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Table of contents :
Show Me Your Environment......Page 18
Native Colors......Page 29
If: On Transit, Transcendence, and Trope......Page 31
Hum Along: How I Took up Guitar and Became a Poet......Page 47
Herbert’s Conceited Poetry......Page 64
Corresponding Keats......Page 69
Song of Sanity: Whitman in Washington......Page 79
At Home with Emily Dickinson......Page 88
Almost Utmost: Marianne Moore......Page 95
Re: Wright......Page 106
Irony and Ecstasy: On Maxine Kumin and Gerald Stern......Page 116
Ted’s Box: On Ted Kooser......Page 122
Provision and Perfection: Stanley Plumly’s Poetry......Page 128
Brutal Mercy: On Norman Dubie......Page 139
Signs for My Fathers: The Evolution of David Bottoms......Page 145
Heaven and Earth: On Ellen Bryant Voigt and Robert Morgan......Page 159
Story’s Stories: Anne Carson, Susan Mitchell, Carl Phillips, D. Nurkse, and Michael Collier......Page 165
Whitman Alone: “When I Heard theLearn’d Astonomer”......Page 184
Walt Whitman’s “Time to Come”......Page 187
Life Lines: Issa and Ella Wheeler Wilcox......Page 192
Kees and Me: “Late Evening Song” and“Top of the Stove”......Page 195
Levis Here and There: “In the City of Light”......Page 198
Jane Hirshfield’s Foxes: “Three Foxes in aField at Twilight”......Page 203
Solmaz Sharif: “Personal Effects”......Page 207
Show Me Your Environment
David Baker Show Me Your Environment E ssays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems
The University of Michigan Press Ann Arbor
Copyright © by 2014 by David Baker All rights reserved This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written permission from the publisher. Published in the United States of America by The University of Michigan Press Manufactured in the United States of America c Printed on acid-free paper 2017 2016 2015 2014 4 3 2 1 A CIP catalog record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN 978-0-472-07225-5 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN 978-0-472-05225-7 (paper : alk. paper) ISBN 978-0-472-12042-0 (e-book)
Even the gods Have lived in the woods. . . . Virgil, Eclogue II
This is a book of prose made out of poetry. It is, in Theodore Roethke’s terms, a book of thinking guided by feeling—or feeling shaped into thinking. Over the years my aesthetic and professional devotions have been drawn from such ostensible poles. My work as an editor, my experience as a teacher, my practice as a poetry commentator are all, always, both scholarly and creative: practical work made out of “perfectly useless concentration,” as Elizabeth Bishop puts it. At least I aspire to such things. This is the environment where I find myself and where, by Boris Pasternak’s formulation, I recognize at least part of who I am. “Show me your environment,” he determines, “and I will tell you who you are.” An individual poem lives multiple lives, too. It has a meaningful life as a discreet text, a song and shape— like Emily Dickinson’s “formal feeling”—that conveys its essence to each reader or auditor, one at a time, in order that this reader might “enlarge a solitary existence,” as Harold Bloom says. It is also a small part of the collective expression of the poems before and around it, taking its identity from its place—fluid but real—in the gathering environs of the whole art and culture. I aspire for Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems to move among such identities, features, and uses. The book’s first section, “Poetry,” situates my most theoretical, alongside my most autobiographical, essays. Throughout I investigate the importance of place—the site and setting for poetry but also the residential and environmental fact of “real” life. I consider Felix Guattari’s ecosophy as a powerful method for enriching our understanding of the language and locus of art. Deepening our sense of connection is urgent during a cultural moment when we are so powerfully imperiled and dislocated
by environmental threats—from oil spills to corporate mega- farming, from militarization to the rapid “development” of rural and natural spaces. I look to the work of several important contemporary poets, but also trace the origins of some of my own work, through the lens of situational placement and environmental conscience. The second section, “Poets,” is arranged chronologically to provide a continuum along which I describe the rich evolution of the lyric poem through some of its most important makers. While a poet may seem like a “pure” lyric poet—Keats, for instance, or James Wright—I show how many ways lyric poetry is enriched by, indeed depends on, some manner of complicating rhetorical features: the double aspect of “conceit” in George Herbert or, in opposition, the self-effacement of James Wright; regional narrative and idiom, in David Bottoms’s case, or the application of historical monologue in Norman Dubie’s; formal innovation as a means of lyric mapping in Marianne Moore; and so on. Lyric poetry depends on traditionally nonlyric devices to provide its irony and its distinction. The third section, “Poems,” presents the simplest and to me the most fundamental kind of poetry criticism: engagement with a single poem. I continue to be surprised at how little of this kind of reading and critical attention we find these days. There is so much theorizing, where the literary text-at-hand is virtually erased. There are so many schools, fields, affiliations, and large-picture schemes. But sometimes the irreducible pleasure and richness of poetry is best articulated one poem at a time. Again arranged chronologically, these essays move from my touchstone example, Walt Whitman (the most discussed poet in the book), to the emerging Arab American poet, Solmaz Sharif. As I first began to assemble this book, I imagined another, fourth, section of essays, tracing the rapid developments in the specialized field of poetry in the new millennium—from its hyperprofessionalization to its unnerving, satisfied residence in the contemporary academy and the Facebook age—and tracing also its vast expansions through the work of so many heretofore unrepresented or underrepresented communities (queer, spoken-word, performance art, minority, hybrid-and hyper-text, on and on). But such examination seems to me so large and viii
so potentially fruitful that it wants—it requires—to be its own book. I suspect that my next critical project may be that one, self-assigned. The present book is itself the product of assignments. My brand of criticism is typically on-demand. I wrote most of these essays by invitation from the editors of literary journals and book projects, though a few started as lectures to be delivered to the Academy of American Poets, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Warren Wilson MFA program, the Associated Writing Programs, and the Chautauqua Institute. To all of these editors and organizations, and to the many friends and writers who advised me and guided my thinking and revisions, I am very grateful. As I finish these prefacing remarks, I wish to acknowledge two more people whose gifts to me have been immeasurable and whose deaths, over the past month, leave me immeasurably saddened: Robert C. Jones, my first poetry teacher at Central Missouri State University, for his encouragement, guidance, and example for nearly forty years; and my mother, Martha Baker, for her first and last gifts, life, love, and language.
Acknowledgments These essays first appeared, at times in earlier versions, in the following publications to whose editors I extend my gratitude: the American Book Review, “Brutal Mercy: On Norman Dubie”; American Poet, “Show Me Your Environment,” “Jane Hirshfield’s Foxes”; Aspects of Robinson: Homage to Weldon Kees, “Kees and Me”; Blackbird, “Levis Here and There”; the Georgia Review, “Provision and Perfection: Stanley Plumly’s Poetry”; the Gettysburg Review, “If: On Transit, Transcendence, and Trope”; the Kenyon Review, “At Home with Emily Dickinson,” “Corresponding Keats,” “Re: Wright,” “Solmaz Sharif,” “Story’s Stories”; Midwest Quarterly, “Ted’s Box: On Ted Kooser”; the New England Review, “Walt Whitman’s ‘Time to Come’”; Poetry, “Ecstasy and Irony,” “Heaven and Earth”; Poetry Daily, “Life Lines”; Poetry Northwest, “Hum Along: How I Took up Guitar and Became a Poet,” “Whitman Alone”; Third Coast, “Native Colors”; the Virginia Quarterly Review, “Song of Sanity: Whitman in Washington.” “Spill” first was printed in Poesis International and later, abbreviated, in The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry. “Signs for My Fathers: The Evolution of David Bottoms” first appeared in two parts in the Kenyon Review and the New England Review. The present version is reprinted from David Bottoms: Critical Essays and Interviews © 2010 William Walsh, (McFarland & Company, 2010), used by permission. “In the City of Light” © 2003 Larry Levis, from The Selected Levis (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), used by permission. “Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight” © 1997 Jane Hirshfield, from The Lives of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1997), used by permission. I am grateful Denison University for support of the work I do.
Contents Poetry Show Me Your Environment 3 Native Colors 14 If: On Transit, Transcendence, and Trope 16 Hum Along: How I Took up Guitar and Became a Poet 32 Spill37 Poets Herbert’s Conceited Poetry Corresponding Keats Song of Sanity: Whitman in Washington At Home with Emily Dickinson Almost Utmost: Marianne Moore Re: Wright Irony and Ecstasy: On Maxine Kumin and Gerald Stern Ted’s Box: On Ted Kooser Provision and Perfection: Stanley Plumly’s Poetry Brutal Mercy: On Norman Dubie Signs for My Fathers: The Evolution of David Bottoms Heaven and Earth: On Ellen Bryant Voigt and Robert Morgan Story’s Stories: Anne Carson, Susan Mitchell, Carl Phillips, D. Nurkse, and Michael Collier
49 54 64 73 80 91 101 107 113 124 130 144 150
Poems Whitman Alone: “When I Heard the Learn’d Astonomer” Walt Whitman’s “Time to Come”
Life Lines: Issa and Ella Wheeler Wilcox Kees and Me: “Late Evening Song” and “Top of the Stove” Levis Here and There: “In the City of Light” Jane Hirshfield’s Foxes: “Three Foxes in a Field at Twilight” Solmaz Sharif: “Personal Effects”
177 180 183 188 192
Show Me Your Environment
But what is our environment? Where do we live? Where do we live in our poems? “We live,” Wallace Stevens answers famously in Necessary Angel, “in the mind.” And I know what he means. Each perception, each feeling and phenomenon, each human intake is what it is because of our language for it, or in approximation of it, or in signification of its remnants. The imagination is Stevens’s great trope, the republic of his art; that is the secret to his aesthetic as well, his supreme fiction. It may also be the source of his limitation. Yet Stevens’s preference is fundamental to one strong tendency in our current poetry, a tendency toward an inward poetics whose features include a taste for “intellectual indeterminacy,” as one young critic, Kara Candito, has lately written. This indeterminacy includes a radical questioning, or outright rejection, of some customarily held notions of the stability of place, self, and gesture. Place and self are central to my considerations. My essay’s title, in fact, comes from Boris Pasternak’s determinative formulation: “Show me your environment, and I will tell you who you are.” Both place and identity are here configured into an intensely dependent relationship, and both are offered, if not as stable facts, at least as valid tropes. In “Earthworm,” a poem from her recent book, A Village Life, Louise Glück seems to concur with Pasternak: “one’s position determines one’s feelings.” We may indeed live in the mind. But—this is essential for my argument—the mind lives in the body. And the body lives in a particular time and a particular place on the earth, making social connections, walking, loving, sometimes abusing, always taking its very nourishment from the place where it lives. Its survival depends on the environment where it lives. Or, as one 3
talented emerging poet, G. C. Waldrep, has said, “What keeps us all from evaporating into that postmodern mist of vapor and indeterminacy is the body, of course. And music, the performative, is rooted in the body.” As a Midwestern poet, I find the issues of place and identity in the foreground of my thinking and my work. It is where I am from—small-town Missouri for twenty-four years and now rural and small-town Ohio for nearly thirty. The landscapes are indivisible to me from the people and languages and means of living, as wide and complex as they are. I want to examine some of these issues about place in poetry, place in the physical world, and to do so through the demanding lens of the Pasternak quotation. I’m looking at poems written by four poets for whom place in poetry includes the rich, unnamed sites within the imagination but also whose best work often derives from a literal, grounded place in the world. And my point is this: not to urge us to select or prefer an aesthetic, or a region, but rather to identify some of the diverse ways in which poets can write from a rooted engagement with place. Kara Candito warns against easy bifurcations as she identifies the “tendency to oversubscribe to one side in the ongoing aesthetic argument between autobiographical lyricism and intellectual indeterminism.” The four poets here don’t represent poles on Candito’s continuum, but rather points along it; they move, in my ordering, from established to emergent and from “autobiographical lyricism” to “intellectual indeterminism.” “In Passing,” by Stanley Plumly, raised and educated in Ohio, is not a Midwestern poem. Its scene and circumstance are otherwise, and plainly evident. I may think we recognize in this poem an aesthetic preference closer to Candito’s autobiographical lyricism than intellectual indeterminism, at least at first. And I suspect we recognize the place, those famous falls, where lovers gather and stare in awe. I’ll not linger over the rich lyricism of the poem—the alliterative alertness, the phrasal elegance, those sexy couplets—because I want to focus on the place, the environment: Niagara Falls, where as Plumly writes we can “[stand] far enough away / the Falls look like photography, the roar a radio.” Plumly’s work evolves out of a vast web of influences, but 4
one of his primary sources is the nineteenth-century Romantic movement. The sublime landscape is deeply embedded in the scenery of our imaginations. In the sublime narrative, we watch, “above the sheer witness” of the valley, and our outer viewing leads to our inner vision, as the awesome landscape in turn draws us close to the edge, terrifies us with the threat of obliteration, and ultimately restores us to our stability and self- awareness. As Plumly writes: “There is almost nothing that does not signal loneliness, / then loveliness, then something connecting all we will become.” Denis Donoghue has asserted that “the sublime makes beauty fear for its security . . . [where] the mind is beside itself, forms stare into formlessness, and the aesthetic faculty shudders.” Plumly renders this dizzying fascination “down into the future” where we see death itself: formlessness, as Donoghue says, an absolute erasure. Angus Fletcher argues that the sublime offers an educative mimesis, too, that it is instructive of “the turbulent rendition of change itself.” Plumly’s scene is familiar to our tired, ironic eyes. It is, in fact, trite. But the massive cliché is part of his poem’s complex intelligence. Where Wordsworth witnessed the lonely expanse above Tintern Abbey, where Shelley shook in fear and awe at Mont Blanc, here we have the sublime tied up in a belated package, all marketing and collective entertainment. The sublime is supposed to be isolate, furious. But at Niagara Falls we are never truly in fear for our security. We are tourists among tourists at yet another sentimental scenic overlook, quaint and contained, with guardrails, rain slickers, safety stairs, and locked-down telescopes. So because the scene itself can’t provide the poem’s terror, Plumly adds an erotic narrative, thus formulating a more complex conceit of both sincerity and irony: “I will never love you // more than at this moment, here in October, / the new rain rising slowly from the river.” Tony Hoagland has analyzed a similar phenomenon in Plumly’s work. The poetry seems at first familiar to us, not the self- proclaimed cutting-edge of the “new poetry” that Hoagland describes; and yet Plumly continues to bring a myriad of ironies and postmodern complexities to his rich lucid lyricism. In looking at Plumly’s poem “Wildflowers,” Hoagland writes that it is “a poem of loving praise, and a poem in contact with the sensory 5
universe of nature. But it is also a poem into which linguistic insecurity has entered: a poem that has been forced to make the flawed, slippery act of naming part of its subject matter. Plumly confronts “the situation of knowing oneself to be disconnected from the creation.” The function of identification and nomination is fundamental in Plumly’s poetry of place. They are basic elements of any poetry of environmental aptitude. In “Souls of Suicides as Birds,” the intimate knowledge of environment includes those omnipresent birds he knows so well, but also the people, the particular human inhabitants of his local environment. In this poem, Plumly works to fuse the birder’s life-list with a human death list: Linda Mannus, whose intelligent, high-wire crisis voice piqued everyone’s angst, even at twelve, is a Chipping Sparrow . . .
And when “Raymond Baker flew with his Ford Fairlaine through the barrels and signs of detour, planing his head through the wind-shield, he became a Swift, able to dive / down chimneys and vector a straight line / of the invisible air like an arrow aimed / at silence.” The accruing obituary is for friends and neighbors, memorial in its gravity and stunning in its detailing. But it serves as obituary also for the vanishing “swampy interior” and “dense scrub undergrowth” of the land, the place, the site of language but also of loss. Jonathan Bate argues forcefully in The Song of the Earth that this fragility and this essential beauty is the contemporary poet’s deepest task of attention and articulation. It is—I contend—fundamental to our survival not just as artists but as a species. And elsewhere, everywhere, Plumly gives us this ironic doubleness of residence and alienation, of wholeness and melancholy, the particularities of place and person, and the accruing losses of the same. The perils of such a poetry are large, and it’s worth noting them. They are the perils of the static and the pretty—the pathos of identifying with the over-pretty. They are also the perils of the familiar, as Hoagland suggests—the familiarity of a formal 6
style, a manner of syntax. One young critic has claimed that a coherent or orderly formal style yields only a “passive linguistic inheritance” rather than the more self-conscious reminders of “made language.” Is that always true? But I do contend here: the rehearsal of familiar scenes can become not merely repetitive, nor trite, but contrary to the imperative of art to surprise. What does it mean to be poet of place? What is place in a poem? A locale, a trope, a memory, a linguistic gesture, a circumstance? For Plumly, it is variously each of these; it is also a residential environment for that equally valuable and imperiled construct: the interior, identifying (if ever-shifting) self. For Linda Gregerson, place is a social trope, an environment for engagement and critique, as well as wonder or loss. Her Midwest is the Upper Midwest and Middle America of Wisconsin and Michigan. If Plumly is, at heart, meditative, a solitary lyric singer, then Gregerson is dramatic, public, as she crafts social groups from family and neighbors as well as from historical and sociopolitical narratives. That is to say, for her, a local habitation and a name—that lovely Shakespearean formulation—is a locus for complex relationships and engagements. For many years Gregerson has lived and worked in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her poem “An Arbor,” investigates place as a location for self, family, neighbor-group but also natural growth and unnatural harm. The world’s a world of trouble, your mother must have told you that. Poison leaks into the basements and tedium into the schools. The oak is going the way of the elm in the upper Midwest—my cousin earns a living by taking the dead ones down. And Jason’s alive yet, the fair- haired child, his metal crib next to my daughter’s. 7
This poem is both political and personal—it bears witness, making bold statements, but whispers in awe and grief as well; and all of these aspects are at risk before our eyes in the environment of the poem. “An Arbor” interrogates harm: physical, environmental, emotional, intentional, and with murmuring fatality, unintended or “benign” harm. It is unafraid to make accusations, of corporate mismanagement, suburban sprawl, and our belated postconsumer ease, our narcosis; and it is unwilling to excuse itself from culpable complicity. It is quietly outraged and it is admittedly, even autobiographically, guilty. Its very makeup is multiple, layered, and complex as double-exposed film; but it is not “indeterminate.” It is lucid as a manner of reportage. Goran Simic in “Beginning after Everything” writes that “I wanted to write poems like newspaper reports, so heartless, so cold . . . that someone might ask me, ‘Why do you write poems like newspaper reports?’” Likewise, the poet of “An Arbor” opts for clarified drama rather than schoolhouse pyrotechnics or abstractive melodrama. The tension produced by this poem’s dramatic juxtapositions and narrative opposites is palpable and sustained. Here the domestic is the political, the natural is the manufactured, the familial is the corporate, and even oak wilt—which is afflicting trees in our Midwest by the millions—provides livelihood for some: “a little shade, a little firewood.” Oak wilt, by the way, is provoked by selective planting in suburban neighborhoods, as we prune away complexities of the natural order to engineer more rapid growth, symmetrical branching systems, the visually pleasing. Thus “An Arbor” is about pure rot. Even the trees are part of the poem’s palette of contagion, “the manifold species of murmuring / harm.” And any holiday season is vacation time in American businesses; as now even urgent- care hospitals are business, twigs on the corporate branches of management and money, where “leaf by leaf without malice or forethought” the wilt of our irresponsibility spreads: “Like any such / contagion—hypocrisy in the conference room, // flattery in the halls—it works its mischief mostly / unremarked.” So the venerable doctors take vacation and the med students and interns take over. No one is watching carefully enough to know what to do. And—in our litigious age—no one person can be 8
held liable for the tragic damage to young Jason, whose very affliction is another of the poem’s dramatic ironies: to drown in a cup of water. My Midwest includes Plumly’s birds and local ferns, and Gregerson’s matrix of familial and cultural determinates. It features family farms and small towns. But it also must include conglomerate megafarms that swallow whole villages, farms that are more corporation than agriculture, with ConAgra, Cargill, Tyson, and Archer Daniels Midland serving as feudal lords and larger-than- life villains. My Midwest must include the horrible omnipresence of meth labs and jobless ruin, the abuses of migrant labor, murderous pesticides, and the denatured sprawl of meaningless franchising. So what does it mean to situate one’s poems in a landscape or region in a belated time? What pressures of identity and aesthetic innovation may derive from place? I’m shifting now to look quickly at two new poets whose work gives me hope; their manners of sited and environmental awareness seem essential not just to our poetry but to our survival. It’s a daunting task to select among emerging poets, given the sheer numbers. MFA programs and workshops are producing—and I mean producing like shoes and advertisements and French fries—a staggering number of young poets, looking for jobs, publications, building their resumes, networking like mad. G. C. Waldrep seems to me one of the most dynamic poets to appear in print in the past few years. Open a journal: there he is, the Albert Goldbarth of the set identified by Tony Hoagland as New Poets, whose work can be characterized as “stylistically high- spirited and technically intensive, intellectually interested in various forms of gamesman-ship, in craft and ‘procedure,’ acutely aware of poetry as language ‘system.’” True to Hoagland’s list of traits, Waldrep writes with furious variety. Prose poems, collaborative poems, poems that slip and switchback across the page, rupture and fracture and reconstitute, poems that interrogate their own procedures and slidings. It’s an exciting aesthetic anxiety, driven by experiment and curiosity. In a poem like “Milton Highway” I relish the dazzling associations, the playful velocity of mind, the linguistic and syntactic slippages. 9
Currydawn dustworry. A blue tuning as from the south pond in colder weather. Side to side to side to side to side. Like that. We are pleased. As with the scalp of that other, spider-thin. Stop. Side to side to side to side. There is pleasure here. We are shy of union. At the edge of vision: Other. A flapping like a mouth though the smell is iron. This other. Hunger is sufficient, hunger defines. Periphery scrim: we pass. Easypickyboypickyboy . . . .
I notice something else, too. That is, a wisdom deeper than gamesmanship at the heart of the poem, a wisdom of work and place—the kind of knowing that only a dug-down residence can create: here, the rhythm of a man working with a field horse, then brushing him out. So, a little more about Waldrep. He grew up in the rural South and possesses a scholarly pedigree rather different from most young poets: a BA from Harvard, MA and PhD from Duke, all in history, particularly the history of labor and the migrations of working-class southern whites, African Americans, and rural Midwesterners. Later he took his MFA from Iowa. And in the middle of all of this, in his mid-twenties, he joined the Amish church. I live a county away, in Ohio, from the largest Amish population in the world; Waldrep lived for a while in that county and now resides and works in rural Pennsylvania. Waldrep’s first book of poetry, Goldbeater’s Skin, was not his first book. Rather, in 2000, the University of Illinois Press published his monograph Southern Workers and the Search for Community. Here Waldrep writes about identity and place and the powerful structures of unions, strikes, and big business in little places. He has written poems in significant numbers about the Marin Headlands and the battlements there, and about the rural Midwest. Place is, he writes, “a refracting lens: it takes the white light that constitutes the self—the gaze—and breaks it down into animals, buildings, trees, surfaces against which the constituent strands of selfhood bounce off, reflect back upon 10
the viewer.” He writes a poetry of unsettling anxiety, from positions where settlement and rupture are embodied in the lives and places he knows very well. Another exciting young poet, about whom I know little personally, is Emily Wilson. Like Waldrep’s, her poetry is vivid with destabilizing tactics, wordplay, the self-aware manipulations of syntax, order, and a highly disordering curiosity. “Pastoral” is a good example of her work, from her first book, The Keep. The mordants in their noise, the night transports. A means of coming to the switchyard of the tongue. To have once set such store by forced creatures. Not changed toward something of my own . . . .
It’s thrilling to read a young poet, again one of Hoagland’s New Poets, whose attentions are drawn to an environment beyond the seminar room, the workshop, and the self. Her scope is impressively wide. This poem is a virtual catalog of pastoral gestures, each brought up to the second in a belated, ironic, nearly elegiac figuration. I’ll refer you also to “Small Study,” a poem from her recent Micrographia. Here, as through all her work, I’m engaged by the richly elliptical nature of her language, the intimate precision of her knowledge and her natural observations: her devotion at once to innovation and the found-in-place. Sparrows swiveling the feeder so the seed whorls so the dove can come from its fix in the waver of cedars. Some one makes a husk note that a pair can flare into as if 11
built from that scutch of the undergrowth . . . .
Wilson’s place-motivated conscience is both moving and convincing, a voice that insists to speak in behalf of its art and its environment. I am looking toward a poetry of site and situation—highly aware of its place in the world, its human residence in all particularity, value, and peril. Human residence in poetry—that sense of self—can provide a trope of intimacy but also of connection. As Blanchot writes, “Self is merely a formal necessity,” but he continues importantly: “it serves to allow the infinite relation of Self to Other.” This is my point: to continue to imagine webs of relation, housed in place and self, that may extend to other places and other people. Not the erasure of either, but the extension and complication of both. In The Three Ecologies, Felix Guattari describes a complex possibility that seems akin to the combined work of the four poets here. In his theory of ecosophy—thinking about nature—Guattari goes beyond the environmental writing we know, which often seems stuck between two poles in a vision of Eden and a view of contemporary disaster, and fixed rhetorically between hero and villain or advocate / accuser and audience / constituency. Instead, Guattari asserts, there are at least three “ecological registers” that must be brought into synchronous operation: the environment, social relations, and human subjectivity, which I take to mean the self in all its slippages, as well as language and art in all of theirs. This becomes Guattari’s “ethico-political” calibration. And this is why I’m looking these days at poets like the present four, for their collective expression of Guattari’s three elements: the environment (or place), social relations, and human subjectivity. In a recent interview, Alice Notley offers her own take on the future, her estimation about the future for poetry and its uses and its subjects: “It’s all about the planet. I don’t feel positive about any of this. No one’s really facing up to this reality [she means ecological disaster, in its awful variety] as the massive danger to us it is, but the poets could. It should be incorporated into the totality of what one says. I’m not talking about being didac12
tic, I’m talking about knowing what’s going on and showing that as part of one’s evident being, one’s work.” I hope I have revealed some good poems here—and prospects for our art. My task has been not to limit, but rather to make room for—to make sure in all our noise, business, and haste to be forward-looking, that we include the earth. We seem to be doing everything we can to forget it in our shameful waste, even in our tantalizing postmodern erasures. As Emily Wilson writes in “Red-Legged Kittiwake”: “So where does it go when gone.”
I begin with a few lines of poetry. “Fidelity” is the title as well as the opening word to a poem by Emily Wilson. Her title jumpstarts into the first lines: “to the native colors / to the knitting shadows that feed / the forward computations. . . .” Do you know Emily Wilson’s work? I have been reading it a lot lately. I know virtually nothing about Wilson herself—she lives, her short bio says on the back of Micrographia, in Brooklyn— but her work resounds with me. Her poems possess a rare bifocal capability. That is, she is part of the large crowd of recently emergent poets for whom innovation and intellectual indeterminacy are central aesthetic tenets; her poems slip and slide, her syntax shudders, compresses, and her wordplay is intense and generative. I have to admit, though, I tire rapidly of much of the work of this crowd, for whom the MFA workshop seems the be-all and end-all of their audience, landscape, and experience. You know the poetry I mean—witty, quick, often snide (instead of genuinely ironic), full of insider information from po-biz, full of jokey arrogance. Wilson’s poems are partially akin to this crowd’s work, no doubt, but she balances a latter-day post- structural poetic with a deep regard—I mean, she looks hard and pays attention—for the natural and local worlds. She is faithful to the native colors, as her poem says. Yet she is also driven by the “forward computations” to take her poetry into the next moment and not satisfy herself with a contented familiarity. I say this because I hope to pay attention to the native colors of my own Midwestern locales. And I also tire of a regional poetry that is content to valorize place, that feels akin to the school-spiritedness that makes me cringe just as I cringe at much of the hip crowd’s latest work. Pride of place leads to all manner 14
of villainy: not just to parochial close-mindedness but, in its bigger incarnations, to nationalism and—by too quick extension— prejudice and injustice. I also tire of regional poetry that is content to rehearse a familiar poetic gesture and rhetoric, over and over. That’s why Wilson interests me. She is landed, sited, familiar with the native colors and their names and habitats, but she pushes forward, too, into the unfamiliar terrain of genuine poetry, its inventive, generative capabilities for strangeness and discovery. For myself? I am a Midwestern poet. This is not because I find the Midwest inherently preferable as a place to live, or as a site for poetry, but because that is where I live. I grew up in small- town Missouri and have lived in rural Ohio since 1984. The landscapes and villages and manners of people’s lives and work comprise some of the material of my poems, as of my imagination. So I aspire to learn and live with the things around me— the plants and animals, the neighbors and workers, the weathers and geographies—and to speak their names in my poems. I do not want to write like a New Yorker or a Bulgarian, though I want to read and absorb and live inside the poems of New Yorkers and Bulgarians. Each place is important because every place is important. There is a wild orchid, the Calopogon orchid, one variety of which grows in a cranberry bog in the middle of an eleven-acre floating island in the middle of Buckeye Lake, twelve miles from where I live. It grows here and almost nowhere else. The whole world is like this. Life is a locally homegrown phenomenon. It is also important to me to remember, in my Midwest, that while I live next to the Calopogon orchid and the chimney swift, I also live near a meth lab and a reeking corporate megafarm. If we name names, we cannot name only the pretty ones. Nor only the repellant ones. But all of them, in turn, as we must. Catbird, Cargill, bluegill, Range Rover, meadow rue, ruby- throated . . .
