Book Review: More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, by Cyrus Cassells

Book Review: More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, by Cyrus Cassells
Review by Jory Mickelson
Nine Miles Books, 2020

The chapbook “More Than Watchmen at Daybreak” opens by addressing the reader as pilgrim, a traveler, one who has come from afar or is seeking a holy place. The landscape we enter as readers is that of the high desert of Northern New Mexico, in a canyon along the Chama River. It is here, with careful attention to the land and its inhabitants, that the speaker’s entire inner cosmos begins to unfold and reveal itself.

Cassells’ twelve-part series calls upon and engages the reader as an active participant. In Section II. “Accepting the Peace of St. Francis Hermitage,” the speaker begins the poem, “Listen, out of love and good will, / I was given a hermitage—”. This is where Cassells wrote his poems, at Christ in the Desert Monastery over the course of several stays. Immersed in the rich landscape, silence, and daily prayer life of the Benedictine monks, Cassells crafted poems that seem to echo the monastic order’s founder, Benedict of Nursia. Benedict’s Rule (the handbook for how monks are to live) begins, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instruction, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” And this is what Cassells does assiduously: listen to the land around him and let it speak out in the poems. The speaker implores the landscape’s guidance, as a pilgrim might a faithful guide:

Thawing winter: oh let me love again
The woodpecker’s artistry

In fact, it seems that it is to the river itself that the speaker returns and returns again. The Chama River anchors many of these poems, threads itself through Cassells’ consciousness, until it appears almost everywhere: “The river’s soft pistons, the river’s black silk,” or “The fleet river’s immutable hem—”.

Cassells’ poems are composed in couplets, perhaps mirroring the call and response of the monks’ recitation of the psalms three times a day at the monastery. One can almost hear them burst in to Cassells’ careful arrangements, or perhaps ghosting just behind them.

If this is true, it is the silence which really holds sway in these gorgeous, burgeoning poems. The silence in the spaces between the couplets. The silence after the em dashes. As classical music often deploys rests in an arrangement to allow the listener to pause and absorb what they have just heard—to allow the music to swell in the silence afterward—so Cassells uses language’s absence to underscore all the poems have to say. Or as Section VIII. “Monastic Silence” says:

Silence, immense silence,
Surpassing all human design.

Bellowing silence.

JORY MICKELSON is the author of the award-winning collection Wilderness//Kingdom (Floating Bridge Press, 2019). Their poems have appeared in print and online in AGNI, Jubilat, The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, Mid-American Review, Ninth Letter, and other journals. They are the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and have received fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. Originally from Montana, they now live in Bellingham, Washington.