To my mind, his work is not so invested in expanding our political or philosophical frameworks, no matter how intellectually grounded they are; rather, he writes poems that illuminate our capacities to feel touch, to recognize the subtlest impacts of external forces on our lives, and to anticipate the ramifications of our lives on others in turn. Existence is a complex system of connections from which we cannot be extricated, though we can lose sight of those connections if we don’t know how to look. A Torch for Orphans draws its fingers across open space, in magic gestures that delineate the flows of residual spirit energy. We find “empty staves” is finally not an image of either emptiness or finality but one of transition where, faced with the composer’s notebook, we see an invitation for those who will come after to continue in the writing of music. The reader learns to be caught off-guard by the hands and voices of those who came before, reaching out through details that just barely catch a roving eye.

Wind as if the outbreaths
                 of ten thousand queries
Answers spelled-out
                 in fingertip dust
on windshield

The register oscillates between abstraction and frankness, different modes of clarity collaged together to make full pictures of days as lived. Sometimes, it’s the lack of grasp we are meant to behold: “Your observation abstracts / Out of nothings / details serialize / They are shadows on highlights.” Other times he brings the sentiment so in focus as to destabilize, as after visiting the grave of an intimate, he writes,

When I talk to you it’s
not like I’m thinking
How can matter ignore you
How can I matter

The poems often hit a pitch where both sides of the approach are achieved simultaneously, where the emotional resonance is unmistakable, but the image floats generatively over multiple angles. “Whispers break my heart when / I hear whispers all the time,” Godfrey tells us. Lines from one of a few poems written in memory of, these “whispers” most immediately reflect mourning and haunting, the exchange of messages to and from the abyss. But digging into the outsiderness that pervades the book—“I count lit windows” and “The huff or the sigh / Now is the time / in your live-in windows / to catch my own eye”—the whispers also take on the parallel connotation of being what one hears when passing other people’s private conversations. The word “whisper” has a dense quality, conveying air like a tiny grey cloud—its fricative timbre carries a rasp that leaves my ear lightly scoured, adding pronounced tactility to the registration of muffled speech and the relations it reveals, to intimates and strangers alike.

Though the book is centered by grief, grief stands in conjunction with many senses of the day. For example, the poems also give us erotic detail and jaunty humor, as in “My Hotplate”:

Subjective words grow roots
when your eyes widen
and I glimpse your underarms
     just smoldering piles of age
            on my hotplate

Or from “Finger of Dog”:

            Half blind
                        Lookin’ good

So, sure, the jokes also come back to decay. Yet even at its most elegiac, the verve of A Torch is never despair. Rather, the poet acknowledges death in a way that emphasizes the rich world of sensation that only such acknowledgement can make possible. The inevitable becomes an orienting force that enables not only a deeper connection to the world around us, but a more complete somatic experience of our own bodies. It becomes the thing we can finally get inside.

The place where
        when I get there I stay

Landmarks from window
Alone and dissatisfied
        Dreams unreal and
               me a dreamer

#264 — Spring 2021