If On Transit, Transcendence, and Trope
If I were “doing Derrida,” as one theorist friend describes her work, I would have begun in the midst of thought, amid the continuing and continued sinew of syntax, as though always already we find ourselves not in the middle of a Dante’s dark woods but rather within the tangle of discourse, in the midst of language’s historical progress. Here there is no hope of a starting point. But, perhaps, that is a reconfiguration of hope. I do think beginnings are dead. “No art form,” writes George Steiner in Grammars of Creation, “comes out of nothing. Always, it comes after.” The late post-structural theorists have clarified (or further baffled) this condition for us, arguing convincingly that any origin, any trace of any originary phenomenon or concept, has been visited and many times written over. Origins are lost. And the beginning is always already underway. It is, in fact, postscript. Modernism, Steiner says, might be defined as an exasperation with the cruel fact of posteriority. What, then, is the place of hope? Steiner again: “It is the status of hope today which is problematic. On any but the trivial, momentary level, hope is a transcendental inference. It is underwritten by theological- metaphysical presumptions, in the strict sense of this word which connotes a possibly unjustified investment, a purchase, as the bank would say, of ‘futures.’” Yet I want to assert that the fiction-making or ecstatic processes of literature, as opposed to (or in addition to) the procedures of purely literal testimony, provides exactly this—the premises of hope—though hope is nearly synonymous with death. What I am doing is taking arguable positions on large mat16
ters. I don’t intend that my notions are just the sport of theoretical suppositions. How we perceive of language and hope, how we conceive of time, trope, the components of narrative—these fundamental problems determine the structures of our imaginations and of our writings: how our work “begins,” how it associates, how it operates, and toward what ends and to what end it does or doesn’t lead. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Several stories begin this way. I don’t believe in the gods of human religion, the cognitive makers of all, who out of nothing made something and in whose images we abide. That is, I do not believe in the God or gods of virtually every manmade church on the planet. Yet I do believe that something came out of nothing, or almost nothing. I do not know how. It is a mystery and I do believe in mystery and in its utter, generative fascination for us humans. God was a mystery to St. Augustine, the ultimate, awful what-if. God was that than which nothing greater can be conceived. I find myself drawn to that figure, if not to that faith. I believe in our need for belief. In the West the demise of God coincided in the mid- nineteenth century with the rise and demise of the Romantic. Fundamental to Romantic cosmology and art is the idea of transport and transcendence. Fundamental to the American imagination is Romanticism, for our government itself was founded on the Romantic precepts of insurgence and renewal. Samuel Willard’s 1694 election sermon, “The Character of a Good Ruler,” anticipates by nearly a century the most astonishing paradox upon which the Declaration of Independence resides. Willard’s assertion that “A People are not made for Rulers, but Rulers for a People” invites the subsequent framers of the Declaration to determine that When a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce the people under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to expunge their former system of government.
The paradox is the imperative, inscribed within the system, for an overthrow of this or any other system at the point where it fails to act in the best interests of the people. But such a paradox is consistent with the logic of Romanticism. Expunging tyranny is the doubled desire to improve the future by remembering the past, especially if the past originates in the immaculate society of Eden. For all its ruined cottages, dark souls, pale whales, and melancholy inspirations, Romanticism is ultimately a hopeful aesthetic. Its evolution is hopeful; a revolution of progress for politics, the body, and the soul. Its famous nineteenth-century adherents all believed in God, though they called it the over-soul, or nature, or democracy. (This is clearly not the God of Abraham or Mohammed or George W. Bush.) More than this, they believed in the self. Whitman formulates a world where each self is vitally a hero, capable of seeing straight into the spiritual heart of things and drawing from that vision a new language capable of transforming not only oneself but the very government. In “Nature” Emerson succinctly offers the single most important Romantic statement about the relationship of language to truth. “Words,” he says, “are signs of natural facts. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. Nature is a symbol of the spirit.” Think of the great Romantic paintings as example. You’re standing on a cliff, looking out into the distance, which is hazy, elevated, green, ruined, extensive, breathtaking. People are tiny, if there are people. Rock cliffs, winding streams, massive trees. What we see there is God. Or inspiration. Or the shape of the primitive and progressive human imagination. What we see is the landscape of sublime transcendence, where we are urged to step off, to step out of the body, into the light. Nature is a symbol of the spirit. In the ferocious transformations of Dickinson, the divine decay of Wordsworth, the melancholy fatalism of Keats, the progressive encouragements of Whitman and Shelley, even the terrible nada of Poe and Melville, we find the same tenets held dear: the primacy of self-identity. A belief in, an imperative toward, improvement. A sense of intelligence based as much on awe or wonder (or fear, for that matter) as on reason or logic. Nature as a symbolic system: in fact, nature as a language. 18
So what do we do with the Romantic paradigm in a post– deific age and discourse? That has been the shared problematic of modernism and Marxism alike. It was the project of twentieth- century realism (by which modernism and Marxism are related) to replace the divine with the practical, the rational, and the social. Romanticism’s opposite, realism, was weaned on the scientific, the technical, the phenomenological. Romanticism is a matter of the spirit. Realism is a matter of matter. Romanticism is a system of beliefs based on the invisible. Realism is a phenomenology based on proofs. Even if all things, all matter, can be reduced to the tiniest quanta of stuff, and even though that quark may essentially exist in no space or weigh nothing at all, still there is always stuff rather than no stuff. In the process, awe, wonder, and the autonomous self have been labeled quackery or mere sentiment. Much of the fuel of postmodernist discourse has been mined from its enthusiastic critique and dismissal of Romanticism. And not without important and good results. Leo Bersani’s excellent polemic, The Culture of Redemption, argues that the aesthetic morality of Romanticism does great damage to our cultural well- being. Remember that Romanticism is an ultimately redemptive or progressive philosophy. Bersani argues that “a crucial assumption in the culture of redemption is that art . . . repairs” and improves. He continues: “Yet I want to show that such apparently acceptable views of art’s beneficently reconstructive function in culture depend on a devaluation of historical experience. The catastrophes of history matter much less if they are somehow compensated for in art, and art itself gets reduced to a kind of superior patching function.” That is to say, if we see in art a means of improving or curing what ails us, then we too easily forgive or disregard what we really do to each other. For Bersani, the corrective virtue of works of art depends on a misreading of art as philosophy, where art attempts to redeem the catastrophe of history. He says, “Everything can be made up, can be made over again [remember the imperative to revolution and repair in the Declaration, that most Romantic and democratic of documents?] . . . and the absolute singularity of human experience— the source of both its tragedy and its beauty—is thus dissipated in the trivializing nobility of a redemption through art.” 19
Thus, rather than redemptive, art must serve as a form of witness or testimony, an accurate account of historical truths. Let’s return to our sublime painting for example. Where a Romantic might see an expansive natural landscape with its fallen mansions and dense, pastoral-turning-into-spiritual light, Bersani or another cultural realist might instead see the delusions of arrogant pride, superstition, and leisure-class comfort. A self proud of its ownership of an entire natural landscape, the overgrown Eden. And they would both be right. Carolyn Forche, among many subsequent others, has written passionately to advocate the function of witness in art. Her essay “El Salvador: An Aide-Memoire” was a rallying point in the 1980s for a socially or political responsible art, an art of testimony. “All language, then, is political,” she writes, “vision is always ideologically charged, perceptions are shaped a priori by our assumptions and sensibility is formed by a consciousness at once social, historical, and aesthetic. There is no such thing as nonpolitical poetry . . . It is my feeling that the twentieth-century demands a poetry of witness.” Or as Terence Des Pres asserts in his Praises and Dispraises, art must serve the social purposes of resistance, testimony, mobilization, and action. Art must not, as Wallace Stevens says it must, “evade the pressure of reality.” In what way does art make something, rather than nothing, happen? Can poetry shape the structure of society? Yet doesn’t that figure contradict Bersani’s claim that art as an improving or redemptive instrument is also a damaging instrument? As much as I admire and share some of the social realist’s views, as much as I am grateful for the effects on recent literature and cultural studies, I also maintain some doubts. One): As critics urge us to reject Romanticism (and its sense of transport, of inspiration, and of awe) in favor of politically or culturally relevant texts, a literature designed as witness or testimony can run the risk of devolving the language of metaphor into the language of information. To social realists, literary language is or should be a kind of transcript. But I assert that the project of political criticism isn’t always adequately equipped to describe the full experience of a work of art. As Octavio Paz has written in The Other Voice, “To read a poem in this way [to articulate its political significance only] is like studying botany by 20
scrutinizing a Corot landscape.” Or as Herbert F. Tucker argues in his editor’s comment in the winter 1999 issue of New Literary History, “the often politically urgent critique of historical and cultural meanings has a way of approaching literature as if it were information, of regarding a text’s formal literariness as if it were a code to be broken and discarded in favor of the message it bears.” How many of our English Department colleagues seem interested only in the thematic intents of a work of literature— its political content or its cultural utility? How many are capable of appreciating or merely teaching the myriad artful operations of craft, of technique, as well as theme? A desire for scientific objectivity has replaced our sense of wonder, of invention, of fictive play. But, as Paul Kane has written, “since virtually all literary themes can be reduced to commonplaces, there is clearly something other than cognitive content that attracts us.” Two): Recent theory can tend to deconstruct us out of the notion of distinct or discrete literary genres. Genres, so the argument goes, are sentimental or artificial distinctions, as false as a sense of self is to a person. A poem, a play, an advertisement for hemorrhoid medicine, a political speech, are all equal and are all equally named by the generic word text. But I worry that in dissolving literary genres, we betray a most important entity: the historical. Isn’t this an ironic flaw for theories that argue to dissolve the genres, since most of these theories also argue for the primacy of the historical over the artistic? My point is that genre is also a historically significant form of meaning and identity. Of course literary genres overlap, and evolve, and are fluid and unstable rather than static or absolute. But part of the meaning of a poem is its form. Part of the theme or subject of a novel is its narrative shape. And these things derive from the historical progression—fluid and evolving—of literature. Three): As we discard genres, we also tend to dissolve notions of the self. The self, so the argument goes, is a sentimental fiction constructed as a primitive form of species survival. The self is a tyranny and a tyrant. Bersani is pointed again on this issue: “the sacrosanct value of selfhood [is] the value that may account for human beings’ extraordinary willingness to kill in order to protect the seriousness of their statements. The self is a practical convenience; promoted to the status of an ethical ideal, 21
it is a sanction for violence.” And it’s true: our sense of self or identity is the basis for our murderous insistence to maintain a distance—a sense of unsympathetic difference—from others who are strange to us. But is it the self that is racist, sexist, classist, and nationalist? Just as literary genres are historically rooted things, endowed with a meaning that is not only authorially bestowed but historically bestowed, so too is the human sense of a self. Isn’t it true that the self, the individual, is also a historical construction? History and the self are not opposite forces. Rather, a self is a form of meaning— slippery, changeable, elusive— just as a literary genre is a form of meaning. To discard the self is to betray one of our most fundamental means of understanding, connection, and sympathy. Four): The post-structural reliance on formalism, science, and technology has led logically to a critique of notions of the self, of literary genres, of an artwork’s emotive or affective capability. Stanley Fish has claimed the “death of the author” as a trope for dismantling the notion of origins, of intent, of authority. In place of the author, though, the critic has lately proposed his or her own ascendancy, and the theoretical debate has devolved too often into a struggle for authority or power in universities rather than a debate about language and history. Some of our literature colleagues are adept social engineers but speak of literature with disdain. Language is inherently unclear, without reliable meaning, ever-shifting, ever unreliable, they assert. But haven’t poets always known that? In another irony, some theorists treat theory with a religious fervor, an unbending certainty in their correctness; and to speak otherwise is to commit the sins of ignorance, unenlightenment, and intellectual fascism. There is no negative capability—no doubt, no wonder, no suspended disbelief—in the character of such attitudes. And about Fish’s “death of the author” wish, here is Harold Bloom in a characteristically grouchy and acute assessment: “The death of the author is a trope, and a rather pernicious one; the life of the author is a quantifiable entity.” So, what do we do with transcendence? Here is my further admission. I do not believe in a deity, but I do believe in transcen22
dence. How, in God’s name, can that be? How, not taking God’s name at all, can that be? Here is George Steiner again: “The intuition—is it something deeper than even that?—the conjecture, so strangely resistant to falsification, that there is ‘otherness’ out of reach gives to our elemental existence its pulse of unfulfillment. We are the creatures of a great thirst. Bent on coming home to a place we have never known. The ‘irrationality’ of the transcendental intuition dignifies reason. The will to ascension is founded not on any ‘because it is there’ but on a ‘because it is not there.’” So I want to examine some of the problems and potentialities of a latter-day transcendence. We know the basic trajectory of the transcendental. That it means to “go across” or “travel over.” It describes an intelligence, an acute perception, based on intuition rather than reason (or on intuition and reason conjoined, I think), and seems akin to religious rebirth or, as the poet says, out-of-the-body travel. But is transcendence only God-Hunger? More inclusive than this, it is a primal imaginative and experiential entity for all human beings and human societies. We want to be out of ourselves. This desire for transport is why all societies have drink, drugs, ritual dance that leads to dizziness. It is why children love to spin until they fall. It is why sex is so profound. And poetry. As Emerson writes, “All men avail themselves of such means as they can” in their search for sublime vision. I confess that, over the years, I have asserted my own disbelief in language’s ability to represent a transcendental operation. The complete transcendental act must arrive at a condition where language ceases to exist (or where it has yet to come into being): language’s absence. I suggest the inherent frustration or grief of transcendence as language, since the transcending destination would be wholly irrelevant to words, apart from them. Transcendental literature points to, but can never arrive at, the transcendent. But in Of God Who Comes to Mind, Emmanuel Levinas counters my doubt this way: “The attempt to place in doubt the very significance of words such as ‘transcendence’ and ‘beyond’ bears witness to their semantic solidity, since . . . we recognize what we are contesting.” Harold Bloom makes a further, strong case: “A transcendence that cannot somehow be expressed is an incoherence; authentic transcendence can be 23
communicated by mastery of language, since metaphor is transference, a carrying-across from one kind of experience to another.” In Bloom’s reading of things, transcendence is the fundamental figure of literary language. It is not simply a way of talking about the divine. It is a way of talking about the transaction of metaphor. It is a transfer—of power or of a supremely powerless imagination—from one thing or state or discourse to another. A trope is transcendent. Here are some lines from our Patron Saint of Disbelieving Belief, Charles Wright, from “Lives of the Artists.” Jaundicing down from their purity, the plum blossoms Snowfall out of the two trees And spread like a sheet of mayflies soundlessly, thick underfoot— I am the silence that is incomprehensible, First snow stars drifting down from the sky, late fall in the other world; I am the utterance of my name. Belief in transcendence, belief in something beyond belief, Is what the blossoms solidify In their fall through the two worlds— The imagine of the invisible, the slow dream of metaphor . . .
Metaphor, as we know, is the enemy of the real. Metaphor is thereby “dangerous” to Tomas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.” Post-structuralism, for instance, often decries metaphor as frivolity, as fiction, as an ornament of privilege. Metaphor cannot accurately portray political truths. This is not a new issue. Why were the early American Puritans so terrified of poetry? Because its beauty could convince us to disregard God’s real world. Because poetic metaphor was an instance of authorial pride. Because its fictive nature presented a counterfeit world. That’s why the Puritans could take the lovely King James Psalms and turn them into the Bay Psalm Book, a testament to utility, humility, but also the ugly.
The Lord to me a shepherd is, Want therefore shall not I. He in the folds of tender grass Doth cause me down to lie: To waters calm me gently leads, Restore my soul doth he, He doth in paths of righteousness For his name’s sake lead me. Yea though in valley of death’s shade I walk, none ill I’ll fear: Because thou are with me, they rod And staff my comfort are. For me a table thou hast spread, In presence of my foes: Thou dost anoint my head with oil, My cup it overflows. Goodness and mercy surely shall All my days follow me: And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell So long as days shall be.
The first book published in America, in 1640, The Bay Psalm Book is a document to practical use, full of fear of the language of beauty and metaphor. This same fear drove another writer to make even more astonishing claims. We shall have to obliterate many obnoxious passages, beginning with the verses. . . . [For] if anyone at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the state should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good. But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind.
That wasn’t one of our latter-day tyrants. That was Plato, who expelled poets from his utopian Republic. Poets and storytellers were the first people to be banished—before murderers and
thieves—because poets couldn’t be trusted to tell the unmetaphorized or state-sanctioned truth. The magic of literary language, the magic of metaphor, is its fluidity, its shifting or alternative nature. It does not so much intend to tie us to a singular truth, but rather it continually makes gestures of connection and transfiguration. It is a going-toward, uniting sign to signifier to signified, as they say. So, I want to make three assertions about the status or possibility of transcendence in contemporary thinking. Some of these notions are embedded in the history of transcendental discourse, and some represent recent adjustments or evolved forms of the transcendent. One): The transcendental is a means of instruction to us in the provisional and conditional, rather than merely in the actual or historically factual. Issuing his admiration for a fellow poet, Czeslaw Milosz in A Treatise on Poetry says, “His praise was as if in a world of as if.” The subjunctive is a means to articulate hope, a means to dream or aspire or suppose. Steiner writes that “it is only man, so far as we can conceive, who has the means of altering his world by resorting to ‘if’ clauses. . . . It seems to me that this fantastic, formally incommensurable ‘grammatology’ of verb-futures, of subjunctives and optatives proved indispensable to the survival, to the evolution of the ‘language-animal’ confronted, as we were and are, by the scandal, by the incomprehensibility of individual death.” In an even more telling passage we see Derrida extolling the fictive conditional. Derrida’s Demeure is a visionary gloss on Maurice Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death. “It is here,” he says, referring to Blanchot’s account of his near murder by the Germans as World War II wound down, “that false testimony and literary fiction can in truth still testify, from the moment that the possibility of fiction has structured— but with a fracture—what is called real experience.” The operations of metaphor, of trope, in other words, by their very conditionality, can be made to clarify or to structure, as Derrida says, “real experience” in a way that testimony can only copy. Art is an essential ingredient not only in the personal but also in the cultural record. Two): The operation of metaphor, the transcendental nature 26
of literary language, is essentially an ecstatic gesture. “Human speech declares its origins in transcendent dialogue,” says Steiner. “We speak because we were called upon to answer; language is, in the root sense, a vocation.” This impulse enacts our hopeful desire to connect with an “other”—whether that is God, a lover, or a companion self. And this is one of my central, if ironic, notions. The desire for transcendence is both a desire to be outside ourselves, out of our bodies, out of our minds, and a desire to be most fully ourselves, most fully with or inside ourselves. The desire for transport is a bodily desire. We must transcend being, Steiner writes, “in order to ‘be with.’” But how can that be? Willis Barnstone, in The Poetics of Ecstasy, asserts not one but five varieties of ecstatic transport. Rage and anger. Madness. Felicity and enthusiasm. Secular love or physical union. And of course mystic or deific union. In each case the poet, the person, is driven to stand outside the self (that is the meaning of ek-stasis) by an extremity of passion. We go from one place to another place, in our minds or hearts, without moving. But passion, the impulse of transcendence, is a product of biology. The body is passion’s natural habitat. None other than Walt Whitman, in his great document of transcendental irony, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” admits and praises this paradox. What is it then between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not, I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine, I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it, I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me, In the day among the crowds of people sometimes they came upon me, In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me, I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution, I too had receiv’d identity by my body, 27
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.
Who is more ecstatic and hopeful than Whitman? Who more fully articulates the potentiality of perfection, sounding his bodiless and timeless “barbaric yawp . . . over the rooftops of world”? Yet who is more fully identified by the body than Whitman? Who is more fully at home in himself? The body is, as he writes, “his nighest name.” And the physical contact of bodies, for Whitman, provides not only sensual but spiritual; indeed, metaphysical, connection. But this is my point: at the moment of these transcendences, which are real, we are not out of ourselves but are more deeply in ourselves, are ourselves, than at any other time. The unreal transcendent may be our realest moment. Three): I realize that the previous statement is ironic. But this is central: I think the necessary companion trope of transcendence is irony. I have always been fascinated with this problem. In about tenth grade, at just the point when I was casting off the vestiges of the Protestant church, I was stricken with one of those great adolescent crushes on a writer. It was Thomas Merton. The more I read the more I disbelieved in the church’s God, though I believed in Merton and Merton’s God. I know now I loved Merton not because of his faith in God but because of his faith in language. It seemed the ultimate irony—irony of nearly classical stature—for a Trappist monk, subsumed in so much compulsory silence, to be so full of language, even poetry. So can we see transcendent ecstasy as a form of sublime (or not so sublime) irony? Is even religious discourse now most possible when vividly ironized? Anne Carson says in “The Truth about God”: “My religion makes no sense / and does not help me / therefore I pursue it.” And Geoffrey Hill, in “To William Corbett,” epitomizes the paradox and problem of religious belief: “I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site.” Jorie Graham’s “Prayer” is also on point, correlating the desire for sublime transit with ironic awareness. Faith’s fate is transformation, she says, but an “impure” one.
This is the force of faith. Nobody gets what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing is to be pure. What you get is to be changed.
There are many kinds of irony. I do not mean here an irony of voice—the irony of sarcasm: to say one thing and imply another. In fact, I have grown downright grim about the mouth, as Melville says, with so much contemporary poetry that is merely ironic, smart, sarcastic, fast-talking, even erudite, but without a soul or the soul’s music. By irony here I mean a classical or situational irony, or as Bloom puts it, a “clash of incommensurate forces.” Here are some of the fundamental ironies of transcendental discourse. One): Although it seems to desire an erasure of self, the transcendental—like the operations of metaphor—depends on a self as an origin and a locus. T. S. Eliot is on point: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Transcendence is the conjoining of the body and the bodiless. Two): As the transcendent depends on the body, so does it depend on time. Whitman said previously that “time avails not,” then adjusted that notion by embracing the time-bound body. A poetic transcendence, a sublime or visionary truth, according to Milosz, is “time lifted above time by time.” Even death, according to Levinas, is “understood as the patience of time.” Three): That is, transcendence requires a death. That is its irony—and the irony is doubled, as transcendence then restores us to ourselves. Transcendence requires, if only for an instant, a release from our identities and our familiar gestures into a space where we may reconsider our identities and gestures. Derrida describes an “unspoken trauma, a feeling of lightness or beatitude” in the encounter at the instant “of death with death.” He continues, “Perhaps it is the encounter of death, which is only ever an imminence, only ever an instance, only ever a suspension, an anticipation, the encounter of death as anticipation
with death itself, with a death that has already arrived according to the inescapable.” The clearer formulation here is Blanchot’s verb-less vision: “Dead—immortal. Perhaps ecstasy.” Four): Our belatedness, the posteriority that Steiner asserts, does not invalidate or negate our relationship with the sublime. While irony now is a necessary figure in transcendental or sublime discourse, that discourse is still viable. “The longing for the sublime thus has not died,” writes Glenn W. Most; but “for us, there cannot be a sublime that is not free from loss, from regret, from a melancholy sense of ineluctable afterness.” I believe we put ourselves in the presence of poetic or figural language in order to experience or to represent our own and our species’ transcendental possibilities. Literary language, the language of trope and representation, is itself a form of ecstatic or transcendental exchange. As we turn into something else, we turn into ourselves. And as we share the experience of literature, we turn into each other. We share the body. We are all more or less one entity, one life-form, as connected to the tree, the stream of water, the humus and rich chemical soil, as to our lovers and children. And we know something resides there in the magic of metaphor. Here is Charles Wright again, in “Lives of the Saints.” Remember, face the facts, Miss Stein said. And so I’ve tried, Pretending there’s nothing there but description, hoping emotion shows; That that’s why description’s there: The subject was never smoke, there’s always been a fire.
Here’s another leap: the passionate transport of our imaginations, the fictive play that is literature, is a fundamental expression not only of individual identity but also of political and social connection and responsiveness. If I had been doing Derrida here, I would not so much conclude as gesture toward the next or another. I think that is a worthy gesture, though, as the transcendent, like language it30
self, is always pointing onward. It is an arrow, like an arrow of time, the arrow of imagination. At the end of her great poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Emily Dickinson sees that eternity is not a destination but a means of transit: “Since then—tis centuries—and yet / Feels shorter than the Day / I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / [she says, ever more slowly] Were toward Eternity—.” That “toward”—directional but never arriving—means everything. Trope, like transcendence, is where we go when we stay still. It is where we go in sex, in song, in madness, out of our selves, which is one of the fundamental characteristics of having a sense of the sense of a self at all. It is where we go when we imagine. It is the ecstatic journey of the instant that flashes with if.
Hum Along How I Took up Guitar and Became a Poet
Bob and Carol Crawford lived four houses down from us, on East Circle Drive, in Jefferson City, Missouri. Right in the middle of their tiny trimmed yard was the white-brick house, so heavily paneled and carpeted inside that, sitting there one summer afternoon, I felt like I’d been plunked into a Kleenex box. But when Mr. Crawford—Bob—leaned over to slip me a new half- dollar, silver as a tooth, I knew I was destined to play music for the rest of my life. It was 1966. I had lugged my plum-red Gibson Melody Maker guitar and my amp, the size of a boot box, down to Crawford’s for my first professional performance. I played two songs—some scaly melody out of Mel Bay #2 or #3 and “Wildwood Flower” (or “The Groovy Grubworm,” as one guitar book called it). I no longer own the amp or guitar, but I still have that coin. Music is one of my two great expressive loves. The other is poetry. The connection between these two arts is ancient and obvious. No other form of language aspires so completely to musical tactics like repetition, balanced intonation, rhythm, and harmonic phrasing. Remember Edgar Allan Poe’s contention that “It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired with the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles.” He further connects the two: “I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.” But I’m getting ahead of myself. I started playing the guitar 1965, at age ten, when Bill McMillan, and later Smoky Burd, gave me lessons in an empty room above Shaw Music. I began to teach the guitar at thirteen and did so through college. During this time I traded my Melody Maker for a scorching, sunburst 32
Fender Stratocaster, then traded that one for a guitar I still have, a 1964 Gretsch Nashville Chet Atkins custom—the orange one, if you know guitars. I played just about every kind of music for every kind of occasion from weddings and church meetings to college formals, jazz festivals, pit orchestras, pre-disco dance halls, little-town proms, and big-city bars. At our high-school talent show. I won first place in ninth grade, playing “Yakety Axe” with my best friend, Tim “Firedog” Gaines; third place in tenth grade accompanying on my acoustic twelve-string our school’s hippie singer on Elton John’s “Your Song”; first place in eleventh grade, wah-wahing to “Shaft” with an eight-piece pre-fusion band; and first place in twelfth grade, picking “Dueling Banjos” on banjo, with Firedog Gaines on guitar. And more: I played most Saturday nights at Tonanzio’s Italian Restaurant with Tom Snodgrass and one or two happy hours each week, with Tom or by myself, at the local Ramada Inn’s lounge, the Library. I started bands, played with other bands, even wrote the score for a Missouri Highway Department movie, “The Watching Tree,” and recorded the guitar part at a studio in Kansas City. Once Firedog and I were banished from a live radio broadcast from Ozarkland at the Lake of the Ozarks, where we’d been invited to be the “featured youngsters” on a weekly musical show. We played three songs—”Yakety Axe” again, “Alley Cat,” and a thumping rendition of “Proud Mary”—after which we announced on air we didn’t think country-and-western was cool. Long static. Then we “left.” My father’s white silence on the ride home (we were too young to drive) clarified his feelings about our surprise disclosure. I still agree with Buddy Rich who, when wheeled into the operating room for a medical procedure and asked if he was allergic to anything, replied, “Yeah, Doc, I’m allergic to country music.” The operation was a success. While other kids were suffering teenage angst, parental scorn, underage consumption of, well, everything, I was practicing, traveling, playing, and listening hard to music. I played with musicians famous, not so famous, wholly unknown, and yet almost always cool. It seemed—it was—a touch or two removed from the simmering mediocrity and boredom of middle-class middle America. That’s not to say I wasn’t a typical teenager. But I was able to evade some of the usual tortures and rotten sum33
mer jobs, thanks to my playing. I was the local guitar kid, and I thought for years that’s what I would do for the rest of my life. Well, yes and no. Playing and performing was hard work—hard on the ears, the body, sleep, time, and solitude. By the time I went to college, I was tired. This was 1974. I opted not to major in music and started taking literature classes. I still played guitar but had decided—without saying so aloud—that I didn’t want to live as a musician, or at least as the kind of musician I’d thought I wanted to be. Around age twenty I laid down one instrument and picked up another. My guitar became a poem. Poetry is an intensely musical art. Its hours are demanding but flexible. The pay is invisible. Its performative aspects are complex and fascinating, at the podium or on the page. I remember one rock band of mine, The Back Country (named for a Gary Snyder book), that was particularly good at vocals. I remember singing away in four-part harmony during one late- night gig at a dance bar in my hometown; it was an Earth, Wind, and Fire tune or perhaps something from the Doobie Brothers. I remember turning around to check the PA system, seeing my microphone unplugged, and realizing we sounded so good because my voice was not part of the amplified mix. I remember singing along anyway. That’s what it’s like to work on poems—to sing along, alone, in the quiet, with a wonderful, intricate, harmonic melody in your head. To sing with Keats and Dickinson, Sappho and Merwin, the whole big band of poets. These days I listen to everything from Arvo Pärt and Edgar Meyer to Birélli Lagrène and Madeleine Peyroux. When I was young, I listened to what all my friends were talking about— the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Brown—but I realize now that what really absorbed me were the guitar-driven bands and musicians of the time. For rock and roll, it was hard to beat the James Gang. Joe Walsh’s languid guitar licks were heaven to me. I loved The Best of the James Gang, which has songs from Funk 49, Bang, and Miami. Carlos Santana’s Abraxas dazzled me with his lightning-fast fingering of Latin phrasings; I can still play “Black Magic Woman” and “Oyo Como Va,” two very hard guitar tunes. Earlier, when I was just starting, I soaked up the great instrumental group, the Ventures. Telstar was the coolest album, though I 34
owned and wore out a dozen more like Walk Don’t Run, Where the Action Is, and Wild Things. Likewise, I worshipped, and still do, the great Tennessee picker Chet Atkins. It was highly uncool to like him then, but I did. I loved Chet Atkins Goes Hollywood for his incredible self-chorded solos and Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles, which showed me how Lennon and McCartney’s rich melodies could deepen. My own finger method derives from Chet’s: I hold my pick with thumb and forefinger but also use my third and fourth fingers to strum or to pluck. Chet is now considered the guitar god of the last fifty years by everyone from Ricky Skaggs and George Benson to Walter Becker and Bonnie Raitt. About Walter Becker: is there any better rock band, for guitar and instrumentation (and intelligent lyrics), than Steely Dan? Gods, they were and are, especially when Skunk Baxter played second- guitar for them, as on Can’t Buy a Thrill. But the most powerful band I ever heard was the Stan Kenyon Orchestra, whose 1972 Live at Redlands sounds like pure energy. I performed in front of the Kenyon band one time, in Springfield, Missouri, on one song, “Bogota.” I’ll never forget that Ken Hanna tune, charted in G-flat—truly hellish for a guitar with its six flats—and featuring guitar in a very long trill solo. “Nice work, kid,” Mr. Kenton said later. I was eighteen. It was my greatest guitar moment. I see now that what most turned me on as a musician was, and is, fusion—the blending of styles, musical histories, where hillbilly Chet plays the Beatles or where jazz and rock coexist: Chicago I and II, Blood Sweat & Tears 4. Do you remember the supercharged album, Chase, fronted by jazz trumpeter/singer Bill Chase along with two other stratospheric trumpets, a trombone, sax, bass, piano/organ, drums, and a slashing rock guitarist? I have that album still. And I still play. When I taught my daughter, Katie, to play guitar, she used my first guitar, a ten-dollar Kent, which I strung with silk strings so her hands wouldn’t bleed like mine had. I still own a banjo, a mandolin, and four guitars: the Kay, the orange Gretsch, a fine old Yamaha acoustic, and my prize. Five years ago I bought the guitar of my dreams, an archtop jazz box, a Heritage Super Eagle custom with twin gold Humbuckers, Grover tuners, hand-carved Swedish spruce top and carved maple sides and back, ebony bridge and board, split-block mother-of-pearl 35
inlays on the curly-maple neck, and gorgeous blonde flame. It is three inches thick and eighteen inches wide at the lower bout, with a fatter sound than a Gibson L-5. To celebrate my new instrument, I did what I’ve always done. I joined a band. For the next year I played guitar with the Rick Brunetto Big Band, in Columbus, Ohio, a seventeen-piece jazz band specializing in big-band–era tunes. True hepcat stuff. What a blast, performing with real musicians again. The guitarist’s job in a big band is mostly to keep rhythm, chunk-chunking away like Freddie Green on finger-bending chords. That’s what I like. Keeping time with the band. And, even when another soloist stands to play, humming along with the melody in my head.
