March 14, 2002

A Chronicle of Days

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In 1996, New York poet David Lehman began an experiment. Perhaps as a result of his research surrounding the New York school of poetry, Lehman began to write a poem each day. Though it’s not unusual that a writer experiences extremely productive periods, what made Lehman’s experience different was that he continued at this pace for two years, collecting hundreds of original pieces. Those works, compiled in a book entitled The Daily Mirror, proved to be a mere jumping off point for Lehman, however.

After the publication of The Daily Mirror, Lehman’s pace slowed, but soon he was at work on a second book composed of these daily poems. Over the following two years, Lehman’s chronicled the end of the 20th century in his verse. The resulting body of work, The Evening Sun, is slated for release on April 15.

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Evening Sun (aside from the pure ambition behind it) is the book’s array of subjects. As opposed to many other contemporary works of poetry, Lehman’s work does not have any one central theme or a binding set if motifs. The result is something quite unique among modern American verse; that is, with The Evening Sun, Lehman gives us an array of colorful and exacting versions of experience. His mind is as quick and angular as his words — jumping from object to idea as fluidly as he enjambs his lines. Surprisingly, the formula seems to work. Lehman can ruminate on fatherhood and perception in one poem and just two poems later in the sequence offer up a description of the WWII speeches of Churchill without creating any glaring incongruities.

Only some of the poems carry individual titles and all are arranged by the dates of their respective composition. The date appears at the beginning of each, as opposed to coming at the end of the work — something that is common to many other poet’s work. This, too, has an effect on the book as a whole. As one works through the individual poems, the date printed at the top of each reminds the reader of the implicit quality of the work, of the project’s intent. As is printed on the cover, The Evening Sun is literally “A Journal in Poetry.” Accordingly, each poem is somehow subjugated to the greater idea behind the work.

Perhaps that’s what makes Lehman’s book so attractive. It is at once composed of individual pieces that have seemingly little to do with one another while simultaneously being bound together in the mind of the poet, and by extension, the book itself. It’s in this way that Lehman makes all of his words, his concerns, cares, and imaginings our own. In a sense, the readers of Lehman’s words are quite literally reading his journal.

Though these poems range drastically in their subjects, there are in fact a few motifs and images that rear their heads at various points. The color blue plays a role in some of the poems. Just as the evening sky darkens into various shades of blue and violet, many of Lehman’s lines concern themselves with these varying shades of this color. Much like the title itself and the century that was coming to a close as Lehman put these words to the page, the image of a fading indigo sky is found in his words (as well as on the book’s cover).

Yet, in the midst of good-byes, deaths, and nightfall, Lehman maintains his lively New York attitude. In “August 15” we get a glimpse of Lehman’s extremely humorous side. He writes, “My new Web site is It’s interactive you get to choose how/ you’ll die, where, and at what age/ and it’ll still come as a complete/ surprise I guarantee/ but let’s not get morbid it’s a game/ it’s more fun than and a lot less/ narcissistic than …”

The Evening Sun is a work that endears itself to the reader upon subsequent visitations. Humor, sympathy, philosophy, love, and history are entwined in Lehman’s words. With a plethora of subjects and an acute eye, Lehman has offered up 150 poems that effectively chronicle the end of a century and an age. As a result, The Evening Sun is an important and intriguing work of modern verse, ideally suited for readers looking for something quite unlike any poetry they’ve read.

Archived article by Nate Brown