reviewed on July 5, 2023
Though the incident receives only one and a half lines late in the collection, and though it occurs there only en passant, perhaps the most important moment in Ross White’s Charm Offensive is an unsettling encounter that White relates, in characteristically masterful understatement, with all the gravitas of a weather report:
“A psychic,” he writes, “ told me I would die at fifty-two / of heart trouble.”
In the shadow of that statement, Charm Offensive poses memory and imagination as instruments against mortality, urging a kind of patient attention to—or consideration for—the world around us which might in some way annul or arrest the relentless acceleration of time. Put differently, White takes up those subjects most integral to the genre since Odysseus hauled himself away from Circe’s pleasure-grottoes: sex and death. If “[e]ach of us has only minutes left to live,” White suggests, what might most meaningfully engage us is reverence for the present moment and remembrance of the past.
Those ideas announce themselves with great clarity in the last poem of the collection, which exhibits White’s dexterity with conceit and the title of which, “The Old Gods,” re-sounds the note of classicism that echoes throughout Charm Offensive. “When I drive through the downpour / I focus so closely on the road I barely see / steeples,” White writes, though the landscape around him, he acknowledges, is more than worthy of his attention:
Look at the marvelous statehouse cupola
erected in a valley and consider all its builder
buried beneath. Consider the flood plain
drowned when the new dam was built.
Consider the graves—unmarked, so unmoved.
With its speaker moving forward into a perilous future, “The Old Gods” might easily rest here at a kind of “eat, drink, and be merry” presentism, at worshipful consideration of a landscape which may be, after all, the only immanence one ever arrives at. “[W]hat,” though, “does that consideration get you?” White asks. What matters that “moment unable to speak”? What are the ends of attention?
Evocative of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust—“then to the moment I could say: ‘stay a while, you are so lovely,’” Faust says, lamenting his mortality—“The Old Gods” gestures toward the limits of attention as a redemptive force, refusing the consolations of past and present, and confronting with untinted glasses the prospect of the future. “[N]ostalgia is sweet in the ear as it calls,” White writes, “begging us to coat the steeples in gold […] but I have never wanted sweetness. Why else / ride into the storm?”
While Charm Offensive—perhaps deliberately—never quite evokes the nostalgia it so carefully theorizes, the collection succeeds not only in the mode of the conceit, as here in “The Old Gods,” but in the now familiar ironized “braid,” wherein two subjects intertwine and play off one another in a kind of literary counterpoint. White weaves with tremendous skill, so that a poem like “Two Swans,” after Brigit Pegeen Kelly, toggles enchantingly between real and imaginary realms for its entire duration. What might seem to begin in landscape study, for instance—“I am keeping very still,” White opens the poem, “my pants hiked, my socks rolled down”—quickly resolves itself into medical narrative, as we are told that “limb leads […] read my heart at an angle” and that “the physician’s assistant says, / Try thinking of something you enjoy.” What White’s speaker thinks of, of course, are swans, two of them who “in the mental picture I’m supposed / to calm myself with, glid[e] towards each other / on a flat lake.” By the end of the poem, however, White’s imaginary swans have plunged into reality, almost as if they are there in the room alongside him: “I can go now, I can get off the table,” he says. “But I can’t. I don’t. / I am keeping very still.”