Oops, we say, sorry. Then we clean up the spill with a paper towel, or a sponge, or maybe a mop. British Petroleum (BP) spilled some oil in the Gulf of Mexico, forty miles off the Louisiana coast, and it spilled for months underneath a huge rig called Deepwater Horizon. Deepwater Horizon: such a lyrical name, full of expansive majesty and resonance, as if making someone a great promise that extends both outward and up and down. The American hope of Manifest Destiny— exploration and discovery, identity and fulfillment, possession and ownership. Why do we insist to turn hope into entitlement, over and over? On April 20, 2010, eleven people died in the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon floating rig, seventeen others were injured seriously, and we still can’t gauge the actual extent of the damages. As far as we can guess, each day something in the neighborhood of 2 million gallons of oil—another estimate says it’s about 60,000 barrels—spewed out a mile deep into the rich blue-black waters of the Gulf, and so, by a conservative guess from the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 150 million gallons of oil (give or take a lake’s worth) floated and oozed and rose and sank in those semitropical waters as a result. At least now the spill is stopped. The damage will continue for decades or more. Oops, we say, sorry. Spill, a transitive verb, reaches up to us through Middle English from the depths of Old English spillan, which derives from older Old English spildan: to destroy; and perhaps bubbles up from the deeper Latin, spolium, as an old smelly animal skin, and the deep-dark Greek sphallein, to cause to fall. Spill, in its archaic and oldest English usage, is to kill, destroy; to cause blood to be lost by wounding. It is to allow, often un37
intentionally, something to fall, flow, or run out until it’s lost or wasted. It is to throw off, as from a horse; to let out, as a secret; divulge, flow, seep, run, become wasted, scattered; to spread profusely beyond usual bounds, as a crowd into the streets. We can spill our guts. We can confess, blurt, blab. We spill the beans. Oops. We spill the oil. And this is just what we know. What damages and what spills happen every day that we don’t know or hear about or remember? Do you know there is a coal-seam fire burning in an underground mine in Ohio, still burning, that started in the nineteenth century? There are dozens, maybe hundreds of fires burning in old coal mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Ohio. According to the New York Times, oil spills in Nigeria that equal the Exxon Valdez disaster have occurred every single year for the past five decades. Nigeria supplies about 40 percent of the crude oil exported into the United States. People were outraged about the BP Deepwater spill, even as they are—as we are—complicit; even as we tuned in again and again to watch video of the underwater disaster as yet another form of momentary entertainment complete with voice-overs and advertisements. Even as we drive our SUV four blocks to the store to buy strawberries grown by migrant laborers in the Central Valley or tulips from the Netherlands. And yes, poets are writing frantically about this recent newsworthy mess. In the autumn following Deepwater, when my magazine, the Kenyon Review, opened to its new season of submissions (I am the poetry editor for this journal), we have found a vast and spreading oil slick of poems about the spill, one after the next full of venom and self-righteous indignation and accusation. I probably won’t write about the spill beyond this occasion. I just don’t know enough, and neither do nearly all the poets whose poems I read at the Kenyon Review. I can’t begin to imagine the effect on the animals and plants in the region, the dying, the hurt, the forever affected. I don’t know the details of the effects of the Deepwater spill on tourism, on the livelihoods of fishermen and their families, and all the related lives in all the vast connected industries and flyways. I know the news, and I have my tidbit of research. Outrage and shame are one thing, 38
real but often vague. The lived and learned capability to witness and speak wisely is another. We write best, we write most truly, about the place we inhabit mostly deeply. The best writing is more than headlines and outrage. It is backstory as well as headline; it is the bio behind the byline as well as streaming video, it is the rest of the story in all the human complexity. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” writes William Carlos Williams, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Art is shaped by the fate of our happenstance as well as by the causes in our consciences. And when I say “inhabit,” I mean the place where we live deeply in our body as well as in our mind’s imagination. This is to say I have my own Deepwater (and Katrina, for that matter) to write about. I find my poems affected, as I write, by my own spills and damages, those nearby, those I fully inhabit and sometimes those I cause. We ruin our home even as we build it. My own ongoing Deepwater is regional and ecological, my awareness and witness of the relation of the green world— what we used to call nature—with the peopled world. I have taken as a guidepost some of the thinking of Felix Guattari and his theories of “ecosophy.” Guattari asserts that there are at least three “ecological registers” that must be brought into synchronous operation when we write about nature: the environment, social relations, and human subjectivity, which I take to mean both the self in all its slippages as well as language and art in all of theirs. This becomes Guattari’s “ethico-political” calibration and, as I write about my own Midwest, my personal challenge. One of poetry’s important tasks is to make room for, to include the things that often surprise us in their unbidden presence, our daily spills. Tell all the truth, as Emily Dickinson advises, but tell it slant. Tell all the truth, we might say as well, but tell it deep. Tell all the truth, we might add, but sometimes let it spill. Spill. Oops, a mistake, an accident. Yet poetry is driven by, shaped by, discovered by something akin to a spill—that is, error. What is metaphor, the life’s water of poetry, but the purposeful yet often unbidden leakage of detail to detail. The leakage, the linkage of unlikes. Is there something useful—in fact, something inevitable and beautifully necessary—in the making of art that we may learn 39
from accident? Are we open, as we write, to the surprising spillover from the subconscious, from play, from association, from surprise, from contradiction, and from error? That which leaks into or maybe spews all over our determined intention? If I say—to make a very simple illustration—that the sun today is like a silver dollar, I am making a kind of metaphoric linkage, using the figure of a simile. The sun borrows some of the characteristics of that silver dollar, to be like a silver dollar. Maybe it is bright, or shiny hot, or of some aspect of value. It is round. But even as I assert this likeness, I am reminding us that, in fact, the sun is not a silver dollar. My likeness contains an acknowledgment of the falseness of my analogy, or the incompleteness of it, the inaccuracy. Sometimes, some days, I write to find out what I have to say. Not what I thought I would say, but what, in the process of discovery and linkage and error and spillage, I have to say. Then the work and play and poetry begin. I do not think of myself as a political poet. I do not think of myself as not a political poet. The peril of the political artist can be certainty and superiority, accusation and piety, single-minded commitment: the temptation to categorize into villain and hero. These traits tend to need to wash away or sop up the complicating spill. They often can’t afford complexity, or contradiction, or self-contained opposition. Several years ago I thought I would write a love poem. I have written many. I thought I would capture a moment when my wife, Ann, was gardening. She loves to garden, and has gotten so good that she has a stall at our local farmer’s market. We made a huge garden, more than 2,000 square feet with twelve twenty-foot-long raised beds, and we had ten acres of old woods and paths and meadows and ancient bramble. On three sides of our little acreage were hundreds and hundreds more acres of farmland—corn and soybeans and pasture—and old growth woods of beech and oak, papaw and walnut and locust, and the thousands of little plants in the shade and understory. So my poem, “The Spring Ephemerals,” began like a garden— gridded, measured, carefully lined and contained. I thought it should be in quatrains, five or six of them, in decasyllabic lines. I had no title yet when the opening came: “Here she comes now 40
with her face to be kissed. / Here she comes with an armload of baskets. . . .” What is an armload of baskets? I started to revise. It happens that our species is ravenous in its hungers, its need for space and growth. We call this, without a tinge of irony, development. And development inevitably spills over. We found out that our rural area was being developed, and 400 acres of wilderness and field and hills around us were to be turned into a series of exurban neighborhoods with their McMansions, as we call them. So first Ann, and then both of us, dug and replanted frantically. Like spies, we sneaked onto other properties to retrieve the ferns and trout lily, twinleaf and Dutchman’s breeches before they were bulldozed. As I wrote, I folded into my rather pastoral love poem this sudden storm of the damaged and sorrowing. And I thought more about growth, appetite, and I watched my skin-cancer-susceptible wife work in the hard sun with a set jaw of determination, saving as many as she could of the small ones. But to cut to the chase: There are dozens of houses now plopped in the middle of their one-acre plots. Most of the trees are gone, the old ones, and a few new ones are planted and set in decorative designs. Most of the ephemeral plants we moved are still alive on those ten acres, moved to new homes along the creek and under the trees; and the creek still flows, but in its diverted bed. The water table is lower, and who knows what runoff goes where. And now, even, the long marriage is over. But the relationship goes on, and the incessant growth and spillover of things go on. I wanted the poem to face the complexity of the growth of things, the love and custody, the fear and loss. My love poem grew into something I had no sight of when I started. Art is full of accidents. Here is “The Spring Ephemerals.” Here she comes with her face to be kissed. Here she comes lugging two plastic sacks looped over her arms and stuffed with fresh shoots. It’s barely dawn. She’s been out for an hour already, digging up what she can save before developers raze the day’s lot sites and set woodpiles ablaze. That’s their plan for the ninety-plus acres. 41
She squats in the sun to show me wild phlox in pink-running-to-blue, rue anemone, masses of colt’s foot, wild ginger, blood root and may- apples, bracken and fiddlehead fern—ferns being not spring ephemerals per se, but imperiled by road graders come to shave the shaded slopes where they grow. Once I held her in a snow cover of sheets. Wind beat the world while we listened. Her back was a sail, unfurling. She wanted me to touch stitches there, little scabs, where doctors had sliced the sick cells and cauterized her skin for safety’s sake. Now her hands are spotted by briars, bubbles of blood daubed in brown. She’s got burrs in her red hair. Both sleeves are torn. She kneels as the sunlight cuts through pine needles above us, casting a grid like the plats the surveyors use. It’s the irony of every cell: that it divides to multiply. This way the greedy have bought up the land behind ours to parcel for resale at twenty- fold what they paid weeks ago. It’s a race to outrun their gas cans and matches, to line the path to our creek with transplants of spice bush, yellow fawn lily, to set aside space in the garden for the frail. She adjusts the map she’s drawn of the tumbling woods—where each flower and fern come from, under what tree, beside which ridge. Dysfunctional junctional nevus: a name like a bad joke for the growth on her skin, 42
pigment too pale for much sunlight. Drooping trillium, she says, handing me a cluster of roots, unfolding leaves— rare around here. How delicate, a trillium, whose oils are food for ants, whose sessile leaves are palm-sized, tripartite. They spread a shadow over each stem’s fragile one bloom, white in most cases, though this one’s maroon. This makes it rarer. It hangs like a red bell safe from the sun. It bends like our necks bend, not in grief, not prayer, as we work with our backs to the trees, as they burn.
Flash forward. For six years I have lived in the village center of Granville, Ohio, population 3,200 in four square miles. As I live here longer, and become a neighbor and citizen and one of the village people, I write about this environment as I learn its particularities. And yes, we never quite fit. Things spill and overpower us. We feel the pressure of what we can never control. Here is “Hungry.” This time the jay, fat as a boot, bluer than sky gone blue now that the rain has finished with us for a while, this loud jay at the neck of the black walnut keeps cawing I want, I want—but can’t finish his clause. Hard runoff has spread the driveway with seeds, green talcum, the sex of things, packed like plaster against shutters and tool boxes, sides of the barn, while the force of water pouring down from the stopped-up gullet of gutter has drilled holes deep in the mud. Yet the world of the neighborhood is still just the world. So much, so much. Like the bulldog next door, choking itself on a chain to guard the yard of the one who starves it.
Something of a similar motivation underlies “Too Many,” a more recent poem. I hope even the lines of this poem bear 43
some of the weight from the work of accommodation, of making things fit or find room. Things are too crowded, aren’t they? Everywhere this crowding spills over. I hope the formal characteristics show this pressure—things broken, bitten off, or overfull, unbalanced—even as I try also to make something shapely and pattern-holding. Pattern out of apparent chaos: fractal as poetic form. Finally, I hope the voice of the poem finds its own way to shift and reconstitute. It sounds to me pretty separate at first— the knowing self amid those amusing neighbors—and quick to judge. I hope it sees itself thus, too, and reorients itself. For all the blurred and plural shapes, the over-plenty of deer and development, the over-plenty of menace and money and leisure, there is one small figure of the fawn. What to do in this case, but stop? That’s the purpose behind the shift in point of view at the poem’s end. The “they” becomes the “we” . . . even as the final line spills over, too long for the page, too long for the form, too long for its own good. Oops. This is “Too Many”: Too many my neighbors say, when what they mean are deer—the foragers, the few at a time, fair if little more than rats, according to a farmer friend nearby, whose corn means plenty. They nip the peaches, and one bite ruins; hazard every road with their running- into-headlights- not-away; a menace; plague; something should be done. Or here in town, where I’ve found a kind of afterlife—the townies hate
the damage to their varie- gated hostas, shadeside ferns—what they do inside white bunkers of the county’s one good course is “criminal,” deep scuffs through the sand—that’s one thing—but lush piles of polished- olive-droppings, hoof- ruts in the chemically-and color-enriched greens . . . Yet here’s one more, curled like a tan seashell not a foot from my blade, just- come-to-the- world fawn, speckled, wet as a trout, which I didn’t see, hacking back brush beneath my tulip poplar—it’s not afraid, mews like a kitten, can’t walk: there are so many, too many of us, the world keeps saying, and the world keeps making—this makes no sense— more.
The wild woods are going away, and decorative, engineered trees teeter among our houses and skyscrapers. The hills are smoothed off, and the creeks retrenched, and the drainage managed, the birds fewer, the animals fleeing farther back into the woods and shadows and deeper waters, while a few turn tame from our hothouse hostas and garbage dumps. The marriage is over. The oil flows. The old fires burn belowground, but the heart grows a new vein. The world keeps making more. What can we do? Ebb and flow. Spill and capture. Listen and sing.
Herbert’s Conceited Poetry
In 1621 William Bradford was elected the first governor of a nascent colony founded off of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Nine years later Bradford began writing a document that would not reach publication until 1856. In Of Plymouth Plantation, the good governor reasons in behalf of an unadorned style of discourse as the preferable—in fact the virtuous, the ordained—rhetoric of his task to narrate the story of settlement in the new Eden. He reminds his citizen readers that clear language is the language not just of polity but of sanctity: “as by the Scriptures we are plainely told.” Yet how strange. At the same historical moment, George Herbert (not to mention John Milton, Henry Vaughn, and John Donne) was exploiting a style of eloquent richness. These are no slight figures in the Puritan and Anglican churches, as you know. For every point Bradford makes to attest to the rightness of plainness, Herbert makes just as powerful an argument for the opposite. After all, Herbert was not only a “country parson”—as he humbly subtitled his famous prose tract—but he also served as official orator at Cambridge. He was a man who trained himself, as Louis Martz says, to use “all the flowers of rhetoric” to do his “versing.” In much of his finest work, Herbert’s powerful, self-impelled drama stems from his delight in eloquence and his vocational need to be humble. That’s the problem: how to subdue his rhetorical acquirements to the service of God; how to display his wide artistry, learning, and wit without a show of self-interest. This is the powerful conceit of “Jordan II.” So conceit is my subject here, particularly the method of conceit of the great Metaphysical poet, George Herbert. I’ll refer to his “Jordan II” as my focal poem, for here we find Herbert’s most explicit and sustained presentation of the tension in his rhetorical elections. To remind us of the terminology: conceit 49
refers to a method of metaphor that extends beyond—often far beyond—a reasonable or conventional usage. Metaphor is the association or juxtaposition of one thing—be it a concrete image or abstract notion—to another. My love is like a red, red rose. Conceit, however, pushes metaphor into a sustained and often overdetermining pattern; and this complex figuration becomes a primary feature of the class of poetry we’ve come to call Metaphysical. The Oxford English Dictionary is unusually confessional in its failure to provide a satisfactory etymology for conceit. In a rare aside, the editors write that “there appears to be no corresponding Old French word [to the Latin], so that it would seem that conceit was formed in English from conceive, on the analogy supplied by deceive, deceit. . . .” Here the first usages refer to a “concept of mind”—an idea, manner of thinking, or a capacity for meaning-making—as the definition of conceit. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics takes its derivation for conceit from the Italian concetto, a concept, adding that “all types of conceit share an origin which is specifically intellectual rather than sensuous.” What strikes me in Herbert’s use is both the sensuous delight and intellectual vigor he portrays in his extension of metaphor. We feel the studied working out of an argument as well as a highly emotional, or affective, production. “Jordan II” is a poem about poems, downright modern in its acute metafictional self-awareness. Its presiding metaphor relates style—Herbert’s “lines” and “quaint words”—to a very complex figure: His linguistic work has “luster” and this light nourishes his thoughts until, like an organic entity, they sprout and swell into poetry; the plants “curl” until they bedeck the very sense of things. This apparent pride in his substantial skill leads Helen Vendler to characterize Herbert’s poem as petulant, even belligerent, in its attempt to construct an equal footing with God. But look how the trope of sunlight shifts, as the center of creative power turns from worldly authorship to divine authority. The outpouring of Herbert’s passional devotion outruns his skill and requires him to “blot” out what he began (blot is a figure for ink as well as for shadow), even as the real sun grows brighter, outshining (and outspeaking) Herbert’s meager flames. (Frequently in Herbert’s poetry we see this pun on sun—the nurturing star as a visible 50
sign of the Son of God.) Finally, only after revision, do Herbert’s flames manage to “weave [him]self into the sense” of his praise. Yet this point of ascension is also where Herbert’s finest capabilities turn self-ironizing. He realizes that nothing he does can adequately or clearly capture the “sweetness” of God. Notice at this point another figure within the poem’s conceit of style as light. The poem’s final lines urge us to retrace the poem—just as he must revise—to recover this other slightly more buried trope of “expense,” of sales: style as a shining or gilded coin; language as coinage. Herbert clearly has taken several of Sidney’s sonnets to Stella as touchstones, too. At the ending of one, for instance, Sidney confesses that “in Stella’s face I read / What love and beauty be, then all my deed / But copying is, what in her Nature writes.” Shakespeare’s “expense of spirit” may underlie these tropes as well. Yet all of Herbert’s skill has seemed to come to naught, for what God wants is sweetness, not rich skill, the simple “copying” of God’s clear grandeur and not Herbert’s pretense of artistic self-creation. Of course, we might argue— and Herbert might suggest— that only through the journey of this complex argument and through the creation of eloquent tropes is he able to understand what God wants or intends. After all, if his once “trim” words grow more “burnished” and fanciful, still they also follow the God-given natural order of things, growing and spreading like any other living entity. Art is nature, he seems to say, almost in apology but maybe in justification. Likewise, eloquence seems to have arrived at clarity; conceit comes to sweetness; and worldly irony becomes a paradox most holy. I’ve just barely unpacked the elaborate play of metaphor in this poem. It is not just metaphor, in fact, but a highly intensified, intricate, and sustained pattern of metaphor. Conceit. The great devotion Herbert feels results in his outpouring of richness; it results as well in the intellectual rigor of the rhetoric itself. I think conceit is the Renaissance poets’ most vivid addition to lyric poetry, for here poetry becomes not only sensual song but stylized argument— the kind of sustained and amplified thinking that appealed to T. S. Eliot when he wrote his famous essay on the Metaphysical poets, virtually restoring their work to the canon. 51
Conceit is a manner of thinking. Not just song, not just feeling, but a complex system of cognition and argument; of rhetoric. Herbert is arguing with himself, in public. He wants to craft and gild an art so fine it will please God and be suitable in God’s eloquent company. Yet he knows these displays of eloquence smack of pride and self-grandeur. He is worried that his use of conceit will show that he is, in point of fact, conceited. Just so, in later usage, the application of thinking, of having concepts, comes to correlate with arrogance and overweening skill. Is conceit conceited? Pride is the Protestant’s most damning sin. Herbert enacts a drama between the poles of rhetorical style. One is humble, plain, the language of virtue and holy humility. The other is dense, eloquent, and studied, the high style we come to identify with Metaphysical (and later with modernist) poetics. This rhetorical argument has raged long and clear. In his History—to return to William Bradford—the good governor recounts the story of Thomas Morton and his infamous Maypole at the settlement of Merrymount (Bradford’s narrative is the forebear of Hawthorne’s famous story, by the way). One of Morton’s gravest sins, besides the erection of his sturdy pole (sorry, that’s Bradford’s adjudging pun), is his poetry—that is, the obvious self-elevating pride Morton takes in “shewing” his poetry off. From Bradford, we can trace the piety of plainness to Ben Franklin’s aphorisms, to Thomas Paine’s measured call for revolution in Common Sense, and forward to the Naked and Deep-Image Poets’ banishment of all rhetorical flourish in favor of transparency, the erasure of style. “I think the object of writing,” claims Louis Simpson in his commentary in The New Naked Poetry (1976), “is to make words disappear.” This trope— of erasure, nakedness of style as authenticity—runs the aesthetic gamut from the great American Puritan Jonathan Edwards (“Extricate all questions from the least confusion by words or ambiguity of words so that the Ideas shall be left naked”) to the post-structuralist poet Susan Howe. In her book Souls of the Labadie Tract, she concurs that “Words give clothing to hide our nakedness.” My final point this morning is a point of dispute with much of the rhetoric of rhetoric. From Aristotle to Kant to those Naked Poets seeking to strip away the decadent clothing of High Style, 52
the contest has held that plainness is the absence of stylistic content while eloquence is an indulgence of the same. Gaudy and expensive clothes vs. the economical naked body—to use Pope’s trope; decadent wealth vs. holy impoverishment; the obscuring vs. the clarifying. But I contend that style—plain or highfalutin— is always and only style. Richard Lanham’s great book on the literary rhetoric of the Renaissance, The Motives of Eloquence, argues throughout that “the whole range of ornament, from zero to 100,” is equally rhetorical. I think this serves to cancel or blunt, at least to reconfigure, the long debate between the plain style and an eloquent style. Again, the argument holds that plainness is more honest, more sincere, and therefore more worthy of both holiness and political accuracy. “The young poets of New York come to me with their mangled figures of speech”—accuses James Wright in “Many of Our Waters”—“but they have little pity for the pure clear word.” Not necessarily so, says Lanham, and perhaps by extrapolation says Herbert. Sincerity is a rhetorical aim just as much as paradox is. And plainness in Bradford’s hands, or Thomas Paine’s or James Wright’s, is equally a set of calculated rhetorical gestures made to influence, to argue, to win, or merely to woo an audience—just as fully and powerfully as the most intricate trope or eloquent conceit or well-dressed figure in the sight of the Lord. Amen indeed.
John Keats lived a very short life. He was born on Halloween at a livery stable north of London, in 1795, and died in a little room at 26 Piazza di Spagna in Rome, on February 23, 1821, “with the most perfect ease—he seemed to go to sleep,” as Joseph Severn wrote in a short, shattering letter to Charles Brown a few days later. John Keats’s window of opportunity for writing poetry was as narrow as a castle arrow slit—even more so when we recall that he wrote his six great odes in just a few months: one in April and four in May of 1819, then the magnificent and ultimate “To Autumn” that September. He was so sick with tuberculosis (or consumption, as they called it, though his doctor in Italy misdiagnosed that the young poet suffered from “a stomach ailment”—what awful care he received; he should never have died then) that he didn’t write poetry for the last year and several months of his life. He really wrote poetry for about five years. Think of that. He also wrote letters. Before he wrote poems and after he had stopped writing poems and all during the relative outpouring of poems, he wrote hundreds of pages of letters. And that— or, more exactly, his habit of correspondence together with his manner of corresponding—is my double subject here. Keats’s letters are fascinating and various, full and wild, forlorn, lovelorn, art-struck, heat-struck, fever-struck, feisty, argumentative, headstrong, absolutely certain, and absolutely unsure, unsteady, and undone by just about everything. Perhaps I should reveal here that I don’t read many letters. I enjoy receiving them, when I get a real one these days. But I don’t often turn to those dusty volumes of letters written by literary authors. Nor do I read biographies, of anybody, except for some reason of Walt Whitman and sometimes John Clare. There 54
is an art to the letter, however, and I know it’s a stale observation to say that the art of the epistle is in danger, having been circumvented lately by the Internet and e-mail and Twitter and Skype and IM and even the familiar telephone. I do have to say that the literary blog, as a vigorous entity, is serving some of the function of the literary letter these days—full of passion and opinion, encouragement and genuine criticism, as well as rant and manifesto, snark and self-serving advertisement. But I love the paper, the style and depth, the manner of talk of the real thing. The first letter we have of Keats’s—though it’s unlikely the first letter he actually wrote—is from sometime in November 1815 and addressed to G. F. Mathew. George Felton Mathew, along with his two female cousins, Caroline and Ann, was an early friend of Keats. Mathew may later have written poems about Keats; he certainly did review Keats’s first book of poems, and he probably provided information later when Richard Monckton Milnes was putting together an early biography of the poet. This first letter, of all things, comes in the form of a poem in rhymed couplets, a truly epistolary poem in the manner of Pope. This was a habit of Keats’s, early in his correspondence, to write letters as poems. They are full of adolescent Romanticism, as the opening lines of this one indicate. Sweet are the pleasures that to verse belong, And doubly sweet a brotherhood in song; Nor can remembrance, Mathew! bring to view A fate more pleasing, a delight more true Than that in which the brother Poets joy’d, Who with combined powers, their wit employ’d To raise a trophy to the drama’s muses. . . . . . . . Fain would I echo back each pleasant note As o’er Sicilian seas, clear anthems float ‘Mong the light skimming gondolas far parted, Just when the sun his farewell beam has darted: But ‘tis impossible; far different cares Beckon me sternly from soft “Lydian airs,” And hold my faculties so long in thrall, That I am oft in doubt whether at all 55
I shall again see Phoebus in the morning: Or flush’d Aurora in the roseate dawning!
The classical references in this letter range from Sicilian seas, Lydia, Aurora, Phoebus, to the Druids and faeries of the Celtic past. And literary allusions to The Fairie Queene, Milton’s “L’Allegro,” Pope’s “Essay on Man,” and more. He even makes a specific reference to the Scotsman William Wallace—whom we may know from Mel Gibson’s caricature. His early letters are also full of personal detail, tucked inside the allusive, expansive, rather teenaged sceneries, as I’ll touch on shortly. Keats’s last letter seems to have been the famous farewell note of November 30, 1820. This would be nearly three full months before his death on February 23, 1821. He is writing from his bed in the room at the foot of the Spanish Steps, engaged by Dr. Clark for the two travelers Keats and Severn. Here is the opening of this incredible and fairly short letter: ‘Tis the most difficult thing in the world for to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book,—yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.
He closes this letter to his dear friend Charles Brown with heartbreaking directness—and a final sentence of prose that also scans as perfect iambic tetrameter. Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; and also a note to my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.
