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Eric Pankey

Eric Pankey was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1959, and educated in the public school system, completing his undergraduate work in 1981 at University of Missouri-Columbia and his Master of Fine Arts in 1983 at the University of Iowa. He is the author of eight collections of poems.


"The delicacy and accuracy we have come to expect from Eric Pankey are here on display and as deftly deployed as ever. Pankey remains one of our leading practitioners of the metaphysical poem."

– C. Dale Young

“Eric Pankey’s sensibility is an unerringly generous one: he is always willing to step first onto unsteady ground, to test it for those who might follow. The poems of Crow-Work, like good gleaners, seek out possibility and sustenance. They are skilled, deft, and dazzlingly alert. Just when I think they have brought me as close as possible to the dark and unknowable things that make awe possible, they bring me closer. The journey is unnerving, intimate, and thrilling.”

– Mary Szybist

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Crow-Work: Poems

Making Ghosts Take Flesh


The title leads palindromatically:  CROW-WORK.

Caw and walk. It is as symmetric and opaque as the wings of the bird.

But as with all good repetitions, it involves a progression. We trade a “C” for a “K”. Crispin returns from the sea as Krispin, an imperceptible and apocryphal transition. The sea in Eric Pankey’s newest collection is the palimpsest canvas of the world, where bees invade a lion’s carcass, Buddha statutes are formed from ash of Junta sticks, “mountains wear down to silt. / The silt sifts into dunes. / Things move around—A snowdrift’s grammar.”

With these objects in tow, Pankey writes a meditation on the fringes of the material world where the divine effaces the poet at his work. The collection is richly allusory, with the opening poem describing a collapsing Buddha statue made by the artist Zhang Huan. These mystical considerations are accompanied by a poem on Venetian scenery, one on a still-life by Giorgio Morandi, and many others on foxes, crows, flowers, and the worlds they inhabit.

As the speaker interrogates these objects, we are invited to consider themes constant in Pankey’s work: encounters with the divine in the ragged wilds, how art can approach the phenomenal substance of the world in its semi-ordered but inscrutable forms, how the poet claims identity in this perpetual flux.

Each theme involves frustration and disenchantment. The reader is told to strike a rock in the desert, and nothing happens. Tension builds serially. “Rain. Clouds like ravens’ coats. A brawl of water over rock.” Images build upon image, often in fragments. Even when it rains, there is no climax or denouement, just constant flux: “Empty hills. Clouds bank against evening. / Voices in the distance, but no one in sight.”

This is the world the speaker is born into – frayed at the edges and needing stitches. Change abounds – again, mountains wear down to silt – but the transformation one longs for is always deferred to a later hour, a more distant hollow.

This evasiveness – evoking the Desert Fathers and Buddhist traditions – is the major substance of the book, challenging the will of the reader as much as it challenges the will of the speaker. Some poems bear fruit, “Record[ing] the last cache of August daylight / As the dark hollow of the plucked raspberry.”

Others offer chaff and stubble. However, the voice here is consistent, startling, and carries enough authority to keep us turning pages. Pankey is nimble, even virtuoso, with the meditative mode, and his voice is well-established. The tone of Reliquaries, Cenotaph, The Late Romances, and the whole line of Pankey’s prior publications is well-preserved in this volume. It is furthered in fragments and pieced-together poems in this volume, where variety creates a multi-tonal chord of harmony and disharmony.

This facility is seen, in “Fragment,” for example, where we’re shown an

Evening river.
A ladder of fire extinguished one rung at a time:

The yellow of buckthorn berry, burry hatchings on gold leaf.
The tense of pain is the present.

From rivers to ladders of fire, buckthorn, and pain, these lines slide so fluidly from one object to another. In doing so they employ a Hopkins-like alliteration and a renga-like fluidity. I am particularly smug with the ladder of fire image, which equally applies to the river-reflected sun receding – and thereby being extinguished, as it retreats up the river – as to the early-autumnal blaze of the buckthorn berry.

In this way, the topical fluidity builds amalgams to mirror those that Pankey honors in the natural world. In doing so, they create a renga-like continuity of form spread across a patchwork of changing subjects, that is pleasing and productive in this botanical world.

Not all of the poems are so abundant with fruit, but there is a clear reason for that. This book requires a journey through the desert. Deliverance cannot come immediately if it is to be felt completely. As a result, thematic turns arrive later than the hedonistic reader would like them to. Regardless, this is a consummate work.

Consider the speaker’s dilemma in “Ash,” where we are taken to “the threshold of the divine.” The holy white noise of silence transmutes to a songbird’s habitation in a thicket, and the Buddha made of joss sticks stands before us.

With each footfall, ash shifts. The Buddha crumbles
To face it, we efface it with our presence.

And more so, we are effaced by it:

… turn[ing] away as if
Not to see is the same as not being seen.
There was fire, but God was not the fire.

This mutual effacement spans the seventy pages of this book, wherein the divine constantly retreats as the speaker advances, and the speaker grows silent, losing words and identity in the presence of the divine. In that progression, one is stupefied, for the

“blaze [is] so bright it would silhouette one who stood before it.

A blaze so bright
It would hide one who stood behind it.”

The erasure is so total that the speaker must be forgiven for thinking his body is gone. In a grocery store, he knocks “[s]omeone’s … bag from her hands” and is heard in his apology, somehow. Somehow she “[h]ears [his words] and makes sense of them. / (that is, it seems, the miracle: that I am a body, not a ghost;…).” To a writer, that is miracle enough.

We should all be so attuned to that reality, and Pankey calls us to that acknowledgment. The world is real, our bodies too, no matter how ghost-like our thoughts and aspirations may be. In that reality, Pankey also calls us to the crow-work at hand: surveying the wreckage from above, gleaning through the chaff, and piecing together our stories from mere vestiges of the original text.

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