The journal Rain Taxi has a policy that reviews can’t be written by people who actually knew the writer involved, an idea I’ve never been able to understand; I’m not interested in reviewing books by anyone I don’t know. Duncan McNaughton has been a friend for a long time now, since 1977. Will this review of his new book Somewhere in the Stream be somehow less “objective” and spoiled as a result?

The book, published by Kevin Opstedal’s Blue Press, is a stream of imagined encounters with characters – sometimes friends, sometimes historical, usually dead – with whom he and a few other narrators drink, eat and otherwise cavort in exotic locales around the world: it’s nothing if not cosmopolitan. As far as the dead go, keeping them in mind rather than remembering them is the secret; as he writes (to Garret Lansing) in “Lapis Manalis,” “This way you and I needn’t make excuses. / We can just get on with the augury” Another recently deceased poet and friend, Ben Hollander, is also close by: “They say one must part who don’t understand the heart / of the friend, it knows something else” (“As Effect An Echo”).

So here’s the subjective part: I knew these people too, as well as Joanne Kyger and Bill Berkson, friends and neighbors in Bolinas who are both mentioned here twice. We’re at that stage of life – what Duncan calls, in one poem, “Lates and Laters” – when a lot of friends have passed on: yours too, probably. In fact, as I type, my friend, the poet Judith Roche, is hanging onto life in a Seattle hospital: Duncan gave me her name and number on a folded piece of paper when we moved there in 1994, suggesting I look her up, and my life was better because I did. But while there are lots of hints of death in these rather autumnal reflections, there’s nothing sentimental or maudlin: just mentioning these people’s names are evidence that they’re still with us. In the title poem, “Everyone who matters to me drops in.” Although this late phase of life leaves “memory on the skids” and “magic on the ropes” (“Coming Attractions”), we can still wear the condition lightly.

Case in point: the poem “Childhood + Youth” starts with a postscript: “In September 2000 the mayor of Le Lavandau, Gil Bernardi, proclaimed a bylaw making it illegal to die in the town. ‘It’s an absurd law,’ he said, ‘to counter an absurd situation.’” Part of that absurdity is the fact that “Late in life pleasure’s personality / goes south, you have to earn it in a /

different way. Pain’s does not change, the prick” (“Lates and Laters”).

One might have thought poetry could offer some solace, but it’s seen here throughout with a mixture of exasperation and amused tolerance. “His essay ‘Elation in Poetry’ had by then become regarded / a classic study of despair” says the speaker in “The Passing of Fagin,” and in “When the Sun Turns Blue” he offers a clarifying diagnosis: “Poetry, like romance, and everything / else, has been made to conform to / ‘the world’.” A further explanation comes in a sort of initiation poem, “Childhood + Youth,” when the speaker is visited by “the poets,” who give him some sober advice:

You can’t hide forever behind the war,
the war ended. We won. Apparently
you lost. You don’t even know what a figure
of speech is. We know best.

The speaker is hurt, but gets a measure of solace when Virgil shows up, tells him to “Pay no attention to fools,” and invites him on a bridge inspection journey. Irony abounds: “There are going to be people saying, / We don’t get it. Poets among them” (“When The Sun Turns Blue”).

McNaughton’s jaundiced sense of humor when it comes to sexual matters is gladly on full display here, although the liaisons seem more elusive: an attractive woman asks for another seat on a plane when told the name of the speaker’s cologne is “Triage” (“Airborne in Camou”), and in another poem, he cops to the fictive nature of his gallery: “All my life the girls have been out there in / the make-believe, / thankfully, since you get nowhere with / the real reality gimmick” (“Imaginary Prison”). But the pas de deux of reality and the imagination – here, death and poetry – gets a final and sober treatment in the second poem written to the poet Colin Christopher Stuart, the title of which is an open parenthesis followed by the poet’s name. McNaughton praises his person and work as twins having an “enduring power to disturb,” and compares his friendship with Stuart to the earlier one between Heinrich Heine and Gerard de Nerval, elusive, intangible, and similar to Nicanor Parra’s poem “The Imaginary Man” . . . the dimension of “the unshareable real, of The Game played with one foot in the grave.” Whether we have one or both appendages there, it’s good to know that “the gentleman with the fake distressed/ antique finish . . . Mr. McNaughton” (“Teatime, The Gosnold Arms”) is still playing.