Keats’s letters are better than most poets’ poems. It seems to have been one of those literary cottage industries of the mid- twentieth century to examine and reproduce Keats’s letters. Among the most useful editions is Maurice Buxton Forman’s 56
The Letters of John Keats, published by Oxford University Press in 1931. Forman provides a good introduction, and as it becomes more and more idiosyncratic among the letter editors, he gives a set of interesting, if sometimes strange, biographical blurbs on Keats’s correspondents. But he did a good early job of selecting among the letters, and this seems to have been the base text used by Lionel Trilling, in his edition The Selected Letters of John Keats, in 1951. Trilling’s edition is unsurprisingly clear and astute. His biographies are direct, if not downright abbreviated. It’s Trilling’s long introduction that I find so appealing, though sometimes a bit odd. He says: “The charm of Keats’s letters is almost inexhaustible, and we can scarcely hope to define it wholly or to name all its elements.” Which he then proceeds to do: He “took life in the largest possible way.” He expressed a “conscious impulse to live life in the heroic mode.” His life was defined by “intuition, courage, and the accumulation of experience.” His mind was a “kind of magical confrontation.” And this all comes from just half a page in Trilling’s long introduction. Trilling seems drawn to the century-old figure of Keats as tragic martyr, so full of poetry that his feeble body couldn’t contain it for long. Feeble body: I should add that diminutive John Keats was a rather ferocious boxer, before his illness, muscled and cantankerous and powerful. It’s only after the contraction of consumption that he dwindled and became the stereotypical stricken Romantic poet—pale, withered, ethereal, ghostly, slight, as the familiar tropes go. No less and no stranger than George Bernard Shaw calls Keats a genial correspondent. Lionel Trilling agrees. I’m not sure about that. These letters seem to me more intense than genial; poetry-filled and full of passion and conviction. They are typified by that familiar Romantic urgency with all things art and poesy and Keats’s own “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” They are typified by pronouncement and arm-sweeping passion. Genial? I don’t know. But I do know we can learn more about poetry, especially of the Romantic flavor, from Keats’s letters than from many other poets’ actual poetic work. No less than T. S. Eliot, that famous grouch with hardly one good word for anything Roman57
tic, claimed that Keats’s letters are “certainly the most notable and the most important ever written by an English poet.” I’m drawing the following illustrations from the best edition of his letters, The Letters of John Keats 1814–1821, edited by Hyder E. Rollins and published in 1958 by Harvard University Press. This complete collection comes with an exhaustive chronology, a lucid introduction, and all the attending materials, including the best footnotes to the letters that we have. Only a few other scholars have offered so much real detail and knowing sympathy as Rollins—I’m referring to the likes of Walter Jackson Bate and Stanley Plumly. Here are just a couple of passages from the Rollins edition. I think you’ll find a familiar note, an essential note, in each of these. To his brothers, George and Thomas, just before Christmas 1817, he writes with a depth of understanding rare in criticism, let alone in letters: “at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” To Richard Woodhouse, on October 27, 1818, he writes as if to anticipate the Emersonian oversoul that “as to the poetical Character itself, (I mean that sort of which, if I am anything, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thin per se and stands alone) it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shadow; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.” To James Hessey, he writes with aphoristic brilliance, on October 8, 1818, that “The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man. . . . That which is creative must create itself.” There are so many such insightful moments and observations in his letters. As I was reading the letters again, turning back and forth to the poems, I was struck as never before by the correspondence between those two modes of communication. It’s been my thinking—my incorrect thinking, as it turns out—that Keats’s poems are singular, consistently self-inturning. In fact, I see now that Keats’s poems are correspondences to an astonishing de58
gree. He was a talker, a teacher, an arguer, and he wanted not just an audience but real respondents in his readers—not just in his letters but also in his poems. So while Shaw’s term about Keats’s geniality isn’t quite right, it is close. I’d call it something like sociability. Some of this must stem from the loneliness of the man, the paucity in his real life of a sustained literary cadre. But just consider the following list. I went once more through his complete poems. His poems are written to, in direct address to, are forms of correspondence to Spenser, Byron, Lord Chatterton, Leigh Hunt, Apollo (these are the first five poems of his that we have), G. F. Mathew, one “who has been long in city pent,” brother George, Charles Cowden Clark, all his brothers, Haydon, Milton, Shakespeare, a friend, a “lady seen for a few moments at Vauxhall,” John H. Reynolds (my favorite of his epistolary poems is addressed to Reynolds, the poem where he coins the delicious term “the material sublime”), Homer, some “sweet maidens,” Maia, the poet Burns, the “bards of passion,” the “wretched wight,” Fanny Brawne, and more. But I noticed another, very eerie change in the correspondents. As the poems proceed in time, as Keats transforms from the vigorous young poet into the ailing and failing one, his epistolary audiences change as well. They turn from actual people into ideas personified, or not even personified. All along, to be sure, he might address a poem to the figure of the wind, or a grasshopper; but by the time he’s dying, Keats is no longer writing poems to people at all. His companions and correspondents are more like Platonic ideals: He writes an ode to Sleep, an ode to Psyche, another to a Nightingale. Of course, to Autumn. The rhetorical demeanor and detailing of the poems change, too. Like the letters, the earlier poems are full of oddity, associative leaps, and a rather gregarious personality, making both low and highfalutin gestures. At the end, especially in the odes, Keats is writing with an otherworldly clarity and compression; a distilled and at least partly “posthumous” perspective. He’s writing not from this life, and not to citizens of this world, but he is writing instead from the other side, after the fact, when “the day is gone, and all its sweets are gone,” as he mourns in his last sonnet, when he hears the music of “the soft-dying day” of an autumnal and vanishing existence. 59
If his poems are letters, as I think it’s useful to regard them, then the recipients of these epistles undergo a dramatic transfiguration, from the real to the ideal, from people to the more purely poetic. Something else has always bothered me, something I couldn’t for the longest time identify. Here is a telling phrase— and assertion—from another of Keats’s letters. He’s writing on May 3, 1818, to Reynolds. As he talks about his aesthetic allegiances shifting back and forth from Milton to Wordsworth, Pope to Gray, Hazlitt to Patmore, he says: “I must be quaint, and free of Tropes and figures.” In this letter, to be sure, his tone is witty and playful, ironic, complex. But I hear that self-directed imperative as a real desire, too. In fact, this is a rather stunning repositioning of aesthetic practice for Keats. How is it that this poet, whose work is so densely packed with allusion, figure, troping, and conceit, now hopes to be free of tropes and figures? I want to be even more specific, for I have noticed an important modification in Keats’s work—an actual shift in the nature and kind of his troping. I noted earlier the way his correspondence changes, from people to ideals. But his manner of making correspondences also changes—the way he compares, the way he tropes. Here is a short verse paragraph from the Reynolds epistle: The doors all look as if they oped themselves, The windows as if latched by fays and elves, And from them comes a silver flash of light, As from the westward of a summer’s night; Or like a beauteous woman’s large blue eyes Gone mad thro’ olden songs and poesies.
We have here, in just six lines, four very central similes or comparative conditionals starting with like or as. So I acted on a hunch. I counted the six odes. “Ode to Psyche” with its sixty- seven lines. “Ode to a Nightingale,” the longest, at eighty. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” has fifty, while “Ode on Melancholy,” the shortest, holds thirty. “Ode on Indolence” has sixty lines, and “To Autumn,” the only ode not self-identified as an ode, has 60
thirty-three. The great six odes run to 320 lines. And in them all, all together, Keats employs three similes. Three. There were more in the little fragment I just quoted. I should also add that these three odic similes are of minor figuration; almost accidental, certainly incidental. In the nightingale ode, he says, near the end, the word forlorn is “like a bell.” Then he moves on. In the indolence ode, he self-references the Grecian ode, describing three figures who “pass’d, like figures on a marble urn.” And in the middle of the autumn ode, he says that autumn is “sometimes like a gleaner.” These are undeveloped images in the middle of intricately metaphorical poems. What underlies Keats’s change? Is the change significant? We do tend to regard metaphor and simile as closely related figures of speech. So here is an abbreviated version. A metaphor is a figure of speech where one thing, or its attributes, is compared directly to another thing; in fact, it becomes that other thing. It is—and here I’m blending the Princeton and Longman encyclopedia definitions—a figurative expression of similarity or dissimilarity by direct and nonliteral substitution. The sun is a silver dollar. Our standard definition of simile holds that simile is a specific kind of metaphor, a subset of the trope; it is a metaphoric linkage by means of like or as. Longman calls it a rhetorical and poetical figure of speech where particular attributes of a thing are explicitly compared to another using the words like, as, or as if. That is, the sun is like a silver dollar. Or the sun shines like a silver dollar. Simile is a kind of metaphor, just a bit less direct, with a mediating and self-conscious linguistic linkage. Keats turns away from simile, and toward metaphor, as he turned toward the odes, just as his epistolary audience turned from people into abstractions, and as his poems increased dramatically in intensity and hurried purpose. In fact, in a fascinating letter to Benjamin Haydon, written on January 23, 1818, Keats anticipates or prefigures the change in his poetic demeanor when he surmises that the nature of his own new poem, “Hyperion,” “will lead me to . . . a more naked and grecian Manner.” He doesn’t finish “Hyperion,” of course, but this future-tense estimation speaks directly to the clarified intensity of the odes. I find this difference notable and significant. He wants direct, 61
unfigured, and exact correspondence; he wants transfiguration, not likeness, just as these poems seek the ultimate, even Platonic source. The difference between simile and metaphor is, first of all, the difference between the transference of likeness and actual substitution; between similarity and cognitive transfiguration. Intellectual observation or judgment versus, well, something like magic. But I’m going to turn a bit more theoretical here. I want to claim that simile holds the potential for difference in a way that metaphor makes its claim for sameness. Simile, in my thinking, argues in fact for the thing as opposite the other thing, in opposition to, in difference from; it enacts that kind of agon. So if, in metaphor, the sun is a silver dollar, and in simile the sun is like a silver dollar, then simile also reminds us that the sun is not a silver dollar, only in a partial way like one. The difference remains and is, in fact, made explicit and fixed. The sun may have an attribute of that coin (its silverness, perhaps, or its shine) but it retains its separate characterizing identity as sun. My final point about these tropes, and Keats’s early and late poetry, is drawn from this notion of sameness and difference, from likeness and transformation. I want to propose that simile tends to be ironic, requiring a doubling of the cognitive process. The thing both is and is not like the other thing. Simile is a feature of social wit—a favorite trope, not surprisingly, of poets like Pope and Swift and Byron, whom the younger Keats favored— doubled in its playful, winking knowledge. It’s a manner of socially agreed-on irony, saying a thing but acknowledging its concurrent opposite. It resists completion of the transfer. Metaphor, at least in Keats’s treatment, tends to be singular, obsessed, and possessed of a kind of radical sincerity and accomplishment. Again, likeness (and unlikeness) versus transformation. So finally—as I quickly assess the distance traveled—these closing lines from Keats’s second poem, “To Lord Byron,” written in 1814, show the young poet’s work to be generic in its romanticism and descriptive of life yet unlived, where even “woe” can be artfully “pleasing.” In this epistolary sonnet Keats addresses Byron as a swan in lines figured with simile:
thou thy griefs dost dress With a bright halo, shining beamily, As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil, Its sides are tinged with a resplendent glow, Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail, And like fair veins in sable marble flow; Still warble, dying swan! still tell the tale, The enchanting tale, the tale of pleasing woe.
Two years later, writing a sonnet letter to George, he can still barely imagine “what, without the social thought of thee, would be the wonders of the sky and sea?” The social thought indeed. Yet in three more years, in the great odes, the question may be muted but it is also now answered. Addressing the nightingale, Keats’s melancholy voice has a power, a clarity, and an astonishing purity of metaphor and syntax. Indeed, what is there, beyond the social order of the world? He sees it: The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs, Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Song of Sanity Whitman in Washington
He was a poet of hope and encouragement, but his greatest poem is bleak at heart, ripped bloody, and shredded with despair. He was our verbal cheerleader, our avid egoist, as well as our most enthusiastic inclusionist. O to make the most jubilant song! Full of music—full of manhood, womanhood, infancy! Full of common employments—full of grain and trees! O for the voices of animals!
Thus he warbles, making room with his constant, necessary roll call for us all in “A Song of Joys.” Yet his greatest poem finds him desolate, solitary, at a complete loss for words, which is death for him. He was the poet of Brooklyn and Manahatta—he likes the native names for places—but his greatest poem was written in Washington DC, where he lived for ten years in a series of rooms and boarding houses. I’m referring to “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Its magnitude, its lyric intensity, the scope and rhetorical dynamics of its moving scheme, its sheer beauty as song and psalm, all become one matchless thing. But the distance it travels—literally from Washington, D.C. to Abraham Lincoln’s grave in Springfield, Illinois; but more so, figuratively, from natural description to war-torn destruction and despair, to death, and beyond death back (or forward) to language and hope of a habitable world— is as massive as Virgil’s epic or Dante’s or Milton’s, and more humane than them all. Here are the opening two sections: 64
1. When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring, Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west, And thought of him I love. 2. O powerful western falling star! O shades of night—O moody, tearful night! O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star! O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me! O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
In this poem, eventually, in its most incredible scene, Whitman the poet and our travel guide is dead. To “effuse” himself in eddies, to dismantle the body, to die back into nature or the natural body of others, is not in itself an unusual trope for Whitman. He plays the martyr and the victim with equal conviction as he plays the hero or abiding commoner. Yet here his death feels more existentially factual and barren than in any other of his poems. He dies in real, palpable despair. His leader, his “Captain, my Captain,” has been murdered by a zealous man at the end of a vicious war. His faith in democracy and improvement has been blown apart. Nor has he, as he had prophesied, seen his beloved country “absorb him [and his poetry] as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” His death is an empathic association with the dead president but also enacts the larger erasure of hope. Even the violets he sees “peep[ing] from the ground” and the “gray debris” in the old woods reflect the colors of the brutal armies. So Whitman, or his blasted spirit, fades to the swamp, a primordial world neither solid nor fluid. And the great talker listens: to a bird, the “solitary singer” hermit thrush whose song in section fourteen is a praise-song to death, alternately identified as lovely, soothing, delicate, and cool-enfolding. Whitman’s own earlier 65
phrase is even more to my point. He says in part seven, in anticipation of the thrush and in an uncharacteristic conditional voice: “thus would I chant a song for you O sane and sacred death.” The poet of life is, in his greatest poem, the poet of death. The sacred nature of death in Whitman’s poetry is clear enough. Even the names by which he refers to the lilac elegy indicate his reverent purposes. As the poem proceeds, he calls this song a dirge, a chant, a serenade, a carol, and finally—and in this order—a “powerful psalm in the night.” The secular is the sacred for Whitman always. Rather it’s the sane element of death that catches my eye here. How is death sane? Death is chaos otherwise and in other poetry. What does it mean to be sane? In Whitman’s first great poem, “Song of Myself,” the poet commences with a vision of things. I mean that literally. Whitman is an avid watcher, a self-confessed if typically wholesome ogler. He loves to look. His imagination is initiated by sight. He “observes” a leaf of summer grass, as here in the lilac elegy he first sees a lilac bloom and the planet Venus. The romantic trope of sight is charged with sensory immediacy. We don’t have to think to observe. Or perhaps sight, with its optic nerve wired so directly into our reptile brain, is our first thinking. I look up to the sky and say “I see the sun.” But notice how immediately the little clause translates to inner cognitive awareness. When we finally understand that nasty math problem, what do we say? We say, “Oh! I see!” Whitman looks and looks. He “wander[s] all night in [his] vision.” “Look for me,” he flirts and challenges, “under your boot-soles.” Whitman’s fundamental dependence on sight complies readily and eagerly with his intellectual father, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for whom that wacky, evocative “transparent eyeball” is a central figure. Emerson watches as the light of understanding flows into and back out of the poetic mind and political body alike. Who is more felicitous, light with his touch, than Emerson? “The simple perception of natural forms is a delight,” he writes. “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.” (All along we want to respell “eye” as its homonym pronoun to enjoy Emerson’s polite visionary pun.) “We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” 66
Part of the appeal of sight to Emerson is its antiseptic quality. The good Unitarian Brahmin, the gentle man, didn’t have to get his hands dirty if he could just look. He was dignified, a little fussy. He could be aloof. In one of the few instances we know of Emerson’s loss of control, as he documents in his diary on March 29, 1832, “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin.” This is the whole entry. His beloved wife had died on February 7, 1831, and her death shook Waldo to the bone. And so, even a year later, in an “act [that] remains so unnatural as to seem almost insane” according to Gay Wilson Allen, Emerson needed once more not merely to mourn his wife, but see her, visit her, take a look. Did he, as one commentator imagines, also touch her? How could he not? Did he lie down beside her? The striking feature here is the unclean impulse of Emerson’s typically antiseptic and reliably sane demeanor. A year’s-dead unembalmed body in a family tomb would not be sanitary, as visiting that body would not be “sane.” Touching makes us crazy. As I said, Whitman’s first impulse is visual. He’s a great observer with sweeping, panoramic skills. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” when he looks down into the East River, he sees his reflection in the tidal waters. But he sees also the image of the commuters passing, the ships of nations, even Manhattan’s skyline. He sees the movement of generations, time itself, history, all humanity. Whitman’s visual impulse is connective. But his transcendental figurations can also be blurring. He looks with such sweeping expanse that sometimes he sees only types, not particulars. The following is a scene from “First O Songs for a Prelude,” one of Whitman’s early Civil War poems. Arm’d regiments arrive every day, pass through the city, and embark from the wharves, (How good they look as they tramp down to the river, sweaty, with their guns on their shoulders! How I love them! how I could hug them, with their brown faces and their clothes and knapsacks cover’d with dust!) The blood of the city up—arm’d! arm’d!
This shocking boosterism is notable for its lack of identifying personal features. The soldiers have brown faces. That’s it. D. 67
H. Lawrence complained about Whitman’s women that they “needn’t have had faces at all.” It’s true of these soldiers, as it is true of Whitman’s first war poems: generic, anonymous, unlived, a visual spectacle. Whitman showed up rather late to the war. On Tuesday, December 16, 1862, he found in the New York Herald a list of soldiers from the 51st New York Infantry who’d been killed or wounded at the first Battle of Fredericksburg. Among the names was “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore, Company D,” which Whitman rightly deduced as his brother George’s misspelled name. The poet took fifty dollars, which his mother withdrew from savings, traveled south by train to the nation’s capital and then by boat to Aquia Landing and finally Falmouth, Virginia. (In Philadephia, changing train cars, he had his pocket picked and showed up in D.C., as he wrote, “without a dime.”) George was not among the thousands in the huge hospital tent camps around the capital. Instead, Walt found him nursing a shrapnel wound to the cheek at a makeshift hospital along the Rappahannock, near the battle. Here he tended his brother, who returned to fight in other battles, heroically, rising to the rank of captain. George went back to war but Walt did not go back to New York. Was it a political magnet that drew Whitman back to D.C.? (After all, he said the role of poet is “representative.”) Was it some paternal-maternal need to take custody of so many desperately needful boys? The hospital camps around the city were huge, containing tens of thousands of wounded at times, and they were horrible in stench and disease, offering grim prospects of recovery. Infection killed more than artillery. Walt’s own first sight of a hospital camp was, as he wrote to his mother, “a heap of feet, arms, legs, &c. under a tree.” Was his compulsion to stay erotic, medical, aesthetic? Here is what I know. He worked at government jobs, as a clerk, as a copyist, even getting fired at one point when a mid-level administrator deduced he was the author of that obscene book Leaves of Grass. He walked the city, he nodded to Lincoln who sometimes passed by, and over four years he made “more than six hundred visits to hospitals, tending, he claimed, to ‘80,000 to 68
100,000 of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree.’” He was nurse and doctor, he was secretary and last-rites giver, he was friend and companion to thousands. He worked a few hours a day, then went to the camps with his pockets full of stamps, crackers, horehound candy, pennies, lemons and oranges, jars of pudding, paper and pens, needle and thread. One hot day in the middle of June, he spent a chunk of salary to buy a wagonload of ice cream to soothe the boys of Carver Hospital. He read to them in large groups. The letters he wrote back to their families will break your heart. He sent news, death notices, requests; sometimes just to say I held his hand, or wiped his face, or cleaned his bandages. Sometimes just to say, I was there. To the parents of Erastus Haskell he wrote: “he . . . behaved always correct & decent . . . I used to sit on the side of the bed—I said once, You don’t talk any, Erastus, you leave me to do all the talking—he only answered quietly, I was never much of a talker.” Erastus languished for nearly a year and died of typhus: “he had his hair cut close about ten or twelve days before he died.” Here is what he did. He got his hands bloody. He got his hands on these hurt soldiers one at a time. He learned their names; he nursed and aided them. Whitman replaced sight with touch—that most intimate of senses, but also the most dirty. How is death sane? The root of sanity is the Latin word sanitas. Thus, my dirty little secret: this same word serves as the root for sanitary. To be sane is to be clean. To be healthy is to be reasonable. This sounds like the perfect formula for an America, in the 1840s and ‘50s, wild for progress and perfection, hungry for spas and cures, just discovering things like bacteria and germs. The war dirtied our hands, our minds, and our very sense of ourselves as a nation. The war poems Whitman wrote during and after his hospital experiences are quite different from his prior ones. And he wrote a great deal during this decade. As Kim Roberts notes, “During his time in Washington (from the age of 44 to 54), Whitman wrote Drum-Taps (published in 1865), Democratic Vistas (1871), Passage to India (1871), and prepared two new editions of Leaves of Grass (1867 and 1871). He wrote drafts of material that would 69
eventually become the basis for his books Memoranda during the War (1875), and Specimen Days and Collect (1882). It was an extremely prolific period that resulted in almost one hundred new poems.” But documenting the hospitals was as urgent to Whitman as his poetry, as he attests: “the Hospital part of the drama . . . deserves indeed to be recorded . . . over the whole land . . . an unending, universal mourning-wail of women, parents, orphans—the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Hospitals.” The “Hospital part of the drama” infuses his poems with a particularity uncommon in his earlier war poems. Now he describes “bearing the bandages, water and sponge, / Straight and swift to my wounded I go . . . / Where their priceless blood reddens the grass on the ground.” Here in “The Wound-Dresser,” only a hands-on participant would know to say “from the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, / I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood.” And the portraits in the second half of Drum-Taps are not collective, nor generic: a poem for two veterans, a tan-faced prairie boy, one soldier, one “camerado” at a time. The movement of Whitman’s imagination is a movement through the transcendental toward the real. It mirrors the blurred, optimistic youth of a country going through a phase of brutal growth. It took the vicious fact of war—getting his hands dirty, touching things, one at a time, not just looking at them— to show Whitman the insanity of experience. Death may be sane, but life is not. Death is perfection, it is peace, it is clarity. Life is the horror. This discovery is the deepest “vision” at the heart of the lilac elegy. I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them, And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them, I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war, But I saw they were not as was thought, They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not, The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d, And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d, And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
So let me clarify. It is not that Whitman learned, in the war, the importance of touch. And he has always knows that transcendence requires a death. In “This Compost,” he praises the “foul liquid and meat” of the dead, the “distemper’d corpses” that have startled him on his walk through the “still woods.” “Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person,” he says, incredulous with the discovery that even the “resurrection of the wheat” has been fed by the fetid “corruptions” of death. “What chemistry!” he exclaims, that the result of the natural process should be “that all is clean forever and ever.” This poem appears under its present title in the first postwar edition of Leaves of Grass, in 1867, as part of the Drum-Taps section, where its narrative placement suggests the war dead. But a much earlier version appeared in Leaves as early as 1856 as “Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of the Wheat,” and seems to have been about a decaying animal in a field. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman again moves from sight to the particularity of touch. This poem appeared first as “The Sun-Down Poem” in the 1856 edition of Leaves. Here he “receiv[es] identity by [his] body.” His skin itself—that particular “necessary film”—verifies his “nighest name” and provides the necessary means of contact, connecting one to another: “I . . . felt their arms on my neck as a stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat.” Only through this particularity— of touch, of nomination and identity—is Whitman’s vision of hope and soulful improvement possible. “Is this then a touch?” he asks as early as 1855 in “Song of Myself.” This great poem also started with sight, but here, at the poem’s heart, it is touch, he says, “quivering me to a new identity.” It is, he says, “about as much as I can stand.” Touch is unclean but generative, it is particular but connective, it is an individual’s act that nonetheless transfers sensations—those real thoughts— from one to another in a type of literal transcendence. Yet this is one thing in theory, in abstraction, in “Song of Myself” or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” It is another thing entirely to be confronted with the fact of a presidential hero shot in the head and the beseeching voices and ripped-apart bodies of so many young soldiers dying one by one. Is it possible that Whit71
man invents a form of transcendentalism that accommodates the real? Maybe this is Whitman’s greatest thematic contribution: not that the Civil War provided him with his first real validation of the necessity of touch. Erotic, but also erosive, touch’s power has been part of his scheme all along. Rather now, touch—the knowledge of bodies—is made human, is given exact names, faces, and bloody hands by the war and by his transformative experiences at the hospitals. Whitman learned that touch may bring erotic delight and power but it also brings damage, loss, and pain. Thus the lilac elegy becomes his great “retrievement out of the night.” So here we are at the end of the beginning. And here is Whitman back in “Song of Myself,” always already ahead of us on the open road. When he says we can look for him under our boot- soles, he also says that he will “filter and fibre [our] blood.” We may still be looking, seeing. But he has made the progressive evolution to touch: the innermost kind of touch. He is literally inside us, touching us there—touching our blood, cleaning it, filtering and fibering it, as in a medical procedure to come. This is Whitman’s vision, the hoped-for evolution toward a perfect life, him and our oneself, all of us together, sane and sacred at the end.
At Home with Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson entered into this world on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, and died in the same town, in the family homestead, “quite suddenly” as her friend Clara Newman Turner wrote, on May 15, 1886. She was fifty-five years old. Her doctor listed the cause as Bright’s disease (what we now call nephritis or kidney failure) and its duration as two and a half years. Already Clara Newman Turner’s “quite suddenly” is one of countless misrepresentations we find about Emily Dickinson. In 1885 Dickinson wrote that she saw “a great darkness coming” and fainted while baking in the kitchen. On November 30, 1885, her weakness was so worrying that her brother, Austin, canceled a trip to Boston. She spent the next months in bed. The last thing she wrote was that famous haiku-like note to the Norcross sisters: “Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily.” Austin remembered in his diary that “the day was awful . . . she ceased to breathe that terrible breathing just before the whistle sounded for six.” Emily Dickinson never married. She was in love once, twice, maybe three times, it’s hard to tell. There is so much legend. But she did indeed favor white for clothing. She was often accused of being shy—aloof, apart. “Best things dwell out of sight,” she whispers. For years her privacy was directed at unfamiliar company, though by the end she hid from almost everyone but Austin and her sister, Lavinia, or conversed from behind the cracked door of her threshold. She graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847. The following year brought the longest time she was ever away from home, when she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, ten miles away. She stayed for ten months. And so, at the age of seventeen, Emily Dickinson came home and turned herself into a primary housekeeper, rarely leaving again. The farthest she ever got from Amherst came in the spring of 73
1855, when she, her mother, and her sister spent three weeks in Washington, D.C., where her father served in Congress as a Massachusetts representative; they stopped on the way home in Philadelphia for two weeks of family visits. It’s hard not to abide by categories of gendered stereotypes when recounting her life. It is how she lived. Shira Wolosky deems that Dickinson’s gendered norms are so extreme as to radicalize those norms: “Dickinson’s is modesty with a vengeance, more explosive than obedient, more challenging than conforming.” She was a decent cook; my students recently made her coconut cake from the recipe we have in her unmistakable slant of hand. She was a good seamstress. And she was a remarkable observer, a naturalist, a birder, and a deeply invested gardener. Her father, Edward, gifted her with a greenhouse, a conservatory they called it, in 1851. It faced east and south and adjoined the family dining room. Edward hoped to keep his daughter happy during the long winter months, when the death of a flower could bring her profoundest grief: “My acquaintance with the Irreparable,” she wrote, “dates from the Death Bed of a young flower to which I was deeply attached.” Judith Farr suggests that Edward felt gardening might be a more suitable pastime than poetry for a socially elevated young woman. But eventually the sober lawyer, the righteous Christian found her gardening to be “disproportionate, irreligious,” and tried to steer her toward her “one talent”: baking. We find her talent to be poetry. I find her the single most ferocious, terrifying, and intrepid lyric poet of our language— with Milton, Blake, maybe Berryman, maybe Plath, for the sheer proximity to chaos, devastation, psychic and physical rupture, obliteration. Yet she wrote about what was right there, at the window, out the door, in the trees or the sitting room of the big house on Main Street. She wrote a poetry of intimacy and intimate proximity. She wrote and wrote—more than 1,800 poems. Between 1858 and 1866 she wrote at least a thousand of those poems. In a remarkably short period—namely, during the years of the Civil War—she wrote more than 800 of those. I did the math. From April 12, 1862, and the firing on Fort Sumter, to April 9, 1865, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, I count 1,458 days. Eight 74
hundred poems. That cannot be a coincidence, though only three or four poems refer to the war in recognizable detail. Anxiety is a mighty powerful translator. Two hundred and twenty of these poems came during the incredible year of 1862, the year of her first crisis, her mysterious leap to radical intensity, morbidity, and greatness. Critics make the crisis what they will: depression; a failed love affair; seasonal affective disorder; the onset of Bright’s; melancholia; bipolar dysfunction; artistic imbalance. She herself saw little difference between such physical or metaphysical causes. She specifically resists such pat categorical explanations: “Twas Crisis—All the length had passed—/ That dull—benumbing time / There is in Fever or Event—/ And now the Chance had come.” Interestingly, 1862 was the year of another chance, one of her biggest personal risks. This is the year she first wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson—again in April, on the 15th, to be exact—to ask him “what is true,” to find out if her “Verse is alive.” Dickinson saw only seven of her poems—all unattributed— published in periodicals. “Publication is the Auction of the mind of man,” she reminds. Then again, she published much of her work herself. She wrote out final drafts of her poems in ink on fine paper, ordered specially. She used all of a page. The pages came prefolded once; she arranged them into groups, from eleven to twenty poems—chronological perhaps, thematic, who knows—stacked them carefully, punched two holes in them, and tied them with good string. These packets, these fascicles, were her books. There were ultimately forty of them. “This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me,” indeed. And when she died, Mabel Loomis Todd took more than 665 of those poems and stuck them in a camphorwood chest and closed the lid. “The Soul selects her own Society—/ Then—shuts the Door.” Dickinson’s enforced isolation provides two things for her: stability and alternity. Yet the door to Dickinson’s imagination was open to what was near, the daily, the nigh, and the known. Tangible, present objects populate her poetry with sparkling clarity. Who can do an image like Dickinson? “Split the Lark— and you’ll find the Music—/ Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled.” “Shame is the shawl of Pink / In which we wrap the Soul / To keep it from infesting eyes.” Her phenomena, her things— 75
be they concrete or abstract, physical or metaphysical— may be wildly idiosyncratic but they are also entirely recognizable. That’s what I mean by alternity. “Through the Dark Sod—as Education—/ The Lily passes sure / Feels her white foot—no Trepidation—/ Her faith—no fear.” She’s as lyrical as Whitman. “If you were coming in the Fall, / I’d brush the Summer by / With half a smile, and half a spurn, / As Housewives do, a fly. // If I could see you in a year, / I’d wind the months in balls—/ And put them each in separate Drawers, / For fear the numbers fuse.” She can whittle an aphorism like Emerson or Franklin. “It was not Death, for I stood up, / And all the Dead, lie down.” “Dreams—are well—but Waking’s better.” This is my favorite. “To fill a Gap / Insert the Thing that caused it . . . / You cannot solder an Abyss / With Air.” Flowers and birds, gates and grasses, a gentlemanly god in a top hat, a “visitor in Marl,” fathers and snakes, platters, a “small Leech” and a “Dying Tiger,” snowflakes, horses, church organs: tangible objects populate Dickinson’s very particularizing poetry, mixing with erotic, holy, naturalistic, and familial newness. For someone so isolated, agoraphobic, Dickinson’s poetry is tremendously busy, abuzz; it is as social as a nation. George Steiner writes that “Dickinson knew that her solitude was crowded with presences.” She confirms: “Alone I cannot be—/ For Hosts do visit me—/ Recordless Company—Who baffle key.” Just as Shira Wolosky finds the paradox of Dickinson’s gendered norms to be “radicalized” into “explosive” obedience, I want to identify another central paradox: that, as Steiner puts it, “Dickinson makes of her isolation the fuel, the validation of an illumined strangeness.” I want to press on that illumined strangeness as I lead to a couple of personal claims. It’s not just the fabulous clarity of her images, her material and immaterial substances that vivify Dickinson’s poetry with such force. Nor is it just the rhetorical certitude with which she authorizes her judgments and observations, for indeed she is powerful in her claims (“Out of sight? What of that? / See the Bird—reach it! / Curve by Curve—Sweep by Sweep—/ Round the Steep Air—/ Danger! What is that to Her? / Better ‘tis to fail—there—/ Than debate—here”). But she arranges her population so carefully, into so highly socialized an 76
order of relationships, and invests that order with such meaningful purpose, that it’s fair to say she writes as a latter-day allegorist. I can think only of Blake as a kindred lyric allegorist in all the nineteenth century. Each of her recurring tropes—birds and the church, herbs and heredity—brings a body of knowledge, a set of allusions, and a doctrinal history, which Dickinson knew precisely, and used. She knew the tenets and testaments of her father’s church, just as she knew the hermit thrush and bobolink both build their nests on the ground, even when there’s available vegetation. She devoured the floral dictionaries of her day, where each flower and herb is assigned specific connotations, history, and uses, so her poetry’s constant horticultural associations are exact and shared. These things consolidate her participation in the culture of the day. To read Dickinson is to read a poetry with a moral scheme equal in depth, if not in consistency, to Dante’s. Her landscapes, even in miniature, are charged with meaning in themselves but also beyond themselves; they are haunted with spirits like a Charles Burchfield canvas, eyes and wings and shadows over shadows; they are layered and tiered with intention and intimations of immortality: “Presentiment—is that long Shadow—on the Lawn—/ Indicative that Suns go down.” These poems are not, decidedly, Christian. Dickinson understood her own blasphemy as clear as a bell; she nurtured it. But her poems are deeply faithful, Romantic if not conventionally Calvinist: “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church— / I keep it, staying at Home—/ With a Bobolink for a Chorister—/ And an Orchard, for a Dome.” In fact, her morality, her ultimate faith and investment, is an esthetic’s morality, much as Keats’s or Stevens’s. She concludes the impeccable argument of this poem with a typical zinger: “So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—/ I’m going, all along.” Emily Dickinson’s private lyric world is full of presences. But for all the presences mentioned in this symposium, there’s one more I find central to understanding her imagination and her cosmology. One more intimacy, one more intimate proximity, and that is Capital D, Death. “Because I could not stop for Death—/ He kindly stopped for me.” Like the blue-fringed gentian, like the “executive” jay coming down the walk, death is 77
a presence near at hand, and knocking. And its presence illuminates the other presences like no other, not even God. “Death,” she writes, “sets a Thing significant.” Odysseus journeys to the ends of the earth, and beneath it, to confront and confound the demons of the dead. Dante travels down circle by circle into the inferno of the damned. In Dickinson’s day Melville sails the seas to face that oceanic abyss, the consuming, terrifying, whitening, outstretching obliteration of identity. The great writers before her situate death at a distance, a great distance—whether up or down or way out there—and measure the merit of their task in part by the length of their odyssey to and from the world of the dead. Dickinson’s robin is just there, on a limb at the window. And death, too, is just as near and neighborly: “I died for Beauty— but was scarce / Adjusted in the Tomb / When One who died for Truth, was lain / In an adjoining room.” When she feels that famous funeral in her brain, she inhabits both congregation and coffin in the little church that is her bodily residence, home. And when the “Plank in Reason” breaks, she falls through this world into other worlds, each atop the other, as tiered and as haunted as all her other social relationships. Terror is the second dominant feature of Dickinson’s poetry—counterpoint to the joyful, natural pleasure she so often finds. But terror is not only the fact of death; it’s the nearness at hand, the neighborly, mannerly, at-first gentlemanly omnipresence that is, ultimately, obliterating and consuming. Helen Vendler finds this to be the defining feature of Dickinson’s designs, the destination of her rhetoric; or better, the cause of the primary rupture of that rhetoric. Death, the rupturer, the eraser, “breaks the sequence or seriality” so important to Dickinson’s lyricism. It perhaps explains the powerful appropriateness of those ever-present dashes, the little rip in syntax, the gap, the break, the gasp for breath. Formally, the dashes enact—they make material—that very “Capacity to terminate,” as Dickinson writes. “The great crisis in Dickinson’s work arrives when her instinctive practice of serial . . . chromate advance encounters unavoidable fissure, fracture, rupture, or abyss,” says Vendler. Dickinson put it better: “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind.” Her frequent sequencing—and then, and then, and then—is disrupted by the 78
finality of the end-point death. “First—Chill—then Stupor— then the letting go.” After which utterance there is no more to say, because there is no word to say it, only the horses’ heads pointing toward eternity: snow, white paper, “White Sustenance,” the silence beyond the place where the meanings are. Here is my final point and the last paradox I want to propose. I have gone to some lengths to show that Dickinson’s treatment of daily detail is as close to allegory as we are likely to get in the nineteenth century. She highly stylizes the flowers and birds, the gods and stones and dimples and cordial women, and sets them into a shared, socialized order of relationships, where meaning resides atop meaning and artistic imagination is the supreme fiction. But with death, in her hundreds of treatments of death, Dickinson abandons allegory for the real. There are no translations of death, no dense mythologies for death, as there are no real words for it, only breakage, fissure, gap, rupture. Where there are no words, there is no fancy nor figure and can be no meaning: “The Silence condescended—/ Creation stopped— for Me—/ But awed beyond my errand—/ I worshipped—did not ‘pray.’” She cannot pray for there are no words when we are “awed beyond” our errand. For me, Dickinson’s magic is that she takes us closer to that rupture than any other lyric poet. Or maybe, with Keats and Whitman, she stands as our most significant pre-postmodernist in this regard. Erasure, absence, the disenfigured gap, rhetorical incompatibility, the unresolved thing, the always already ever beyond our reach: We think we have invented that in our belated state? Think again. Emily Dickinson has been there. Like Whitman, who knows but she is looking at us right now. That second-story window on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, has one beguiling view.
Almost Utmost Marianne Moore
Who is stranger than Marianne Moore? Whose poems are more packed with eccentricity and oddity and ubiquitous impunity? She’d love those words. The strange is her familiar, as the just- discovered is her comfort, and the said-only-once-and-only-this- way is her residential idiom. She measured with her mind’s eye and made the utmost rapturous music. She tried to name a car and nominated a whole new species of weirdness instead—and kept the money. She wore white gloves and tricorn hats and wrote the liner notes for I Am the Greatest!, Mohammad Ali’s spoken-word record. Did you know that Marianne Moore threw out the first pitch on opening day at Yankee Stadium, in 1968? Exactly 300 years earlier, in 1668, a young Puritan teacher, on a sea voyage from England to find a home in the New World, leaned over the ship rail to observe how “a pair of sunfish lie flapping on the water.” In a characteristic combination of scientific curiosity and religious overdetermination, he adds that “they say this kind of fish is thus that it cannot sink while the sun shines.” Two hundred and sixty-nine years later, in 1937, while working at the Yale University Library, Thomas Johnson (whom we know as the editor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the heroic one who restored her work to its first idiosyncratic formats) discovered more than 7,000 pages of poetry by this forgotten man and gave back to the world the poems of Edward Taylor, still in his handmade leather binders. For nearly sixty years Taylor had lived in the Wild West frontier of Westfield, Massachusetts, its minister, its village doctor, likely a farmer, and wrote poems all along. Also in 1937, writing to a “Mr. Stevens” to praise his Man with the Blue Guitar, Marianne Moore asserts that “as music is best 80
described by performing it, poetry is best defined by writing it.” I am certain that Moore’s famous fish, who “wade through black jade,” are of the same species as Taylor’s magic fish who lie flapping on top of the sea. There’s a brand of American poet, American adventurer, for whom the frontier is as interior as it is outer: both literal and littoral, strange, roiling, populated with demons and tricksters and angels and all manner of new critters. For whom the only acceptable language must be just as tweaked, as peaked or flushed with wildness as the subject may require. For whom measurement is part of the mapping, naming is part of the blessing, and blessing—in the form of the ode or the curse or the prayer or the metaphysical gallop—is the name of the art. Edward Taylor. Emily Dickinson. Or, from her time, Wallace Stevens and E. E. Cummings (whom Moore calls in a letter to him “blasphemous, inexorable, disrespectful, sinful author”). Marianne Moore counts in the company of the rarest birds of American poetic imagination and invention. An explorer’s first task—after survival—is to map, to record. My father was a land surveyor. When I turned fourteen, he taught me how to hold and wave the tall rod, how to sight hash marks through the geodolite, how to record the contours step by step of the land, and how to convert those figures into the artful geometry of a topographic map. Chaos, the wild, turns into terrain. Moore is a mapper of the strange. I want to look at two poems of Moore’s to show her method of mapping and its achievements and to examine her naturalist’s sense of discovery and nomination. As Grace Schulman asserts, “to read a poem by Marianne Moore is to be aware of exactitude. It is to know that the writer has looked at a subject—a cliff, a sea animal, an ostrich—from all sides, and has examined the person looking at it as well.” “Melchior Vulpius” shows Moore looking (and listening) closely indeed and responding with great admiration as both mapper and namer to her subject at hand, Melchior Vulpius, a contrapuntalist— composer of chorales and wedding-hymns to Latin words 81
but best of all an anthem: “God be praised for conquering faith which fearest neither pain nor death.”
The hortatory, the odic, must be counted as one of Moore’s pressing rhetorical impulses. She is a poet of celebratory invention. When a poet writes an ode, a poem heightened by praise, it’s worth noting not only those traits the poet sets out to praise but the subject itself. The choice of subject tells us about the artist; she shows us important contours in the terrain of her own values. Just look at portraits of Moore’s modernist peers: the fantastically named fictives of Stevens (as in the racist exotica of Chieftain Iffucan or “pale Ramon,” or the shrugged-off “so-and- so” Mrs. Pappadopoulos); on the other hand, the unnamed or dis-identifying “une femme” of Pound and the mere “lady” of Eliot. Moore loves the names, the ascertaining features, of the actual and present, “the thing itself,” as Maureen McLane says about her, “and the idea about the thing.” So why Melchior Vulpius? He was a German composer, a singer of hymns, cantor of church music, who wrote hundreds of songs and published two books of Latin—Cantiones sacrae, as well as Lateinische Hochzeitstücke. Moore gets his birth year wrong—1670, not 1660—but is exacting in her survey of his music, those “wedding-hymns to Latin words.” Praise is nothing if not a most devout species of attention. Look at the way her poem lays out on the page, typical of the intricate design of her poems, the “scaled specificity,” in McLane’s good phrase. It looks like a little map; a blueprint; a score. It looks a little messy at first, inkblot, until we begin to discern the design. As a sidenote, I’ll add that the poem with its sort of six-line stanzas and its couplet rhyme at the end of each also replicates the form of nearly all of Edward Taylor’s own metaphysical devotional poems. As in so many of her rich poems, Moore makes a shape out of the chaotic. The broken, indented, uneven first stanza finds the contours of its form on repetition in the next. We have to trust this art— this mastery which none can understand. Yet someone has 82
acquired it and is able to direct it. Mouse-skin-bellows’-breath expanding into rapture saith “Hallelujah.”
Moore makes snowflakes, fractals— uneven shapes that become formal designs upon redundancy. Accident (that important word in “The Fish”) becomes shapeliness; an architecture emerges from an evolving form. For Moore, the broken becomes baroque. Here is Vulpius’s hymn: Now God be praised in heaven above, Praised be He for His great love, Wherein all creatures live and move, Hallelujah! (Hallelujah!) Now God be praised for conquering faith, Which feareth neither pain nor death, But trusting God, rejoicing saith, Hallelujah! (Hallelujah!) His grace defends us from all ill; His Christ shall be our leader still Till heaven and earth shall do His will, Hallelujah! (Hallelujah!)
Vulpius was a Lutheran, and Moore a good Presbyterian who could be found most Sundays at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn. That’s where she heard this song and copied it out by hand onto her church bulletin, dated June 3, 1957. (She switched the order of Vulpius’s first two stanzas, by the way.) Look what else she carries over from his hymn to hers. His rhyming, in triplets, recurs in her terminal couplets, as well as in the abounding internal rhymes she so much delights in: “hymns” and “anthem”; “Mouse-skin,” “Amen”; “absolutist and fugue-ist,” with its further pun as both a personification and a superlative. But more about that rhyme, the logic of that rhyme: as George Steiner says of Paul Valery, “reason bids the 83
poet prefer rhyme to reason.” Here the rhyme of “saith” also leads us pointedly to its second sonic characteristic, its metrical feature. I would say “saith” in two syllables (SAY-eth), a trochee. But in context of this rhyme, and as Vulpius does, the dominating “faith” and “breath” mandate only a single pulse for “saith,” to get the rhyme right. That is, the pronunciation of “saith” in one syllable may nudge it closer to an exact rhyme with “faith.” And look at Vulpius’s text again, at the second stanza (which she transposed as first) where those three rhymes reside, the exact words that Moore picks up and repositions in her three terminal couplets. Consider Moore’s further thinking this through. Her first stanza’s couplet both names and demonstrates the narrative crisis of the poem: the threat to faith, the thing that might “conquer” faith, is “death,” which comes last. But faith can be—to a true believer, and through the mastery of artful, rapturous song—ultimately itself the “conquering” thing. To show this, she flips their positions in the third stanza. Thus, in a reversal, a kind of cognitive irony, she demonstrates that faith wins; it cements its immortality through love, signing it, getting as it were the last word in: “slowly building / from miniature thunder, / crescendos antidoting death—/ love’s signature cementing faith.” I think of that flip, that ironic reversal, as a kind of formal counterpoint. Isn’t her subject itself, Melchior Vulpius, first identified as a “contrapuntalist”? Isn’t his musical mastery precisely the thing Moore admires in his work? We know that counterpoint is one of the dominant features of the Baroque fugue. A song made of changing or different keys, or rhythms, or phrasal movements: irony, in Harold Bloom’s definition, is the clash of incommensurate forces. This movement is intersected by that movement; a crossing-over or -under of entities; at the crux, thus, a crisis. Here counterpoint enacts a crisis of faith and finds its resolution in faith’s conquering power. But I want to look at Moore’s further contrapuntal aesthetic. This is my primary point about her style in poem after poem. We identify Marianne Moore as one of the great exemplars of syllabic poetry. She counts her single syllables obsessively—though in conversation with Grace Schulman she disavowed that stance with a stern “Syllabics? Oh, I repudiate that.” The history of our 84
art in English tends to evolve, though, not out of syllabics, but out of accentuals, a counting of heavy pulses. Poetry tends to evolve out of sonic or musical features. I have never heard a single poet—except for Richard Wilbur, whom I believe—claim to be able actually to hear syllabics as a metric. We hear downbeats. We HEAR DOWN-beats, and we measure the length of lines by the number and relative position of those heavy beats and light beats. Perhaps such an audible rhythm facilitates not just our delight but our memory. Rhyme, too, is a feature of the mnemonic. Even our first poem shows the point I’m making. The youngster sings “A-b C-d E-f GEEE / H-i J-k Lmno PEEE.” The syllable count in those two rhythmic units differs notably, but the four downbeats are unmistakable—and dominate. Thus the two phrasal units sound, they feel, equivalent. I have this notion that syllabics evolves more substantially in poetry as poetry becomes less an oral art and more a written or textualized art. Singing leads to accentuals. Reading leads to syllabics. That is, syllabics is a written evolution of an oral art, where the metrics of rhythm is converted, by the alchemy of printing, into the meter of mere numbers, numbers seen rather than numbers heard. But with Moore, mere numbers are their own elegance; they can enact, as Steiner puts it, “the music to mathematics.” “Melchior Vulpius” is an example of Marianne Moore’s expression of formal counterpoint. One line of expression comes through the quantitative syllabic duration of the poem: 6 6 8 7 8 8, to look at the first stanza. The other line of expression is the distinctly varying accentual contour of the lines of the poem. Syllabics plays counterpoint to the accentual meter, rather than, as in our normative accentual-syllabic meter, syllables and accents working in regular concert. Look at the three first lines here, their meter: “a CONtraPUNtalIST,” with three iambs. “We HAVE to TRUST this ART,” also iambic. Then “‘HALleLUjah.’ ALmost” with its flip to trochees. Or compare second lines: “comPOser of choRALES,” “this MASterY which NONE,” “UTmost ABsoLUtist.” Set against the regular syllabic length is a highly varying accentual music: counterpoint. You can find such cross-purposes, such counterpoint, throughout the poem. Likewise, you can find it throughout most her poems. Syllable and 85
accent argue; they fluctuate. Look how light the beats in “from MINiature THUNder” (two beats?) that rise and congeal— crescendo—into the very heavy, five-beat “LOVE’S SIGnaTURE ceMENting FAITH.” That “miniature thunder” line reminds me of one more aspect of Moore’s syllabics. She was not exact. Most prosodists hold that, to be a form, syllabics must be precise. There’s nothing keeping the form together other than the mere count of syllables, so if you get the count off whack, it’s just not syllabic. We tend to overlook Moore’s exceptions and substitutions. But even that famous fish poem is imperfect in number. Look back some time and count. Syllabics was, I contend, as much or more for Moore a compositional method than an endgame goal. My point here is simple: the way Moore applies syllabic numbers and accentual beats provides a high irregularity, a dynamic counterpoint inside the music, measurement, and meaning of her work. I mentioned earlier that the explorer’s task is to map and to describe, to give shape and names to the newly discovered. Moore must count in the number of “first poets,” to use Cary Nelson’s good phrase—poets for whom it is still possible to envision and perhaps attain a kind of Edenic purity or primacy. Emerson called it “an original relation to the universe”; Whitman “barbaric.” Nelson includes Roethke, Kinnell, Rich, and Merwin in the generation of “our last first poets,” and now we are beyond them all, belated as Bloom says, posterior, posthumous even, writing without a view of the source, without an impulse to regain any paradise lost. Marianne Moore’s poems are sometimes like a trip through Eden, though Eden may have streetcars, libraries, and baseballs, as well as pangolins, frigate pelicans, wood weasels, peacocks, katydids, and angels. In a single poem, “An Octopus,” we discover a whole strange world full of peculiar beings. One of her longest poems—and technically quite different from the tightly wrapped contrapuntal formalism of “Melchior Vulpius”—“An Octopus” is a poem of discursive rhetoric and an expansive free- verse structure. Here we find a fertile example of Moore’s multiform language that prompts Grace Schulman to note that for “Marianne Moore, seeing an object meant speaking of its various aspects on many levels of discourse.” 86
And what is this object in “An Octopus”? It is not an octopus, but rather a vast ice sheet, a frozen landscape we might initially assume to be lifeless and static. Yet the poem is a lush, precise, inclusive catalog of biota, all the flora and fauna, all the structure and environment to be encountered on these “twenty- eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred feet thick.” It is, in fact, Mount Rainier, or the glacial field moving in inexorable slowness along the rock body of the mountain—a surprisingly dynamic place much like the tense, generative site in “The Fish,” where the edge effect of ocean and rocky shore provide a fertile ground for life. The American explorer has historically turned westward for inspiration and discovery. Patricia Willis notes Moore’s own sojourn to Mount Rainier—she calls it “Mount Tacoma” in the poem, its native name—in July 1922, when she spent two days on the mountain in a kind of Edenic (re)discovery. Willis adds that Paradise is even the name of the access point to Rainier’s peak, a meadow “perched on the side of the great Nisqually Glacier.” Moore attests to a self-conscious affiliation with the great Edenic namer, since the primary trope in her poem is the describing and naming of the many inhabitants of the present icy garden, thus enacting “such power as Adam had.” “An Octopus,” with its 193 lines and two stanzas, is an abundant catalog of details, a naturalist’s cornucopia of living things from “miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi” to “businessmen” and mountain guides. Again, part of the poem’s irony derives from the richness of life Moore finds, and lists, on this supposedly barren landscape. She delights in them all: dozens of animals (“bears, elk, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks,” as well as more a distinctive “nine-striped chipmunk / running with unmammal-like agility”); dozens of plants (heather-bells, avalanche lilies, spruce-twigs, alpine buckwheat); all manner of rocks and minerals (onyx, lava and pumice, gold and silver ore, “marble and jasper and agate / as if whole quarries had been dynamited”). Much of the movement of the poem consists of the accumulating specificity—and oddity—of these many diverse inhabitants. As if to parallel the abundance and variform of the place’s constituent parts, Moore’s own language and diction vary widely, 87
too, enacting an “original American menagerie of styles.” She’s having a great time, in a kind of linguistic pastiche, building up the “many levels of discourse” that Schulman noted, in layers, in verbal strata, like the tiered landscape of the glacier itself. “Like happy souls in Hell,” enjoying mental difficulties, the Greeks amused themselves with delicate behavior because it was “so noble and so fair”; not practiced in adapting their intelligence to eagle-traps and snow-shoes, to alpenstocks and other toys contrived by those “alive to the advantage of invigorating pleasures.”
Here, in one of the poem’s secondary arguments, Moore juxtaposes the rich originality and ingenuity—the intrepid push of exploration—of the American West with the “remote wisdom” of the classical Greeks. She criticizes the Greeks, who “like[d] smoothness” and who distrusted “what was back / of what could not be clearly seen.” Moore prefers the “love of doing hard things” and those “[c]omplexities that still will be complexities / as long as the world lasts.” “An Octopus” is a poem of complex precision but also of delight, and in this way is rhetorically akin to the odic praise of “Melchior Vulpius.” In her desire for “relentless accuracy” and “capacity for fact,” Moore’s additive rhetoric finds her turning everywhere for source material, and finding it. Nearly eighty of this poem’s lines are given in quotation marks, as Moore pieces together her description from a wildly disparate range of sources. She quotes Henry James and Cardinal Newman, Muir and Ruskin, Sir William Bell (on bendable glass), London journalists, and American naturalists writing on the West. Amy Clampitt identifies a further humorous source: “Embedded in what at first appears to be no more than a sprawling catchall of quotations and descriptive details are a number of precepts drawn (as the poet’s own notes disclose) from none other than the Rules and Regulations of the U.S. Department of the Interior!” For Marianne Moore, to understand a thing, to make it poem-worthy, requires all of one’s ingenuity and all available re88
sources. It requires the “thing itself,” to use Maureen McLane’s phrase again, but also “the idea about the thing.” That is, in “An Octopus,” Moore identifies the rich variety of life on the vibrant glacier, the identities and behaviors of those things, but she also layers in the living language—the quotations, histories, and citations—which serve as “ideas” about those things. Rock formations, waterfalls, kittentails, and language itself are equally biotic, and all part of the experience of enjoying the great glacier. As her career developed, Moore became renowned for her skillful language, acclaimed for the energetic and enlivening power of her idiom and form. She so famously named things that David Wallace and Bob Young of the Ford Motor Company, in 1955, invited her to submit “inspirational names” for the launch of the company’s newly developed experimental E-car. As Wallace reasoned, “Who better to understand the nature of words than a poet?” Moore accepted the challenge. Here are some of her actual suggestions in reply to Ford’s solicitation: the Anticipator, Thunder Crester, the Silver Sword, the Resilient Bullet, the Regina Racer, the Magigravue, the Turcotingo, the Pastelogram, the Varsity Stroke, the Mongoose Civique, the Intelligent Whale, the Adante Con Moto, and her last one, the Utopian Turtletop. These could be comic-book titles or superheroes, symphonies or school cheers; they could easily be part of the peculiar flora and fauna growing on Mount Rainier. In fact, Ford had designed quite a car, with its big bubble top and horseshoe-shaped grill. It was also a record-setting flop, a complete dud, though the first reviews have a kind of Moore- like poetry to them. One calls this car “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon,” while another says it looks like “a Pontiac pushing a toilet seat.” From Mr. Wallace’s final letter to Marianne Moore: “We have chosen a name. . . . It fails somewhat of the resonance, gaiety and zest we were seeking. But it has a personal dignity and meaning to many of us here. Our name, dear Miss Moore, is— Edsel.” How’s that for a rejection letter? Marianne Moore’s poems are a rich atlas of signs and wonders: maps, measurements, and metrical contours of the language’s idiosyncratic flexibility, with a dense population of creatures and citizens, whom she calls by name and recognizes in 89
detail and with a glee both exacting and generative. For such a humble point of view—no confessional spew in these poems, no autobiography on display—her poems brightly overflow with the personality of engagement, presence, and invention. They are alive, to use Edward Taylor’s words, with “the Shine of Shining things made fine.”
We are building a huge cottage industry out of the ranking and aligning of cultural works and literary authors. Both Harold and Allan Bloom have constructed, quite independently, their lists of scholarly inclusions and exclusions. William Bennett has prescribed for us all his elixir of elitist medicine even as, like the Casey Kasem of poetry, William Harmon spins The Top 100 Poems out of his The Top 500 Poems. Everywhere are lists, preferences, reassessments, rankings— and resentments— thanks to the English departments, editors, publishers, social media, and political action groups busily booming their canons and deconstructing everybody else’s. Rightly enough, Harold Bloom laments that a work or writer may now be deemed canonical by someone’s merely saying so. I suppose that these kinds of rankings are inevitable, even perhaps necessary to our judgments. We compare in order to prefer and to praise; literary editing and literary pedagogy are nothing if not studies in comparative analysis. But poetry itself is not a match, a game, or even ultimately a competitive public enterprise. It is far more personal than that, our most intimate * This essay first appeared, in a shorter version, in the Kenyon Review as part of the Kenyon Classics series. Essays in this series excavate and reassess early work by important American writers, work that first appeared in the magazine in the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s. I was invited by David Lynn, the Kenyon Review’s editor, to reexamine eight poems by James Wright. Wright was not only a frequent contributor to the magazine but also a 1952 graduate of Kenyon College, where he was a student of the magazine’s distinguished founding editor, John Crowe Ransom. I encourage readers to find these poems, and regret that space prevented my reprinting them with the present essay.
exchange of language—mind singing to mind. Over the ages, the only real competition in poetry is one poem wrestling with another. The reassessment of a poet’s achievement is a particularly daunting task when the poet is our near contemporary. A reassessment implies that we have achieved an assessment but that, for whatever reasons, circumstances may have altered this critical reception. But James Wright’s work has yet to be appraised satisfactorily. His reputation, during his lifetime as now, is as incomplete as it is mixed. He is hailed as one of our age’s great lyric poets, a belated Romantic whose valorizations of the individual and nature—and of the aboriginal bond between the two—give heart in a cruel, socially corrupt time. Robert Hass praises Wright’s “lean, clear, plain language [with its] absolute freshness of sensibility,” thus identifying Wright’s important and devoted contributions to primitivist and deep image aesthetics. Of course the deep imagist impulse for clarity and universality is also demonized by post-structuralist poet-critics like Charles Bernstein: “We have to get over, as in getting over a disease, the idea that we can ‘all’ speak to one another in the universal voice of poetry.” To this camp, in fact, Wright is a sentimentalist, a sad egoist, while to the New Formalists he is branded a traitor, accused of betraying a poem’s formal constraint and dignity with his movements toward open forms. These are confusing times indeed. At a symposium at the Cooper Union, Marjorie Perloff opined that no one these days even knows who James Wright is. Currently, I think, some combination of these latter opinions holds sway. Poetry itself is overshadowed by narrative and post- structural theory, by prose of all sorts, and by the blaring media of popular culture, while the Romantic sensibility is reduced to quaint irrelevance by the populous field of practical critics and cultural managers. Perhaps, given the grim state of things at the moment, this is why Wright’s beautiful poetry seems to me especially timely. His themes are as suited to our time as to the quiet, repressive 1950s out of which much of his struggle was first born. In an early poem, “Lonely,” already we sense what Robert Pinsky calls in Wright’s poetry a “linking of the local and the heroic.” What does it mean to be a citizen, a neighbor? How can any individual 92
belong to, and how withstand, the dominant social structures? In later poems Wright more boldly confronts these vexing problems. Here in “Lonely,” the muted “neighborly advice” and a silent nature perpetuate the inherent loneliness of a troubled social construct, a marriage. This vignette recalls one of Wright’s early influences, E. A. Robinson. Throughout his career Wright is drawn to solitary and misunderstood fellow citizens, and his resulting character sketch shows the tug of his connective sympathy; both the narrative strategy and the plainspoken prosody recall the poems in Robinson’s Tilbury Town series and its similarly isolated, sometimes doomed, denizens. We also find the formal patterning and rhetoric of Wright’s Kenyon College teacher-turned-editor, John Crowe Ransom, whose “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” prefigures the naïve or simple “study” of Wright’s elegy. Wright was only twenty-four when “Lonely” and “Father” appeared in the Kenyon Review. “Lonely” clearly does demonstrate some of the unformed gestures of a young poet. Here—as again in Ransom, in Poe, and many other male poets—Wright’s female is most “lovely” in death. She is a quaint stereotype, unreal, generic, rather than one of the vivid, flesh-and-blood figures from his mature poems. The sentiment of “Lonely” veers toward pathos and melodrama in several places, too, and its slack repetitions (“And then he walked into the snow, / Into the snow he walked away”), as well as several archaic or padded phrases (“He sat upon her bed” rather than “on her bed”), further deplete whatever energy the poem manages to muster elsewhere. The also-elegiac “Father” more tightly enacts the myth-like, mysterious “transfiguring” true to Wright’s best poems. The trope of transfiguration or transformation may be the most important trope in all of Wright’s poetry, in fact, present from his earliest work to his last. Everywhere things and people want to change into other things, or are forced into change, or naturally and simply evolve—the beaten into heroes, words into grass, hope into despair, living “bones [into] dark emeralds.” This is one of the fundamental gestures of the Romantic poet, the “miraculous renewal,” as Wright himself once called it. “Father” shares the transformative impulse with “Lonely,” as well as its formal style and tone. However, the images here shim93
mer with precision (“only dip of oar / In water similar to fog on a cold shore / Sounded”), and Wright’s mediation between “paradise” and the very real world “far below on earth” provides a moving irony, measuring the considerable distance between the deathly “oarsman in the mist unshawled” and the father’s protective deliverance of the young speaker “home.” Wright’s movement is away from “nothingness” rather than toward it; his vision (both literal and allegorical) turning more precise as the speaker grows capable of seeing, through the mist of sleep (and of death), his father “searching round the waters” who finally “drew me from the boat.” The efficiency of this poem’s narrative and syntax—and its less generic imagery—marks a considerable improvement over “Lonely.” Even still, Wright was not finished with the poem. Reassessment was his obsession as well, for when the poem appeared in The Green Wall, in 1954, he had rewritten the first stanza with the following lines. But only the dip of an oar In water sounded; slowly fog from some cold shore Circled in wreaths around my head.
This later sentence is even clearer and more deliberately measured. The iambic rhythm is tenser, due to the four consecutive stresses of “some cold shore / Circled,” where in the earlier version the meter is stiff and the syntax seems manipulated to lead toward the rhymes. Published in 1953, “Robert Sitting on My Hands” is a further example of Wright’s beginnings. Following Ransom, early Lowell, Nemerov, Ciardi, Wilbur, and of course the earlier example of Eliot, a whole generation of poets began their careers as young neoclassicists and formalists—not only Wright, but also W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, and many others. This generation quickly learned to undercut and ironize their neoclassicism by a number of strategies, notably an increasing personalness of voice within the formal frame—a strategy which culminated in W. D. Snodgrass’s 1959 masterpiece, Heart’s Needle, a book whose poems are conventionally formal yet utterly original in their piercing confessions. “Robert Sitting on My Hands” shows Wright straining to fuse his own rich, nearly 94
baroque impulse (as in the second sentence of each of the first three stanzas) with a kind of purer or transparent lyricism. Consider how, in the first stanza, the ornate classical trope in the second sentence is moderated by the powerful, even severe clarity of “his eyes looked down. I held him like a sacrifice in my two hands.” Throughout the poem I feel Wright straining to balance his fanciful gestures with his more realistic tones and insights. The poem also clearly echoes another of Wright’s early influences, A. E. Housman, whose “To an Athlete Dying Young” narrates “the time” another god-youth was carried “shoulder-high.” Laurels and grapevines adorn these young heroes, but nature’s inevitable withering, its “brown shadows,” foretell a human mortality. Published in 1958, these four poems demonstrate Wright’s growing range, his mastery of traditional lyricism, and his growing discontent with it. Both “A Girl Walking into a Shadow” and “All the Beautiful Are Blameless” appear in his 1959 Saint Judas, but in comparison they exhibit Wright’s increasingly bimodal conflict. Nearly Yeatsian in its graceful melancholy, “A Girl Walking into a Shadow” is, like “Lonely,” a model of Georgian lyricism—general in its details, rhetorically restrained if a touch sentimental, in tightly closed lines and quatrains. Its melancholy seems impersonal, its figures more nearly symbolic than unique; still, it sings with an intelligent loveliness that Wright carries to the end of his career. Its effect is, as the New Critics so admired, of coherence, of formal and classical unity. In an interview in American Poetry Review, Wright credited Ransom for teaching him to “put together [a poem] so carefully that it does produce a single unifying effect.” As in Yeats’s “When You Are Old”—a poem whose narrative and images seem reflected in Wright’s poem—the result here, the singular effect, is a kind of helpless awe in observing the inevitable future of the girl. The shadow into which she walks is the shadow of time, of mortality. While the speaker admires her naïve state and mourns his own mature knowledge, he also seems strengthened by his wisdom, able to “hear the futile speech / Of air in trees.” He is capable, in other words, of a kind of foresight. He may be “old” but he is also prophetic. Wright will learn in later poems to depict himself more as the villain or the victim than as the hero or seer. The tight 95
perfection of this poem’s prosody and tone must have appealed to the New Critic in Ransom, but the poem also seems now a period piece, a little outdated even in 1958. “All the Beautiful Are Blameless,” on the other hand, with its more ragged “natural” structure, its self-deprecating humor (“I, being lightly sane”), and its population of local roughnecks (“Two stupid harly-charlies got her drunk / And took her swimming naked on the lake”), anticipates the direction of Wright’s powerfully original 1963 volume The Branch Will Not Break. Here the dead woman is not simply an ingredient in a young Romantic poet’s still-life study but rather is a victim of male-instigated peril. Wright’s rage for justice, his connection—moral, but also erotic—with the dead woman reaches a more complete resolution than in “Lonely,” and further anticipates one of his powerful and more mature Romantic themes: intimate sympathy with the doomed, the voiceless, the misunderstood, those outside the usual social structures, those traditionally outside the poetic attention. During these years Wright was writing his doctoral dissertation, “The Comic Imagination of the Young Dickens” (University of Washington, 1959), and was undoubtedly learning from the social aptitudes of Dickens, whose fictions depict characters similarly bruised and muted. The dead woman’s beauty and blamelessness here is less like naïve exploitation and more an indictment of crudeness, cruelty. Wright also clearly wrestles in “All the Beautiful Are Blameless” with his compulsion for traditional form. It’s hard at first to find the presiding strategy for line and stanza here, as though Wright were searching himself. Stanzas one, three, and six seem loose, uneven, while the other stanzas are in iambic pentameter. A closer inspection, however, reveals the iambic base of stanzas one, three, and six. In fact, these three stanzas are also regular: five-line stanzas, in which lines one, three, and four are iambic pentameter and lines two and five are a kind (or kinds) of dimeter. It’s as if Wright is slowly dismantling, while still using, the formal models of his early influences. I can’t really argue the special effectiveness of the structure of those three stanzas; I can’t, for instance, identify any purposeful consequence they contribute to the poem other than to alter the rhythm and form a bit. Still, it is notable that Wright is growing anxious with his formal 96
applications, and his anxiety results in his simultaneous use and deconstruction of traditional measures. It will be a feature of his method throughout the rest of his career, in fact, to work out his technical anxieties in print, in public—as he moves toward more free forms, as he experiments with prose poems, and as he returns to traditional prosodies—sometimes with great success, sometimes with awkward, even failed, results. The other two poems from 1958, “Safety” and “With the Gift of a Feather,” seem again more conventional. At least from my vantage several decades later, they are lovely illustrations of period pieces, representative of the traditional techniques and the rather staid, impersonal stances of the dominant lyric mode of the 1940s and early and mid-1950s, as we saw in “A Girl Walking into a Shadow.” They simply do not anticipate the openness, the blunt, personal risks and innovations of such poems as “Lying on a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” “Two Hangovers,” “A Blessing,” and so many more groundbreaking poems shortly to come in The Branch Will Not Break and the poet’s 1968 Shall We Gather at the River. These two were certainly worthy to find space in Ransom’s 1958 Kenyon Review, but are also, in retrospect, too sentimental in places; their rich meter and rhyme seem inhibitions to Wright’s search for his most apt voice, his stark, subsequent “pure clear” words. They are also generic in terms of subject, image, and stance. In “Safety,” for instance, the solitary poet hears the responding song of two owls and mourns that “I should hardly hear / Those owls in love again before I die.” The birds are just too human, too emotive, for my taste (“The calm owl wooed his cold beloved home”)—too preciously anthropomorphized—and the speaker’s final rendering of himself (“no one listened to my listening”) is too contentedly self-pitying. Still, the gesture of the speaker “kicking unlikely grass” provides a tasty prefiguration of Wright’s famous ending to his “Late November in a Field,” from Shall We Gather at the River, where he has “nothing to ask a blessing for, / Except these words. / I wish they were / Grass.” Likewise, “With the Gift of a Feather” is bland and generic. Wright turns here again to a “strange” town where “illiterate women stood in doors.” The doomed town, the mistreated citi97
zen, the lonely stance—these remain as hallmarks of Wright’s great later poems. In “Hook,” for example, from his 1977 volume To a Blossoming Pear Tree, a “young Sioux” whose “scars are just my age” stands before Wright’s forlorn speaker, and the two men dignify each other’s gifts, and each other’s lives, by offering and accepting a few words and a few coins. But in “With the Gift of Feather,” Wright’s characterization seems more demeaning than sympathetic, more anonymous than connective. His speaker again shows himself in what feels like a falsified preciousness: “So I came back, and all I brought / To show how far I went away / Is this one feather, blown apart.” The image of his standing there holding nothing but a mangled feather is so feeble, the speaker so wounded or childishly helpless, that the entire scene turns unintentionally funny. The gift in “Hook” travels both ways—from the young Native American, who offers money, but also from Wright’s speaker, who reaches out to accept the unneeded coins, thus dignifying the sympathetic gesture. In “With the Gift of a Feather,” the gift seems designed to reflect the speaker’s own wounded “castoff” condition. It is also practically useless. How can a feather actually help the “you” of the poem? Who, by the way, is this “you”—the woman, the “one friend” in the park, the reader? Wright’s compositional skills, as graceful and lyrical as they are, cannot compensate for the overweening and blurred pathos of the narrative. This poem and “Safety” must have been among the many poems that Wright discarded during the early 1960s—perhaps included in his unpublished collection, Amenities of Stone, which he withdrew from Wesleyan University Press in 1962—as he pushed toward the new style (and manuscript) that would so dramatically influence his peers and his followers. “President Harding’s Tomb in Ohio,” on the other hand, does appear in The Branch Will Not Break. Wright recasts the poem as “His Tomb in Ohio,” the second part of “Two Poems about President Harding.” Again Wright has made a few fortunate rewrites between the magazine and book versions of the poem; the final two lines of stanza one become, in the Branch version, “Chuckle and stumble and embrace / On beer cans, stogie butts, and graves,” while line four of stanza two is the more abrupt “And snivel about his broken heart.” Serving as 98
the first section of “Two Poems about President Harding,” “His Death,” is an openly structured piece, brusque but also natural sounding, a sympathetic connection with the former “weeping drunk” president. I am drunk this evening in 1961, In a jag for my countryman, Who died of crab meat on the way back from Alaska. Everyone knows that joke.
Harding’s public life and his exposed shame, in “His Death,” provide the complex trope for Wright to extend with “His Tomb in Ohio” in such lines as “His grave, a huge absurdity” and such figures as the ongoing “laughing” of the whole country. As he saw in so many other local characters, bruised or defeated, Wright must have seen himself in this “countryman,” his fellow Ohioan. His own increasing sense of exile, of shame, and his expanding connection with the hurt and the forlorn, the castoff— whether of presidential stature or condemned to the ghetto— find a fuller and more original expression in this poem than in all but a very few earlier pieces. The more conventional, dignified technique of “His Tomb in Ohio” seems wonderfully ironic following “His Death,” too. Together they make for a complex formalization, superimposing the figures of Harding’s shame, Wright’s sympathy, and a country’s merciless “ridicule.” This group of poems provides us with a fascinating picture of the development of a brilliant, but still searching, young poet. To my sense of things, “Father,” “All the Beautiful Are Blameless,” and “President Harding’s Tomb in Ohio” best represent his already considerable strengths: his connective sympathy, his abiding sense of conscience, his rich and original lyrical voice, his command of and improvisations on formal methodology, and more. Yet in all of these poems, and throughout his career, James Wright was beset by so many tensions—between the neoclassical and Romantic impulses of his teachers and poetic models, between a formal dignity and a wild, open frankness, between the perils and obligations of citizenship and the obliterating otherness of solitude and of nature itself. Rather than succumb to these large pressures, even here in his early apprentice 99
poems, he insisted to make poetry from the sparks given off by their collision. And we are richer for it. As for reassessment: Wright once referred to himself as a third-rate lyric poet. Typically, his judgment is too humble but brutally exacting: “Whatever moon and rain may be, / The hearts of men are merciless.”
Irony and Ecstasy On Maxine Kumin and Gerald Stern*
One of the many continuums along which poetry can be drawn is described by the rhetorical modes of irony and ecstasy. If ecstasy is the single voice purified by the promise of transcendence or perfection, then irony derives more from secular interaction and engages worldly tensions. Yet perhaps the most frequent tone (and compromise) in contemporary American poetry is melancholy, the mortal voice of resignation or concession. We seem to be skeptics about the possibility of transcendence, but we also prefer an irony tinged with distant idealism. The rhetorical extremes point to each other. Maxine Kumin is, and for a long time has been, one of our most widely praised poets. Her tenth collection of poems, Looking for Luck, is representative of her accomplishment, style, and vision. She writes like a lot of poets these days; or, more likely, many try to write like her. Her poems are never qualified by anything less than maturity, grace, and sureness of touch. It’s as if her strong, good poems were found rather than composed. As if: a quiet irony. Altogether appropriate for an ars poetica is Kumin’s favorite figure of the horse, as companion and model. It took six or eight months before I could simply walk in and sit with him, but I needed that kind of trust. I kept him on a long rein to encourage him to stretch out his neck and back. I danced with him On Looking for Luck, by Maxine Kumin. W. W. Norton, and Bread Without Sugar, by Gerald Stern. W. W. Norton. *
over ten or fifteen acres of fields with a lot of flowing from one transition to another. What I’ve learned is how to take the indirect route. That final day I felt I could have cut the bridle off, he went so well on his own.
“Could have.” The conditional verb represents the gentle but ironic style of Kumin’s work. To be sure, transparence and ease are rhetorical schemes, as purposeful as any baroque or neoclassical pattern. Her technique descends from the New England plain style, the quieter side of the romantic impulse, whose designs are humility and reverence rather than ecstasy and rapture. Here in “Ars Poetica: A Found Poem,” Kumin confirms an aesthetic preference to be (or to seem) closer to simplicity than clutter. The important, subtle paradox of such ease is that it is the product of hard work, training, a “kind of trust.” It is then more illustrative than contradictory that quite a number of these poems show Kumin to be fairly self-conscious about her unself-consciousness. “Credo” finds Kumin’s speaker reciting a litany of aesthetic and personal values: “I believe in magic,” she writes here: “I believe in the rights / of animals to leap out of our skins.” A few lines later, other favorite tropes are announced. I believe in living on grateful terms with the earth, with the black crumbles of ancient manure that sift through my fingers when I topdress the garden for winter.
A romantic faith in the magical capacities of nature, a reverence for animals and myth, a stewardship of the earth—these are Kumin’s leitmotifs. A few pages later, in “Taking the Lambs to Market,” she reveals another aesthetic design. The character Amos, “who custom cuts and double wraps / in white butcher paper whatever we named, / fed, scratched behind the ears,” earns her praise for his ability to take “something living” and provide sustenance for his patrons, though they “deplore his profession.” He is, after all, “a decent man who blurs the line of sight / between our conscience and our appetite.” The brusque 102
honesty of his occupation elicits from Kumin more admiration than disgust, in part because she sees in his example her own imperative to render nourishment out of harsh necessity. Kumin is, by temperament, a naturalist. Her speaker is as conversant with the garden or barn as with human company. It’s not that Kumin avoids people in her poems; on the contrary, they clearly interest her—from the “chambermaids at the Marriott” to politicians and neighbors. But it is nature that evokes her most passionate, exact writing, and provides a significant model for her to instruct or explain people to us—not the other way around. She seems drawn to people out of responsibility and to nature out of desire. To me, her finest poems are those which ironize or fuse the relationship between the natural and the human, between the pastoral and the political. In “The Geographic Center,” for instance, a pair of pileated woodpeckers, “the Harpy-like great flappers,” are among the bestiary of visitants to the speaker’s winter yard where she and her husband have “put out 50 lbs. of birdseed . . . suet, sundry crusts and crumbs.” This obligation to nature becomes transfigured, several stanzas later, into “a 50 lb. pack” the husband carried during basic training in World War II; and the birdseed they leave out is echoed in “the seedy back way / out of a hotel dining room” where Bobby Kennedy was shot. The yard’s plentiful small dramas reiterate the political struggles of “[her] generation.” This excellent poem is typical of Kumin’s use of nature to provide the material impetus for a revelation about people, an equation she completes in the poem’s closing. We shoulder what this life has lots of, prisoners of hope as set in our own way as the woodpeckers whose bright red crests and red mustaches glint against the flourishing bittersweet we say we should but never will rip out.
Throughout the thirty-six poems of Looking for Luck, Kumin’s method is anecdotal and representative. She moves expertly between free verse and formal prosody. Her speaker is stable, instructive, experienced, and much more like a real person than 103
a construct of language. She works, in other words, fruitfully within the mainstream. Occasionally, despite her clear accomplishment, something in Kumin’s work leaves me wanting more. I suppose that what we call mannerly or serene in a person can seem, in a poem, safe or usual. I wish Kumin’s indignation, every now and then, were closer to anger, her affections more fiery, more obsessed. I wish she approached extremity, oddity, or disorder a touch more willingly. But perhaps that is too uncharacteristic of this fine poet whose use of the plain style seems like a matter of faith. Modesty is a trait she holds high. If Kumin values restraint, patience, and sanity, then Gerald Stern’s presiding impulses are openly declarative, enthusiastic, repetitive, and, yes, obsessive to the point of ecstasy. Perhaps no other recent American poet has made so many wonderful poems from so few devices. It’s as if he takes literally the opening lines of “Song of Myself”—“I celebrate myself, and sing myself . . .”—as his credo, his explanation, and his authenticating stamp. What a clown he can be, sometimes what a nut, and, remarkably often, what a wizard. With the possible exception of Robert Bly in a few short lyrics, no other recent American poet has attained the kind of rhetorical purity or momentum, the unabashed ecstasy, that Stern’s best poems maintain. Usually the pure ecstatic is just not an available American rhetoric; we’re far too double-minded, shaped (and bent) by the schizophrenic Puritans. But, as here in his brilliant Bread Without Sugar, Stern brings a kind of shamelessness, an Old World elan and directness, to contemporary poetry; he’s a seer and a singer during a time of carefulness and timidity. Perhaps his ability derives from his insistence to be, at least in part, from another time—admittedly, even gladly so. In “The Age of Strolling,” Stern begins with a typically self-referential fondness. I loved a certain period; I wore an overcoat that came down to my ankles. I carried a stick—a cane—I had that stiffness. Now, to this day, whenever I take a picture, I pose as if I were living then. 104
This simple self-portrait provides Stern a small but more than ample impetus to increase his rhetorical gesture, as if a twitch were becoming a wave. There was a way we ate then, there was a way we walked, we trundled, we rolled, the hips in a line with the shoulders; it was an age of strolling—who knows that word?—you lift one leg at a time, your toes are pointed out. . . .
Stern’s memory is not nostalgic, nor is his intimacy at all confessional. As momentum builds, so does the poem’s range increase. His original, small details become a buoyant stimulus, inspiring him toward an ever more grand, expansive embrace. For example, he turns to the figures of Job and Absalom in his developing question, “Where can wisdom be found?” He probes, explains, questions. He recounts the parables of the Philistine giants, of David and Bathsheba—then, three lines later, he shifts to an analysis of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. His rhetoric throughout Bread Without Sugar is just this sort of quickening stroll: “I have / to find the pre-Socratic, that is for me / what thought should be, I am a sucker still / for all of it to hang together,” he writes in “The Thought of Heaven.” What connects the many fragments is the speaker’s desire to reach wisdom; he knows that at the heart of experience reside mystery and secrecy. These are Stern’s favorite provisions for ecstasy. Reading Stern is like going jogging with an extrovert who’s been cooped up too long. He’s energetic, out of breath, excited, soulful, unapologetic, all at once. His power and charisma derive from the excesses or exaggerations of his method. Even his frequent lamentations provide the occasion for song. Where can he not go? What can this poet not imagine or say or do? . . . I will put my arm on the table, I will talk to Tintoretto, I will smear catawba blossoms on my cheeks, I will argue with Amos, I will walk away with my head in my hands, Dio- nysus again, the veins still struggling, 105
the heart still pumping away. I have to retreat to West Virginia, to North Carolina, my city in southern Mexico, my mountain in northern Greece.
As here in “Those Things,” his reach is vast. To be sure, his usual strength is his occasional weakness. His repetitious method can weary a skeptical reader, and his redundant self-references can seem tiresome or arrogant. He can be grand, lyrical, brilliant— and he can be silly. Oh well. This poet drives without brakes. It may be that he can better embrace the ecstatic if he occasionally wears the face of the clown beneath his sage’s cap. In fact, that may be the necessary irony underlying Stern’s poems. We’re shocked by someone who can transform the “grille of a Mercedes” into a dance; someone who speaks as easily with Porphyry and Alexander as with us; someone whose exuberant, dynamic affections seem naive, gullible. Stern knows we don’t believe him; he knows we’d sooner die than be caught agreeing or acting like him; so he barrels on ahead. And despite our original doubts and decorum, we find ourselves coming to belief precisely because he has already believed for us, because the nature and measure of his faith are profound (and because his writing is so good). “Two Daws,” “Aspiring to Music,” “The Bull-Roarer,” and the astonishing, long title poem are only some of this book’s works of magic. Stern’s pride, his self-deprecation, his “grieving and arguing” are born in his singular heart and yet (through alchemy? physics? prosody?) they become part of our representative history. I wish his book’s penultimate exclamation—ecstatic and doomed at once—would come true: “May the salt preserve me!”
Ted’s Box On Ted Kooser
1976. People were hanging bunting. People were planning bright parades and writing speeches and preparing for the spectacle of the bicentennial. It was early summer, early June, already scorching and dank with Missouri humidity, the world dripping green. I looked forward with real happiness to a summer on campus at Central Missouri State University, my soon-to-be alma mater, the home of the “fighting mules.” My minimum-wage job in the library had me sorting maps for the geography librarian, preserving rare nineteenth-century land plats, cataloguing everything. I like organizing things. I like maps. My father was a surveyor and then a mapmaker for the Missouri Highway Department, and he taught me both skills, at least their rudiments. I like working alone with paper and plans and blueprints and books. And that summer I had plans of my own, to write poems, nonstop. The library was a delicious place to work, since I could sneak away in long stretches or languish over lunch break in the rarely bothered shelves of the poetry section. Piling up books on a big wooden table, I’d read and write and daydream. I had grown up in central Missouri, mostly in Jefferson City, about ninety miles from campus, and the poetry I discovered that summer enlarged by immense proportions my sense of the world and of people and of possibility. How I loved Wallace Stevens. How exotic was his “Damned universal” language, chewy and sensual in the mouth. I loved to say “Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan / Of tan with henna hackles, halt!” and to feel and smell and hear the tropics in his languid meditations. Likewise, how moved I was by the restraint 107
and eerie majesty of Mark Strand, whose lines, “Wherever I am / I am what is missing,” were like spare keys to an enigmatic but wholly possible other world. And speaking of that other world: No other poet moved and sustained me like W. S. Merwin during those years. In 1977, in fact, I wrote my master’s thesis—still at CMSU—on Merwin’s books, The Carrier of Ladders and Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. The layering of mythologies and semiologies inside his stark, rhetorical purity amazed me. I wrote dozens of poems that could have masqueraded as thrown-away drafts of minor Merwin works, all unpunctuated and comically overpopulated by the famous wings and stones and bones of the deep-image school. The poems of Denise Levertov tutored me that summer as well. I loved her conscience, her footsteps, the accessibility of right living. I translated Follain. I parsed Hopkins. I unpacked the vocal gymnastics of Ashbery. And then I found a slender drab-covered book called Official Entry Blank. What could the University of Nebraska Press give me, I wondered, that Atheneum and New Directions and Knopf could not? When I found Ted Kooser, in essence, I found the poet next door. I found that poetry next door was not only possible but also plentiful. It was as if my uncle or a neighbor had suddenly sprouted laurels. I kept digging and found Ted Kooser chapbooks and small press books—from Solo Press, Windflower Press, Pentagram Press—and in them I unearthed a clarity and remarkable familiarity in the landscape and the language. For the first time I heard a real art crafted from the Midwestern idiom of my own tongue. The first few wounds are nearly invisible; a truck rumbles past in the dust and a .22 hole appears in the mailbox like a fly landing there.
These opening lines from one of Kooser’s early poems, “Shooting a Farmhouse,” are not remarkable for their dazzle or complexity but for their simple precision. I have read some critical accounts of contemporary poetry that argue that such clarity—such a plain style—is a necessary feature of Midwestern 108
aesthetics. The land is plain, the people are plain, so the poetry should be plain. It’s all more honest and wholesome that way. At least that’s the argument. I do not buy that argument as a blanket prescription, by the way. It seems easy, at best, and is potentially very condescending to the complexity of the people and their lives and the land. And it seems limiting to the vast capabilities of the art and imagination. But in Kooser’s particular case, the sparkling sharpness and selective turns of language aren’t merely plain; somehow they create a powerful, suggestive kinship in me. His is an art of miniature precision and clarity. Notice how quickly “Shooting a Farmhouse” commences, the attack already underway; the truck “rumbles” by; and then comes the surprising detail of the bullet hole in the mailbox. But the real magic is the fourth line. What a prudent line break Kooser gives us after “mailbox.” The subsequent simile feels perfect, and perfectly set up, arrived at. Why? First of all, the literal correspondence between a .22 hole and a fly is exact: the right size, the right shape (never exactly round), the right color (shadowy black). But the suggestive image also carries further resonance, the way one fly, then many flies, might congregate on a decaying organic body, gathering for the slow feast of decomposition. He’s able to suggest a long-reaching timeline of loss through this single minute detail. One of Kooser’s best skills is the creation of such images and metaphors. Poem after poem bears the rightness of both familiarity and surprise. In a poem from his later book, Delights & Shadows, Kooser depicts the simple act of “The Necktie.” His hands fluttered like birds, each with a fancy silk ribbon to weave into their nest, as he stood at the mirror dressing for work, waving hello to himself with both hands.
One sentence, six lines, a single conceit. The two hands (or birds) are adorning their neck (nest) with ribbon. So simple, and yet the man’s reflection gives him back a complex image. He seems a little proud of his fancy display, a little comical, and 109
a little lonely, waving to himself with both hands. He’s caught himself there, revealed. A few years ago at dinner, my friend, the poet Linda Gregerson, described coming to Kooser’s poems only recently. What she admired most was their “yield.” She meant, as she described it, that despite their brevity and apparently simplicity, his best poems provide a significant gift. But she meant something else, too. The poems embody and enact a kind of generous patience. They await, they hold still, and then they yield, in order for the world to be revealed or the subject to be fully illuminated. That’s precisely right. Kooser’s poems work through illumination more than transfiguration. To see the thing being seen: that is his goal. And to see the thing being seen, we must see its counterpart—its metaphoric other—as precisely this: a representation or likeness of the thing itself. Look at these parts of other Kooser poems, to see what I mean about rightness. The cat has fallen asleep, the dull book of a dead moth loose in his paws. (from “Sitting All Evening Alone in the Kitchen”) There’s a click like a piece of chalk tapping a blackboard, and the furnace starts thinking: Now, just where was I? It’s always the same stale thought turned over and over. . . .
And in “Snakeskin,” the subject at hand is at once “a dusty tunnel echoing / with light,” “a glove of lace,” and “a long train / cross[ing] a border.” And now it holds only a “ghost of a wind.” How rich, appropriate, and illuminating are these figures. This is something I was thinking about, marveling over, again last summer during another Kooser reading spree. I read poets this way—in devoted slices for a few days or nights—back and back again. I spent three intense evenings with Kooser, and then I wanted to try my hand at a poem like his. I wanted the stanza, the clarity, the less selfish rendering of a simple object. I wanted a tight, lean poem with no sustained narrative, but rather an 110
image-driven poem, in short lines. Nowhere to hide. Mostly I wanted to try to capture the precision of his variety of metaphor. So I wrote “My Father’s Tacklebox.” Its hinges creak and the box gapes open, revealing two straight rows of lures, bobbers, stringers, and hooks still sorted by size—two rows, like a mouthful of teeth, beneath which lies his hunting knife thick as a tongue and furred with rust, but it’s not talking.
It took me several days and drafts of tinkering to manage the lines and details and concision. But writing the poem was one thing. Then I did something else: I sent it to Kooser. We had not yet met though we had exchanged a few letters over the years. I wrote this time, in my letter, some words about his just-released Delights & Shadows, and I included my poem as a friendly tribute or thank-you. When Kooser’s reply arrived a couple of weeks later—he had not yet been named poet laureate—I was surprised and happy to hear from him. He was glad, he reported, that I had found and enjoyed his new book, and was pleased to see my poem. But then he did something more generous than that. In the kindest way, he let me know that I had not got the ending right, not quite. Or, rather, while my ending was just fine, there might be a better way to configure the details. With the simple flick of a line, he suggested, look at the way the poem might more effectively conclude. Its hinges creak and the box gapes open, revealing two straight rows of lures, bobbers, stringers, 111
and hooks still sorted by size—two rows, like a mouthful of teeth, beneath which lies his hunting knife furred with rust and thick as a tongue, but it’s not talking.
If one of Kooser’s special skills is the handling of image and metaphor, then another is his sense of endings. Dozens of his poems amaze me for their closures, captures, illuminations, the box clicking shut. Here is what Kooser sensed that I did not. So much of the effect depends on arriving at the last line. This is the secret of many of his own poems, as I said; and here, the suggestion that the tacklebox is rather like a head—a skull, mute but still full of teeth—is most evident in the last line, where it isn’t “talking.” In my earlier version, though, I had not attended fully enough to the context and syntax of these finishing details. First, the knife must be rusted, then the rust will thicken, and then the simile should come—of the tongue, of speech. Kooser’s order of things, and not my first version, understands and clarifies this procedure. It arrives more fully this way. It makes a more complete, a more revealed, sense. That’s why he was right. But I’d like to make one final adjustment to the poem. I wish to change its title from “My Father’s Tacklebox” to “His Tacklebox.” I’d be pleased if Mr. Kooser shared this little box with my father. They’d like each other, I believe.
Provision and Perfection Stanley Plumly’s Poetry*
The dream of the lyric poem—its perfect incarnation—is pure music, a single tone struck in an instant and held. It desires to stop time or step out of time, to hold static the instant of song. It desires to permit us—the poet, the persona, the character, even the reader—to step out of the body. This is of course neither desirable nor possible. But poetry operates with a memory of this romantic ideal always nearby. Such is the grief and irony of the poem: the poetic ideal is susceptible to the provisional, the changing, the never held still. The desire to be out of body is a bodily desire. Lyric poets have always known this. Such a paradox describes the basic precept behind the best work of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, John Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In our day the problem has continued to vex and invigorate the work of many of our most important poets, like W. S. Merwin, Louise Glück, John Ashbery, and Charles Wright. In Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me, Stanley Plumly readdresses the romantic paradox with sustained and passionate attention. To my mind, Plumly’s poetry is among the finest American lyric poetry to be published during the last four decades. His phrasing, his style—highly musical, intense, memorable—are impossible to misidentify among the tin-toned, prosaic lines that congest our literary journals. In “The Art of Poetry,” a poem midway through the present volume, Plumly articulates the paradox that drives his own romantic and lyric impulse. On Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems, 1970– 2000. By Stanley Plumly. New York: Ecco Press, 2000. *
There is so much silence in a childhood everything is sound, everything else an octave kicked above it, the subject whatever in the moment comes to mind, earth, air, fire, conversion of the water, the half-face in the half-dark of the glass: beyond which snow is falling, summer rain, or the last weightless color from the leaves.
The elemental images here create a primordial scene where out of silence come the first incursions of song and, only subsequently, of “subject.” The timelessness of his generative moment hovers in a “moment’s” thought but also lasts for whole seasons. In the space of one sentence, Plumly travels from origins to lastness, childhood to death, providing an instance of the fundamental lyric paradox—what theorists of the sublime call time-no-time. Since the appearance of his first poems in the late 1960s, Plumly has been faithful to his romantic subjects, his distinctive style, and his charged landscapes. Readers will find few seams in Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me, and few, if any, ruptures in the sustained tones and intensities of Plumly’s lifework to date. This is not to say he hasn’t evolved. Rather, Plumly’s growth has been subtle instead of momentous. From his syntax to the structure of this book, his is an art of continuity and coherence. In Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me—which combines seventy-three poems from his six previous collections and adds fifteen new pieces—Plumly has arranged his work in reverse chronological order and opted not to divide the poems according to their original volumes of publication. Like his best poems then, the book is severe, selective, and remarkably of a piece. Severe indeed. From his first two books, In the Outer Dark (1970) and Giraffe (1974), Plumly has retained only two poems, “Giraffe” and “Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me,” the poem that concludes the present book. This last poem is an elegy, while “Giraffe” is a naturalist study. These rhetorical modes will abide with Plumly throughout his career, becoming his two dominant lyric impulses. With the publication of Out-of-the-Body 114
Travel in 1976, however, Plumly deepens his primary subjects and also more fully refines his style. Out-of-the-Body Travel established Plumly’s early career, justly so. Many of the dramatic scenes in these poems recur throughout the rest of his work. In “The Iron Lung” we encounter the figure of the drunken father who “falls / to the porch on his knees like one of his children.” The father is variously dangerous, damaged, tender, and always active. Here he “[lifts] me into the ambulance / among the faces of my family.” The speaker’s early bout with polio provides the local circumstance of this poem. As throughout his later work, Plumly seems fascinated by the body’s vulnerability, its wounded beauty. He knows and fears his own inheritance: “I’m wearing my father’s body.” Also in this poem we encounter the mother, as she often is, framed in a doorway, as between one life and another. “I remember my mother standing in a doorway / trying to tell me something,” he recalls, while only three lines later he is “dreaming of my mother in a doorway / telling my father to die or go away.” She is a victim of the father’s drunkenness, more often static, while the father is on the move. But she is a protector, too, a figure of stability or endurance. If “breath is passed / from father to son,” then the more substantial body is the mother’s province. She provides identity while the father supplies a legacy. In “Out- of-the-Body Travel,” the father’s legacy is doubled. Even as he is capable of beautiful music, playing the violin “until a whole roomful of the sad / relatives mourned,” and he is also capable of great pain. With the same hand that he draws the bow, he “brings the hammer / down, like mercy, so that the young bull’s / legs suddenly fly out from under it. . . .” This is also the hand that Plumly imagines “coming down hard . . . on my forehead.” In “Say Summer / For My Mother,” by contrast, Plumly sees in the mother not pain but patience. She is the giver of names, of identities: “Ruth and Mary and Esther, names in a book.” She is, as he writes, the body’s “witness.” Also from this early volume Plumly has reprinted “For Esther.” This important sequential poem appears in numbered sections—a formal design to which Plumly will frequently and fruitfully return—and extends his public or historical side. A more sustained narrative, “For Esther,” fuses a memory of then- 115
president Truman, who makes a railroad whistle-stop in town, with a series of other childhood memories involving trains. But the style itself marks this poem’s brilliance. Here is the first section: From the back it looks like a porch, portable, the filigree railing French. And Truman, Bess and the girl each come out waving, in short sleeves, because the heat is worse than Washington. The day is twelve hours old, Truman is talking. You tell me to pay attention, so I have my ball- cap in my hands when he gets to the part that the sun is suicidal, his dry voice barely audible above the train. It makes a noise like steam. He says, he says, he says. His glasses silver in the sun. He says there is never enough, and leans down to us.
The war with Japan must be in its last days. Though it is noon, the rising sun is suicidal. Strict rationing has taken its toll. Plumly balances a child’s oblivious impatience (“He says, he says, he says,” like the train’s hiss) with an adult’s precise powers of description, as in the intricate first two lines. The tight alliteration throughout these lines becomes a kind of instruction as well, for we see, despite the uneven lines, indentations, and frequent stanzas, that this section (like the four to follow) is a rhymed sonnet. Hidden rhyme, the flexible sonnet, a dramatic narrative within the lyric mode—these are tactics that Plumly will continue to employ. In his next two books, Plumly more fully enlarges his romantic aesthetic. The figures of the mother and father have provid116
ed, to this point, much of the ironic tension—inevitable movement versus stability; danger versus coherence—but in Summer Celestial (1983) and Boy on the Step (1989), Plumly increases his field of vision to include lovers, artists and writers, city-dwellers, war veterans, foundry workers, and more. Here his powers of natural description reach their mature forms, too. Few contemporary poets can match Plumly’s meticulous renderings of birds, trees, grasses, flowers—whether from a field in Ohio or a city garden. In a single sentence he can render a splendid image and turn that image into an action, a landscape, or a memory, as in “Analogies of the Leaf.” When the wind blows back against the leaves they turn a kind of silver, like fish, we said as kids, and rubbed them raw to watch the flash and glitter come off clean in our soiled hands.
Nature in Plumly’s poems is named, identified, savored by each of the senses: “And everywhere the smell of sanicle / and tansy, the taste / of the judas elder, and somewhere / the weaver thrush that here they call mistle, / as in evergreen, because of the berries,” he writes in “Hedgerows.” Even when he doesn’t know the names of things that grow, he knows their uses, as in “Tree Ferns”: “So we’d start with pocketknives, cutting and whittling them down / from willow, palm, or any other name. / They were what they looked like. Horsewhip, whipweed. / They could lay on a fine welt if you wanted.” Plumly’s strongest poems from this period frequently blend his natural and pastoral descriptions with more dramatic human narratives, as he learns to combine in single poems his two dominant impulses. Where a simple pastoral descriptive might turn static or sentimental, where an active narrative might seem merely reportorial, Plumly now is capable of amazing associations or connections. In the beautiful “In Passing,” he both ironizes and informs the intimate relationship of two lovers by their visit to the tourist setting of Niagara Falls. On the Canadian side, we’re standing far enough away the Falls look like photography, the roar a radio.
In the real rain, so vertical it fuses with the air, the boat below us is starting for the caves. Everyone deck is dressed in black, braced for weather and crossing against the current of the river. They seem lost in the gorge dimensions of the place, then, in fog, in a moment, gone.
Plumly’s leaps of association become numerous and transformative. From the hazy landscape of Niagara, he moves to an allusion to Chekhov, where “the lovers live in a cloud, above the sheer witness of a valley,” and from here to an even larger, more grave abstraction: “Death is a power like any other pull of the earth.” The lovers’ passion is large, as unwieldy and strange a thing as the massive perspective of the falls. Plumly leads the poem toward its conclusion by directly revealing his associative strategy: “There is almost nothing that does not signal loneliness, / then loveliness, then something connecting all we will become.” The shift of a single letter (n to v) denotes the intimate correlation between one passion (loneliness) and another (loveliness), as between the human passengers and the sublime natural scene, and as between the lovers themselves. In the 1990s Plumly’s poetry assumes an even fuller range of subjects and tones. His 1996 volume, The Marriage in the Trees, is his longest, most varied book, represented here by thirty poems. Together with the fifteen new poems, these thirty account for half the pages of Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me. Plumly’s mature work contains more people, covers more time, embodies more formal variety, and speaks in more various tones than ever. The rural Ohio landscapes give way to the subways and street corners of Washington DC, where Plumly has lived for nearly fifteen years. His intense isolation evolves into curiosity and a surprising sense of community—from the anonymous woman “on twenty-second eating berries,” with whose lonely, bird-like gestures the speaker sympathizes, to neighbors fighting stray dogs, two blind people led by a boy onto the subway, street musicians, paramedics, and more. The intimate power
of his parents in the first books has clearly diminished, as has the private passion for the lover from the middle books. Plumly seems more connected to the outer world, more receptive than ever. Plumly’s voice has grown spacious, too. To offset his typically sober tones, he is capable of a more playful, Smart-like wit, as in the opening lines of “Panegyric for Gee.” The anachronistic face of the bulldog, the anachronistic, Churchillian face of the bulldog, the anachronistic, Churchillian, gargoylean face of the bulldog, the anachronistic, Churchillian, gargoylean, Quasimodian face of the bulldog, whose ears are silk purses, whose eyes, like a bullfrog’s, enlarge. . . .
In “Alms,” his affection mixes with a gentle knowingness. The woman in my building who skips each perpendicular is a water bug, weightless in her ability to lift and fall lightly, ever afraid she’ll break her mother’s back, though if the reading of faces has any value she has.
In “Nobody Sleeps,” his fine study of insomnia, Plumly exercises a clinical precision. And the third [theory] says that because the afferent impulses of the neurons are contractile with the dendritic process of the cells any interruption over time isolates the cortex from external stimuli and as interruptions peak in sync with dark the brain wants to lie all night by fire.
Yet his descriptive power for all things natural persists as well, marked here by great lyrical precision in the sonnet “In Answer to Amy’s Question What’s a Pickerel.”
Pickerel have infinite, small bones, and skins of glass and black ground glass, and though small for pike are no less wall-eyed and their eyes like bone. Are fierce for their size, and when they flare at the surface resemble drowning birds, the wing-slick panic of birds. . . .
For all the people, things, and actions in his recent poems, however, we encounter even more losses. Plumly remains primarily a poet of two dominant modes. He is a naturalist and an elegiac poet. His powerful memorials include poems to Keats and Whitman, as well as to the contemporary poet William Matthews. Several of Plumly’s finest poems trace the last days of Keats—”Keats in Burns Country,” “Posthumous Keats,” and “Constable’s Clouds for Keats.” Here Plumly strikes his most autumnal and aggrieved tones: “Yet dead Keats is amorphous, a shapelessness / re-forming in the ground, and no one you know enough / to remember.” In his recent elegies for Matthews, who died in 1997 of a heart attack while bathing, Plumly’s sadness is even more tangible. “November 11, 1942-November 12, 1997” documents the belated knowledge of the survivor. The speaker imagines “[his] friend’s body walking toward [him] / down the Pullman passage of his hallway,” but realizes that the vision is postmortem. The friend is beyond touching. Now I realize that for the longest time I’ve been waiting for him, and that he’s expecting it, the way silence sometimes promises. Then suddenly he’s in front of me, and I can see how damp he is, how anointed with oil. . . .
As I have asserted throughout, Plumly’s poetry evolves directly out of the nineteenth-century romantic tradition. His lyric strengths are metaphysical rather than argumentative; he would rather sing than speculate, preferring to focus on heightened memories or moments of revelation than on sustained historical or political interrogations. Debility and isolation often mark his characters. In turn, their altered conditions provide them with unique or special perceptions: “In dreams they were everywhere 120
hurt / whose faces were always coming into focus / like a feeling never before realized,” he writes in “Men Working on Wings.” As in “Fountain Park,” his pastoral landscapes seem charged with the sublime beauty of a nearly otherworldly aspect: “At a hundred feet or more the maples / and the oaks are another architecture / building on this life the gold leaf of the next.” In these ways Plumly is a descendent of Whitman and Keats, Whistler and Constable, who figure in several of his finest portrait poems. But if he is romantic, he is a latter-day variety of romantic. Much of Plumly’s work, especially his more recent work, investigates ways by which the romantic and the postmodern may be, if cautiously, united. He creates natural scenes— sometimes nostalgic, sometimes modernized—but never offers those scenes, as Emerson wrote, as “natural facts.” That is to say, nature for Plumly is suggestive, not symbolic; it is not the static figure of a spiritual fact. Plumly isn’t interested in the sacred or the transcendental. He’s too agitated or anxious for that. Even the “next life” intimated in the previous lines from “Fountain Park” is more a trope, an intricate figure for a poem, than an actual hope or promise of rebirth. Where Whitman is rhetorically certain, where Keats is odic and static, Plumly is subtly dramatic and fluid. Plumly’s syntax serves as a concrete illustration of his latter- day anxiety. Plumly’s favored sentence structures are sustained and intricate. From the top of the hill it’s Saturday, empty, early in the evening, in season, the sun in detail now, a kind of tone, a kind of candlepower the wind could easily blow out, the way it kindles the dry leaves in the bowls of the fountains. . . .
This part of a longer sentence from “Fountain Park” appears as a simple description of a park on an autumn day, but the halting, heavily punctuated movement produces tangible anxiety, like the breath of the wind rising and falling in the raspy leaves. The vague “it” in line one announces a number of further grammatical ambiguities or variations. Though they are in parallel 121
construction, “Saturday,” “empty,” and “early” are not parallel items; one is a proper noun, two are adjectives. The zeugma— one of Plumly’s favorite and most rewarding figures—here produces a fluid, if uneasy, beauty. The apprehension continues as Plumly varies the prepositional “in” phrases. The time is early “in” the evening. But is it also early “in” the season, or is the setting merely seasonable? Both possibilities echo. A third “in” phrase modifies the setting sun, though Plumly deepens this description by referring to sensations of sound (“tone”) and touch (“the wind”) as well as sight. The rich alliterative qualities deepen the passage and further slow its luxurious pace. Throughout his poetry Plumly exercises such effects. Within a single sentence, a detail, an action, a scene may shift or evolve. In the previous passage from “Fountain Park,” notice how carefully Plumly orchestrates the progressive clarity of the scene, from hazy to precise. A passage, even a whole poem, is never a sufficient articulation of its subject. Plumly’s obsessive recurrences (of narratives, syntactical structures, and landscapes) all operate in direct relation to his heightened sense of the provisional. His poems rehearse and repeat—not to make things steady or permanent, but to represent a moment (or an entire history) in its subtle or dramatic fluidity. Repetition is an aspect of music and a means of memory. It is also a manifestation of anxiety. Plumly’s formal strategies are powerful instruction. He writes in traditional forms (varieties of sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, ghazals) as well as in prose poems and self-invented stanzaic patterns, in spacious free verse as well as in rigorous syllabics. In fact, Plumly’s many masterful syllabic poems offer workshops in technical finesse. Notice in these lines from “The Art of Poetry” how his balanced syllabics operate in productive tension with his uneven accents. Bum’s ears, burned black, blackhead-encrusted, rubbed pustules: but sometimes the blood, like a nose- bleed, cleanses, runs down the neck, like drink, or back down the auditory canal, past the ossicles, and, if it’s bad enough on through the Eustachian, underground, to pool in the throat. . . . 122
He creates a powerful dissonance among the ten-syllable lines, the alternately neat and apprehensive line breaks, and the fluctuating accents (here, ranging from as many as seven or eight beats in line one to as few as three or four). Plumly’s got an incredible ear, as musicians say. He can sing a Burns-like air, full of plain melancholy; he can weave an intricate, baroque conceit; he can sustain a continuous (or longer-than-expected) phrase with the charm and idiom of Appalachian folk music. Stanley Plumly’s Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me is a vital book by one of our most important and gifted lyric poets. His poems hold many so extremes at once: the father and the mother, isolation and social membership, balance and ruin, an instant’s out-of-body revelation and the inevitable procedures of time. But the fundamental, generative tension in his work derives from the argument—the contest—between a vision of the perfect and the naturally provisional status of language, memory, and art. He carries a romantic’s memory in a realist’s body. So the book’s first poem, “Grievers,” confirms. In the parable, like the dream, you’re all the characters, though come the day, in real life, you must choose.
Brutal Mercy On Norman Dubie*
He’s back. More than a decade has passed since the publication of Norman Dubie’s last book of poems, Radio Sky. The long silence has been eerie, since Dubie’s previous books came so quickly in procession. The Alehouse Sonnets, his first full-length volume, appeared in 1971. By 1991 he had published ten full- length collections and six limited editions or chapbooks; his Selected and New Poems appeared in 1983 when Dubie was only thirty-eight. During the 1970s and ‘80s Norman Dubie’s distinctive work seemed to be everywhere, widely read and often honored. Not one of those collections is in print today. The Mercy Seat is therefore not only an exciting but also a much- needed volume, collecting more than three decades of the best work by a highly original poet. The 153 poems of the book’s first section, “Poems 1967–1990,” provide a full representation of his early work. Part 2, “Poems 1991–2001,” demonstrates that though he’s been silent for the past decade, he hasn’t been still. A hundred pages of new work—twenty-one poems—accompany the 200 pages of prior work. There’s nobody quite like Norman Dubie. Although David Bromwich identifies a dominant rhetoric of “personalism” in contemporary poetry, which produces a “kind of failure to imagine or write outside oneself,” one need look no farther than Dubie to find a worthy antidote to Bromwich’s apt charge. The Mercy Seat reads like an encyclopedia of historical events and On The Mercy Seat: Collected & New Poems 1967-2001. By Norman Dubie. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2001 *
personages, and Dubie’s ability to re-create or imagine other lives is not only manifestly unselfish but uncanny. In an early poem, “February: The Boy Brueghel,” Dubie employs one of his frequent tactics, the recreation of a dramatic vignette in the life of a famous artist, writer, or historical figure. The poem is set in a rural winter landscape, but Dubie quickly ironizes the pastoral scene with the suggestion of political and economic strife: “The birches stand in their beggar’s row: / Each poor tree / Has had its wrists nearly / Torn from the clear sleeves of bone. . . .” Then “through the snow / Down a hill” runs a fox, and the narrator (not the young Brueghel, but someone highly sympathetic to him) grows fascinated by the action of the fox, chasing and killing a white rabbit. He is even more taken by the striking juxtaposition of the colors themselves. . . . the blood on the snow Looks like the red fox, At a distance, running down the hill: A white rabbit in his mouth killed By the fox in snow Is killed over and over as just Two colors, now, on a winter hill: Two colors! Red and white.
If Dubie’s poem is spare, the landscape hushed and “everything still,” the charged scene nonetheless suggests an excited, creative mind at its point of inspiration. Each detail seems appropriately colored to reenact the poem’s crisis—from the blood and soap of a “barber’s bowl” to “Two colors like the peppers / In the windows / Of the town below the hill.” To the young artist, the vivid colors themselves are capable of drama, equal both to the beggar’s agony and the animals’ life-and-death example. The brutality of the moment—the overlapping pain and beauty of things—becomes as inevitable as the artist’s compulsion to create: “Just two colors! / A sunrise. The snow.” Dubie resists the normative confessionalism of our time, yet he does not subscribe to the other dominant poetic of the day, 125
the post-structural approach, which (to my mind) often devolves into mere experiment. Dubie is not as interested in rejecting the Romantic lyric as enlarging its stances. The selves here may be multiple but they are coherent, as are his well-ordered free-verse forms and his syntax. He prefers historical adventure rather than technical experiment or philosophical speculation. Poem after poem demonstrates Dubie’s hunger for drama. We find the czars and queens of Europe; Coleridge as he crosses the Plain of Jars; elegies for poets Larry Levis, Richard Hugo, and an unnamed “race car driver.” In “The Apocrypha of Jacques Derrida,” both Napoleon Bonaparte and Macbeth appear. And in “Elizabeth’s War with the Christmas Bear,” we see the powerful if “balding” queen entertained by a baited bear, its nostrils “blown full with pepper” and assaulted by starved “Irish wolf dogs.” In an astonishing scene, the bear, brutalized by the dogs and by volleys “of arrows and poles,” rises, “grin[s] into her battered eggshell face,” and sprays blood “all over Elizabeth and her Privy Council.” From here Dubie complicates Elizabeth’s response: While she demands the death of several more bears and 113 dogs in retribution, she later places at her bedside the bear’s skeleton, “cleared with lye,” and burns a candle inside its skull. For the poem’s ending, Dubie shifts the point of view fully into Elizabeth’s own. Her final recurring dream shows the poet at his most surprising and connective. Now, you’ll stand by my bed in your long white bones; alone, you Will frighten away at night all visions of bear, and all day You will be in this cold room—your constant grin, You’ll stand in the long, white prodigy of your bones, and you are, Every inch of you, a terrible vision, not bear, but virgin!
If he is distinctly unselfish, as I asserted earlier, still Dubie is not unself-revealing. The Breughel and Elizabeth poems serve as examples of his compulsion for drama, for narrative scenes at a critical moment of a character’s understanding. These crises may be brutal, war-like, or they may be subtle crises of vision and 126
discernment. It is impossible to tell sometimes whether his vignettes are historically actual or products of his invention; either way, Dubie tirelessly pursues dramatic scenes where image becomes action, where emotions run raw, and where epiphanies— those sudden shocks of revelation or understanding—are commonplace. Dubie’s poems are parables of the act of discovery, and part of the thrill of his work derives from the intensity and accuracy, and sometimes the strangeness, of these discoveries. Such traits and trademarks continue without much deviation into Dubie’s latest work. From Croatia and Mongolia to the Land of Ur, from a fifteenth-century Zen master to Philo of Alexandria, these twenty-one new poems demonstrate Dubie’s continuing range and curiosity. Among the most striking are “The Mercy Seat,” “At the Death of a Mongolian Peasant,” “The Reader of Sentences,” “Elegy for my Brother,” and “The Photographer’s Annual.” These last two poems carry Dubie into more personal material where his brother, sister, wife, and children take their places alongside Matisse and El Greco. Another poem, “A Genesis Text for Larry Levis, Who Died Alone,” likewise recounts a personal narrative. Here Dubie recalls his poet-friend’s twenty-eighth birthday party, when a group of male writers visited a “strip-joint stuck in the cornfields / of Coralville, Iowa.” But in this case the poem struggles to muster a sufficient dramatic urgency beyond its contented drunkenness and fellow- feeling, and Dubie’s uncharacteristic dependence on clichés mars the ending. He may keep his promise (“I said / The elegy I would write for you would be riddled with clichés!”), but even his winking self-admission cannot enliven the following lines. Now you are dead. Surely, Larry, we’ve always Thought that the good should die young. And life is a bitch, man. But where was that woman and her snake when we needed them?
The longest and strangest of his new poems is “The Clouds of Magellan (Aphorisms of Mr. Canon Aspirin).” A combination of daybook and prose poem, this thirty-seven-page text is a catalogue of sentences, narratives, and ideas gleaned from Derrida 127
to Lyndon Johnson, Oedipus Rex to Stalin. Mr. Canon Aspirin must be Dubie’s doppelgänger, who offers his own aphorisms throughout (“Work with young writers—never for them”). As a further glimpse into Dubie’s imagination, the poem reconfirms his compulsion to trace (and invent!) the examples of writers, mystics, artists, and political leaders throughout history. It is full of brilliant flashes (“Dante’s love for lunatic geometries was an expression of human sorrow over the loss of its original sexuality.”) and of interesting tidbits (“Godel died in a Princeton hospital refusing all sustenance out of a fear that his physicians and attendants were trying to poison him.”). But its shortest entry is also its most penetrating and, regarding Dubie’s aesthetic, its most revealing: “Every muse is a brute.” Creative anxiety, political brutality, nature’s dramatic struggles—these are Dubie’s fundamental paradigms. In “The Reader of the Sentences,” one of his finest poems to date, he investigates the collision of brutality and intimacy through the example of Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century German mystic. In this poem every intimate possibility—sleep, sex, the sensual perceptions of nature and of reading—is undermined by the horrors of latter-day brutality. The thin Nazi with white hair kicks a table out from under three partisans—their skirts gone bald in a strong sunlight. Eckhart, this man’s eyes were once plumb with the sparkling waters of the Rhine, now running just the poor charcoal ink of later chapters—
Horrific scenes of the war juxtapose with the serene example of Eckhart, as Dubie animates his assertion that “all intimacy begins in detail.” How, he asks, can grace and murder coexist? Dubie’s ability here to overlap historical moments, like a photographic multiple exposure, produces a haunting vision where evil and innocence wear the same face. For Dubie, such is the central paradox of human nature. Norman Dubie is one of America’s essential and most inno-
vative poets. With its restoration of so many out-of-print poems and its addition of twenty-one new works, The Mercy Seat is one this year’s most significant publications. Dubie’s dramatic poetry seeks to represent our deepest moments of perception, struggle, and revelation. Out of his voice come the voices of multitudes. Yet his achievement and vision are singular.
Signs from My Fathers The Evolution of David Bottoms
David Bottoms is one of the most recognizable—and recognizably narrative—poets working today, employing many of the traditional storytelling tactics fundamental to southern poetry. In his work we encounter real people as they undertake dramatic events, often in eccentric detail, through narrators with a penchant for the pleasures of folktale and an ear for colloquial diction. Since his 1980 volume, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, Bottoms has measured the dimensions, at once personal and collective, of the oral and performative traditions. In “The Drunk Hunter,” from this acclaimed first book, the speaker’s own account of a stumbling and doomed huntsman is picked up and extended by the wider narrative of the group: “In two or three days, / they will tell what found him in the deeper woods.” For Bottoms, the telling of tales is itself a delightful task. Just so, I have been delighted by his work from the beginning—from his catfish and gators, his diverse cast of farmers, bluegrass pickers, boatmen, and neighbors—and grateful for his regional devotion. But I have also been fascinated by the subtle yet central evolution from his early to his more recent work, as he has shifted some of the fundamental components of the stories he tells. I shall look at this development by examining Bottoms’s second book, In a U-Haul North of Damascus (1983), alongside his fifth, Vagrant Grace (1999). The region staked out in Bottoms’s poems is located persistently in the Deep South, from the swamps of his first work to the suburbs of his recent. With In a U-Haul North of Damascus, he presents a physical and emotional travelogue down the back roads, across the black waters of Florida and Georgia. Like near130
ly all the poems of his first collection, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, about half of these poems are short, sharp, dramatic excursions. Arms finned-out across the water, he floated face down in the crotch of a fallen oak . . . Then I drew the boat closer, watched the slack of his blue jeans roll in my wake, his head nod gently against the thick oak branch, long hair tangled in the branch-twigs. I eased the paddle out and touched his heel. He didn’t turn or move, only gazed straight down into the deepest part of the Etowah as though fascinated by something I couldn’t see. (from “The Drowning”)
In his shorter poems Bottoms combines a hard, clear lyric voice, a typically long line, and an ability to turn a brief incident, characterization, or observation into a type of representative statement. Since even his shortest poems demonstrate this ambition, Bottoms’s technique, while rewarding, is risky—the poems can seem too meaningful in their need to summarize, to draw idea from action and incident. Occasionally through this book Bottoms does seem to strain for the connections his poems desire. One such moment is found in “Hiking toward Laughing Gull Point.” Once I saw a gull catch a bait in midair. Climbing until the slack ran out, it snapped back like a white feather on the end of a whip and fell into the sea. We’ve all swallowed a line or two, a real estate deal, some bad investment of faith . . .
Here, as occasionally in his early work, Bottoms tries too hard and too directly to establish and extend his metaphor by a kind of rhetorical overdetermination. Usually his control is less directive and more subtle. Indeed, at their best, his poems are charac131
terized by sure, effective technical control: a rough though purposefully understated tone; an inclination to reveal rather than interpret; an eye for the crucial image yet an ear for what Whitman termed the “common language of the people”; irregular, even jagged-lined stanzas that yield precise, smooth sentences. In “A Home Buyer Watches the Moon” we find these strengths enacted in a poem that shows Bottoms stepping, for a moment, farther away from the primordial toward a more settled or civilized scene. The rich irony here is that this very settlement produces a tangible anxiety, unsettling the speaker’s spirit. The whole neighborhood is quiet. The architect who lives across the street is now the architect of dreams, his cedar split-level still as a crypt on the landscaped hill. In the brick ranch house the city planner turns another spadeful of dirt, a groundbreaking for his own monument. And I, who can no longer afford to live in my two-story, have come out into the street to stare past the mailboxes at an abrupt dead end. Quietly now the bats jerk in and out of the streetlight, their shadows zipping across the grass like black snakes. And the moon lies balanced on the roof of my house like a new gold coin, or the simple face of an angel in a colonial cemetery.
As the neighbors fall into sleep, their occupations continue to haunt their dream lives. The architect’s creation is now his crypt, the city planner’s proud construction becomes his “monument”—more tombstone than public testimonial—and the “dead end” street seems a darkening of prospects for the speaker himself, no longer able to afford his own home. At this moment of imagined dying, the old world emerges once more, coming into visible life in the form of animals under the abiding light of the moon. Above and below, in the air where bats
fly and in the grass where snakes zip, Bottoms compares the transience and folly of the human world with its commerce and constructions to the enduring, primitive nature his early work so often reveres. It’s a moment of quiet comparison: Even the moon is “balanced” for an instant on the fulcrum of the speaker’s roof—no accident its monetary gold light, no accident its illuminative visage like an angelic reminder on an ancient tomb. Bottoms has yet to depict fully the existential doubt of his own scene, yet his unease is palpable as he searches for a place, a home, where the complexity of the human condition may find full expression. Like many other young southern white male poets of the time, Bottoms draws on the powerful work of poets like Robert Penn Warren, James Seay, and James Dickey. In fact, Dickey stands as the primary forebear and influence of these poems, as he was the fundamental guiding force in the early work of such poets as Dave Smith, Rodney Jones, and T. R. Hummer. Bottoms learns particularly from Dickey’s sense of raw naturalism, his dramatic (and eventually melodramatic) rhetoric, and his sense of the world that pits one man against the perilous, often ferocious, forces of nature. This impulse embodies something akin to a hunter’s isolation and a warrior’s power. In his best work— that is, before 1970—Dickey’s sense of danger leads him to discoveries of sublime beauty, where nature threatens but also potentially provides a primitive, almost primordial transcendence, and thus a recasting of identity. When the rattlesnake bit, I lay In a dream of the country, and dreamed Day after day of the river, Where I sat with a jackknife and quickly Opened my soul to the water. Blood shed for the sake of one’s life Takes on the hid shape of the channel, Disappearing under logs and through boulders. The freezing river poured on
And, as it took hold of my blood, Leapt up round the rocks and boiled over. I felt that my heart’s blood could flow Unendingly out of the mountain . . . (from “The Poisoned Man”)
Dickey’s rattlesnake becomes, for Bottoms, an equally poisonous snake. “The Copperhead” (appearing in U-Haul in a slight revision from its appearance in Shooting Rats) is one of Bottoms’s finest and most characteristic early poems. Here Bottoms’s speaker is alone, fishing among “oak and poplar stumps rising out of the water / like the ruins of an old pier,” when he sees like “a dwarfed limb / or a fist-thick vine” the snake sunning like “part of the tree.” Such animals rise like totems in Bottoms’s early work, representative icons of the hunter’s world, reminding the speakers of their own fundamental natures as animals, as both predator and prey. The powerful vision in “The Copperhead” seems as primordial as Dickey’s dream where he opens “[his] soul to the water.” In each poem, the speaker pauses for a moment to observe the blood pulse of an older life, a life, as Bottoms says, “all spine and nerve.” Both poets often situate their speakers in such settings: drifting in a canoe on dark waters, taking target practice in a landfill, confronting alligators, poisonous snakes, and other treacherous creatures and situations. It’s a decidedly male setting, and Bottoms’s best early work is typified by these traits, passed in a ritual, as it seems, from father to son. If Bottoms had been content in U-Haul simply to continue the technique of the short, natural allegory he introduced in Shooting Rats, I would have enjoyed this second book. Not only does he maintain that powerful (if sometimes limited) capability, but to complement his shorter pieces Bottoms adds here a further powerful dimension to his work in the form of eleven longer (multipaged) poems. Some are arranged in sections while others are single stanzas. Poems like “Under the Boathouse,” “Sleeping in the Jon Boat,” and “In a U-Haul North of Damascus” represent some of Bottoms’s best work at the time; he retains the control and clarity of his short poems while extending and deepening the narrative and meditative events. Not just in 134
size are these poems bigger, but because of their size Bottoms can more fully examine the landscape of his poetic region and the lives of his characters. Short or long, Bottoms’s poems may be typically right in their sense of control, but again, as in Dickey’s best work, there is always something wrong in them. This is a world in which “nature doesn’t specialize in mercy,” where people with their troubled lives are always on the move, where the fisherman senses “the reptile that moves beneath [him].” Even the softball player standing “out here at the edge / of middle age” knows that “nothing is won back for more than a moment.” Bottoms’s sense of balance accounts in these poems for his very theme. The people here feel bound to the natural world, like the fisherman above in “The Copperhead” who “wanted more than once to drink into the shaded water, / pull myself down a fallen branch.” They look to the wilderness for answers, for a way to live. But they ultimately know, or at least sense, that something separates them from the raw and natural. Something always prevents the transcendence or unity that Dickey’s own earlier work often captures. This uncomfortable humanness, this awareness of mortality, produces what Bottoms calls “the trembling in us all.” Such knowledge also leads to the restlessness and agitation at the center of Bottoms’s early work. In this book’s title poem, the narrator literally is “half-lost, / sick and sleepless / behind the wheel of this U-Haul truck parked in a field on Georgia 45.” One of Bottoms’s longer pieces, this poem is a powerful meditative “prayer” on moving, physically and emotionally. Lord, what are the sins I have tried to leave behind me? The bad checks, the workless days, the scotch bottles thrown across the fence and into the woods, the cruelty of silence, the cruelty of lies, the jealousy, the indifference?
As he mentally catalogues the qualities of life he has tried to leave behind, as well as all the belongings he has brought with him, the protagonist realizes that the pain of the past will not be surmounted, that “suffering [may form] a stronger bond 135
than love.” But the day here is beautiful with “the after-scent of rain . . . as though the world really could be clean again.” Doubt balances with hope. This poem concludes with a series of questions revealing both the narrator’s fear and his sense of promise—as if in a fitting summary to the vision of Bottoms’s earlier poetry. Somewhere behind me, miles behind me on a two-lane that streaks across west Georgia, a light is falling through the windows of my half-empty house. Lord, why am I thinking about all this? And why should I care so long after everything has fallen to pain that the woman sleeping there should be sleeping alone? Could I be just another sinner who needs to be blinded before he can see? Lord, is it possible to fall toward grace? Could I be moved to believe in new beginnings? Could I be moved?
These lines most directly identify the anxiety that marks a central change in David Bottoms’s work. The earlier landscape fades in the darkening sky; the assertive, sometimes even dramatic voice has turned into a questioning one; and the primitive or animal power now sounds a more biblical—if civilized—intonation. Vagrant Grace is Bottoms’s third volume after Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump. Though nearly twenty years pass between the books, Bottoms’s newer poems seem at first consistent with his earlier subjects and narrative methods. With their crisp syntax, irregular lining, and closed strophes, most are just over a page long, focusing on a single personal event or impression, while several others are longer (usually three-part) works that combine narrative episodes into a kind of multiple exposure. As in “A Family Parade,” the dominant subject is connection, the various avenues between the present and the past. . . . I know this is about eternity, this circling, this following,
and, of course, that irredeemable taunt of memory, without which we’d have no ghosts to lead us . . .
From the beginning Bottoms has explored the binding, haunting properties of memory, yet in Vagrant Grace I note several subtle but central evolutions. His earlier work depicted a fierce natural world, dangerously beautiful with its swamps and its wild, sometimes predatory, growth. In turn, again as in James Dickey, the speaker in those poems learned to recall or intuit the most ancient and tribal of mysteries: “An old reptile at the top of my spine knows about hunting / and leads me to this creek,” as he says in “Hunting on Sweetwater Creek.” Memory for him was bodily and rapacious, reptilian, and its codes of behavior were naturalistic and agnostic. Making poems, like the survival of the fittest, meant to attend with vigilance to the perilous and often merciless operations of nature. But the natural world found in Vagrant Grace has turned considerably more suburban, its wild past recessive, even repressed. In “A Family Parade,” Bottoms rides his memory “down the streets of the suburb, / clowning for a block with my feet on the handlebars, / tipping my sombrero at kids / dodging sprinklers, barbeque jockeys saluting / with their spatulas.” He clowns now where he once hunted, his vehicle a bicycle instead of a jon boat or pickup. His details are comprised of backyard implements, not gigs and guns; likewise, Bottoms’s protagonist here is shadowed not by feral land or water animals but by all manner of birds—eagles, owls, cockatoos, and in “Blue Heron” “a spread of giant wings drag[ging] a shadow over / the rooftops.” Bottoms’s protagonist has evolved into a family man and homeowner, an apparently civilized citizen neighbor whose home is no longer rough country but the modern development. His remnant loneliness is not desperate but clearly mournful, as he still looks to the sky for signs. For a long time after I stared at the clouds and puzzled the talent the world shows for mystery, sending these glimpses on wings.
Such “glimpses on wings” portend natural developments and losses, as the human world encroaches, ruinous and busy, with its malls and subdivisions. But such glimpses also suggest a view of human destinies, and more specifically, human spiritual truths, for angels fly here among the birds, as do the visionary spirits of lost family members and friends. Everywhere this speaker sees both “wings and haloes,” as he says in “Our Presbyterian Christmas.” The shift from naturalistic to biblical tropes is Bottoms’s most significant and risky direction. Occasionally his drive to expand a natural figure into a larger spiritual one can result in sentimental inflation, just as that same drive to connect in his earlier work sometimes resulted in melodrama or over- determination. Here, as in “Occurrence in the Big Sky,” Bottoms’s birds seem pressed into symbol: “I saw something in the sky like a page from Revelation—/ high against a white ridge of clouds, two eagles / fighting over a kill.” “In the Wilderness” shows how his elevated metaphors may lean toward the over- heightened: “And the wind is up, / the west wind, out of the wilderness, / and true to the season / the whole sky is overcast with God.” But he is looking for size, for an expanded spiritual connection—“grace,” as the title attests. In his longest poem, “Country Store and Moment of Grace,” Bottoms mixes his capability with story together with his newer, deeper meditative sense. This eighteen-section poem is a spiritual autobiography, recalling the speaker’s childhood up to his present circumstance. The first crisis of the poem invokes the gods of narrative, as it reanimates the ubi sunt convention: “Where were the storytellers I’d grow up / to hear about?” That is to say, Bottoms is still seeking his fathers. Eliding story and meditation with great efficiency, Bottoms deepens his quest for connection as the crises deepen. He traces his memory’s “little scraps of consequence” back to the questionable charms of a rural southern boyhood, from the warm “pot-gut” stove of a grandfather’s grocery store to Little League baseball and the “shoulder kick” of target practice. Each charm is mitigated by a deepening complicity and by a vivid hunger for confessional “self-acquittal.” We find, side by side, the small humiliation of a stolen Montgomery Ward catalog and the tragedy of a mother mourning her son lost in the Pacific theater of World War II. We 138
witness the public shame of corrupt judges, a little girl tormented by poverty’s cruelty, and ultimately the South’s deepest sin— the acute racism of friends who here enjoy “Nigger knocking.” To confess such transgressions is, of course, to propose forgiveness. Thus the poem moves toward its complicated acceptance of the past, as the speaker strains to say, “Amen finally to what can’t be changed.” Both in syntax and theme, Bottoms’s recent tactics are powerful. “On Methodist Hill” once more finds Bottoms in a scene that seems similar to the moving nighttime scene in “A Home Buyer Watches the Moon” from U-Haul. Here he accompanies his daughter into a local graveyard with its “shab of plundered tomb, crust and leaf-stain, / litter of wet newspaper, sandwich wrapper . . .” to find the weedy graveyard a dump for trash. But Bottoms loads his scene here not just with a counterpoint between the living world (its “chained up doors” and “traffic on Main”) and a lost or primitive one, but also with a more mature inward vision as well as more directly religious inquiry. Stacks of hymnals, “olive trees / blue . . . in the tumble of clouds,” and even “Christ in the purple agony of glass”—these will be the materials with which Bottoms replaces the alligators and rats, those naturalist and primitivist totems, of his earlier work. Perhaps echoing Yeats’s great “The Second Coming” with its severe Christian anxieties, Bottoms here notes that “surely some violence / is closing a fist” while even “in the breathing / of his friends he hears his loneliness.” The poem’s final lines replicate “the dusty road to Emmaus,” where two traveling disciples met the resurrected Jesus but did not recognize him. Likewise Bottoms and his daughter seem like characters in Christ’s own vision. For an hour he prays but already he’s foreseen—the rubble of the temple, the three denials, the trial and scourge, the veiled and dusty road to Emmaus, and maybe even as far as this church hollowed and crumbling on a hill of weeds where a four-year-old climbs a vandalized angel as her father begins, unaccountable, to weep. 139
Bottoms’s newer work is becoming more mature in its social and community connections and clearly more informed by Christian mythologies, as if in partial replacement of his solitary and primitive ones. With his precise southern tuning, his compressed or “sprung” narratives, as well as his need for spiritual clarity, Bottoms’s Vagrant Grace—as is typical of his later work—reminds me much more of the work of Charles Wright than of the naturalistic (and eventually bombastic) work of James Dickey. He has become more inward, a typologist who hunts not for physical survival but for existential meaning. He is ultimately less metaphysical than Wright; Bottoms is not going to interrogate the meaning of meanings. A poem from Wright’s collection Appalachia, published a year before Vagrant Grace, shows Wright’s metapoetic urge to speak and his capability to negotiate the borders between language and erasure, as between image and abstraction. Wright articulates an anxious search for meaning even with the self-aware knowledge of meaning’s elusive identity. Over the Blue Ridge, the whisperer starts to whisper in tongues. Remembered landscapes are left in me The way a bee leaves its sting, hopelessly, passion-placed, Untranslatable language, Non-mystical, insoluble in blood, they act as an opposite To the absolute, whose words are solitude, and set to music. (from “All Landscape Is Abstract, and Tends to Repeat Itself”)
I think it’s accurate to suggest that a whole generation of younger, middle-career poets have moved, like Bottoms, farther away from the decidedly male southern bravado of James Dickey toward the more complex and elusive poetics of Charles Wright. This transition may be traced in several parallel ways in Bottoms’s work: from the savage natural scene in his earlier work to the familiar settled land of pasture and suburb; from 140
the dramatic enactment of narrative to the more inward tones of meditation; from a kind of rhetorical certainty to a more fundamental doubt. In “Night Strategies,” a poem that fuses the familial (seen in the tenderness of a father bathing his young daughter) and the political (seen in the horrible attack of “a girl in Sarajevo, sixteen,” surrounded by battle and raped by an enemy soldier), Bottoms confesses now that “the only answer I have / is this nervous / exaggeration of tenderness, / and that every ministry of my hand, clumsy / and apologetic, asks her / to practice such a radical faith.” Wright’s influence is large in Bottoms’s recent work. It is to Wright’s own impressive credit that he is able to envision both spheres—the worldly and the metaphysical—and to articulate them so clearly, as in the closing lines of “Indian Summer II.” We live in two landscapes, as Augustine might have said, One that’s eternal and divine, and one that’s just the back yard, Dead leaves and dead grass in November, purple in spring.
Bottoms’s best new work also mediates between the two “landscapes” that Wright identifies. It is a type of religious vision—to perceive the shape or light of the holy world through the landscape and detail of the physical one. Here in Vagrant Grace and even more deeply in his later book, Waltzing through the Endtime, this perception of the holy within the physical provides Bottoms with a rich new complexity and metaphysical dis-ease. (In Waltzing, Bottoms extends a further point of influence by Wright, as his sense and application of form—line length, indentation, and stanza structure—become clearly more akin to Wright’s than Dickey’s.) “A Walk to Carter’s Lake” finds Bottoms once more revisiting the kind of natural scene we find in his early work. But his earlier drama (and occasional melodrama—of predatory animals and a fear for personal safety) now is replaced by a spiritual doubt akin to Wright’s. Look, above the creek, hummingbirds in the trumpet vine. Not too close, wait. See the green blurs stitching the leaves? 141
Here at the edge of the millennium I don’t imagine you’d call them anything as archaic as angels. But aren’t they agents of a sort . . . ?
Bottoms even enjoys the witty self-reflection that Wright relishes, too, the metapoetic wink. Here he may be directly addressing the expectations of the readers of his earlier work: “I know, / you thought you knew me, / and now to hear me talk this way . . .” The ethereal hummingbirds provide a literal image of the angels he imagines in this scene, so fleeting. They also provide an agency for the holy. “What else,” he asks, “can promenade in the air?” In “Steve Belew Plays the National Steel,” Bottoms more deeply explores this manner of vision where the material and physical world, even as it grows “smutty” and trashed, may virtually shimmer with the metaphysics of grace. For beauty we sometimes have to close our eyes— as I do now, rocked against the railing of this deck, hearing in these sparks of glass and steel a woman dragging the Dumpsters of the Claremont Hotel. Down alleys off Ponce, in a peacoat and cap, she parades under smutty windows, not drunk, I think, but slightly dazed by her own vagrant grace . . .
Paradoxically, when the speaker closes his eyes, he sees. This is both a Christian and a classical trope: Blinded, the prophet can envision the otherworldly, just as he can detect through the language of nature the music of the divine. All over the yard, the bottleneck loosens the tongues of trees . . . Who knows what promise floats over these shadows or whether it rings as true in that refuge of boxes, though I hear her fingers fumbling the neck, fretting for a key, 142
until somewhere above the long alley a window opens.
The open window suggests that point where language ceases and a passageway appears that may lead to the “promise [that] floats over these shadows.” Bottoms’s embrace of the physical world—wildly natural at times, settled by the human at others— has led him ultimately to a visionary brink. Or, as he says in the concluding lines of “Country Store and Moment of Grace”: of house and pine
and fence and maple becoming one shadow where the shadows of this life. . . yes, lengthen into the shadow of memory, and finally to that shadow, Amen.
This may be the clearest expression of faith in David Bottoms’s recent work. For all the threats embodied by the feral physical world, for all the anxious doubt accompanying his metaphysical and religious investigations, this poet’s ultimate gesture is an act and articulation of acceptance, where the apparently dual worlds “[become] one shadow,” where the shadow itself is the figure of quiet unity. David Bottoms has deepened his portrayal of the American South beyond alligators and county fairs to a place of genuine spiritual searching. Such are the tactics and successes of the poems of Vagrant Grace: “Listen, here in the foothills / above the suburban skirmishes of apparent Armageddon, / I can’t turn around without having / to untangle parable.” Bottoms’s best poems contain the two worlds of wilderness and settlement, animal power and human doubt (with its emerging shadow of acceptance). He may be more civilized now in the suburbs of the new South, and his rhetorical means may have shifted subtly to include both active narration and interior meditation, but the poet is as agitated, probing, and readable as ever. 143
Heaven and Earth On Ellen Bryant Voigt and Robert Morgan*
The title of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s sixth book of poems, Shadow of Heaven, places a template of romantic Platonism over her work. The phrase’s origin is not Plato or even Keats, however, but the considerably less romantic Milton, who asks in Paradise Lost: “what if Earth / Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein / Each to other like, more than on Earth is thought?” The poet in Milton is drawn to the figure of likeness, but the Puritan in him knows Earth is “like” Heaven only in that the comparison illuminates Earth’s wretched, fallen state. Voigt delights in such ironic pleasures, here playing the Platonic trope against its source. In fact, throughout her career she has pitted dialectical forces against each other. In The Forces of Plenty—from 1983, and still one of my favorite Voigt collections—she pursued a severe, pared lyric style, only to explore strategies for longer narratives in her next three books. In Kyrie (1995), she reanimated the 1918–19 influenza epidemic through the form of the sonnet; thus the sonnet’s erotic and intimate history operates in irony with the massive cultural histories of the pandemic and of World War I. In Shadow of Heaven, Voigt’s powers of opposition are stronger and more vivid than ever. Having given us Milton’s earth as a likeness of the ideal, she brightens our expectations further in “Plaza del Sol” with a sunbaked pool in Florida. But the denizens of this potentially luxurious setting include “a man, prone, whose back is a pelt, / and a supine woman whose limbs are tinkertoys, On Shadow of Heaven. By Ellen Bryant Voigt. W. W. Norton. Topsoil Road. By Robert Morgan. Lousiaina State University Press. *
/ and a man whose tattooed eagle looks crucified, / and his brother with breasts, and his wife with none. . . .” Voigt provides no cherubs, no exposed bodies full of voluptuous life. Rather it’s the “veterans’ ward” of a retirement community—war, or at least loss and damage, being more characteristic than idealized love. Voigt exposes the worn human bodies with trompe l’oeil precision, but she also clearly enjoys the scene, for humor accompanies her pervading sense of decay. Here are “contiguous chins undisguised by pearls,” “a set of toes shingled with horn,” and a woman “seated, bosom piled in her lap, / oiling the lunar landscape of her thighs.” The “hot eye” of the sun—the source of their oven-baked comfort—“does not turn away,” just as Voigt in her realism refuses to prettify the physical or spiritual conditions of our lives. The opening poems of Shadow of Heaven announce Voigt’s twin senses of belatedness and decay. Again following Milton, Voigt posits a subtle Eden in her first piece, “Largesse,” with its market full of fruit, but the speaker’s accompanying nightmare (“I was carrying a baby and was blind . . . / A spidery crack traversed his china skull.”) undermines the scene. In “Apple Tree,” the Edenic possibilities are undercut by disease; here, like the tree saved by a surgeon’s chainsaw and regrown as “two plumes of tree . . . from one stubborn root,” Voigt finds a figure for her own life: “to have made from three // this one, this one life.” “Winter Field” retraces the speaker’s near death when she was “some other thing”; and in “The Others,” a married couple recalls “our lucky / or unlucky lost” when twice “the macrocephalic sperm battered / its blunt cell forward,” only to be miscarried. Voigt’s new poems occur not just after the fall, but long after. The characters are survivors rather than heroes or victims, stranded, often lonely, visibly marked by loss and damage, but also capable of the kinds of insight only experience allows. Perspective is everything, as Voigt says in her beautiful sequence, “The Art of Distance.” One needs, it seems, sufficient irony: to see oneself and the island as from the clouds: a speck on the back of a gecko turning brown these weeks before the rains, as if to hide 145
from the gray square-headed bird, its needle-nose, its white chest and belly and underwing blazed blue as it skims the azure swimming pool.
One of two centerpiece poems in Shadow of Heaven, “The Art of Distance,” is among Voigt’s finest longer poems. Its eight sections memorialize the speaker’s “strict father,” who “took dominion over the given world.” This world is rough and rural, but possesses a stark, natural clarity, like the father. In one section, he “would have been appalled” to see his grown daughter study a hurt snake rather than “dispatch / a useless suffering thing.” The father’s imagined reaction is far from a Miltonic God’s anger. Here Voigt is less interested in allegory than suggestion; her knowledge requires artful distance: “to see a thing // one has to push it away.” But her ability to conjoin theme with minutely detailed images, as earlier, is especially powerful. This sequence also demonstrates Voigt’s formal gifts—always considerable— now at their finest. The blank verse of the previous passage typifies her graceful, exacting style. Elsewhere Voigt writes with equal skill in rhymed triplets, free verse, clipped sonnets, even a ghazal. In fact, I find only one line in the whole book whose effects are less than adroit: “What art, like money, does is dig things up,” she writes in “The Art of Distance.” Wouldn’t the simile serve more effectively between the two verbs, thus clarifying the clauses? It’s fascinating to see a belated romanticism like Voigt’s. She rehearses many of romanticism’s mainstay tropes— the wisdom of the body, the authority of self, the abiding example of nature—while revising others into more realistic figures. I am constantly struck by the fine particulars of her work, her faith in the extended, storied detail, when many earlier romantics made their mature and later lyrics increasingly abstractive or obtuse. I’m thinking of Whitman and Stevens, among others. But again, such is Voigt’s surprising, ironic vision. Robert Morgan grew up in North Carolina, not far from Ellen Bryant Voigt’s birthplace in rural Virginia, and he is approximately a year her junior. Both have lived in the Northeast for much of their adult lives, though they often recall the Blue Ridge 146
and Appalachian regions in their work. Where Voigt pursues a sublime, if ironic poetic, often enlarging her tight lyrics toward the philosophical and occasionally reaching into longer narrative sequences, Morgan remains a considerably more homespun miniaturist. In fact, it’s hard to tell that Morgan has lived for more than thirty years in upstate New York: the landscape and lore of the Green River Valley are still the subjects of nearly all his poems. Morgan’s gift in Topsoil Road, as in his previous dozen books of poems, is to chronicle the rural Appalachian way of life, which is, as he shows, both precious and endangered. The book’s first poems identify the encroachment and loss that have long been features of the region, from the Native Americans’ dislocation, when the “first wagon trace into hills / took no grading,” to the ongoing erasure of the old ways of folk life. In “Topsoil Road,” even the landscape, for all its “bedrock and subsoil,” is susceptible to the onslaught of expansion and change. A few trees cut and brush knocked down or pushed aside, the route went right across the ridge and down along the branch. Wheels sliced into leaves and tore the humus, banged on roots and rocks and ground the topsoil into the rush toward the horizon, to step into the future the West pulled them into.
Morgan’s meticulous verse is an exception to the southern tradition of oversized narratives and tendency toward melodrama. With his compressed images and plainspoken rhetoric, he’s more like Ted Kooser—another important American regionalist—than like Dickey or Faulkner. Like Kooser, Morgan works in small spaces; only two of these forty-nine poems are longer (just barely) than a page. He’s intent to see a particular thing precisely. To offset the losses of progress, Topsoil Road offers a museum of endangered artifacts, in fact—from wild peavines and “crow strings” to all manner of vanishing farm structures: “the salty dark of smokehouse and whispery gloom 147
of springhouse, / the chicken coops and hogpen, the tool shed with its rust assortment.” Morgan’s present work is at its best in memorializing the man-made—folk remedies, tools, rustic musical instruments. Several poems describe sharpening, honing, enacting Morgan’s aesthetic of quick, small flashes. In “Sharpening a Saw,” Morgan knows that “any blunt rock can whet a knife,” but a saw, each tooth “with its own / attitude and face to be / flattened,” requires “a lean hard / file.” Other poems show the hazardous craft of bee-keeping (“Honey”), the habit of a local banjo maker who “when looking out for wood to carve / an instrument, will walk among the trees and knock on trunks” (“The Grain of Sound”), and a number of medical remedies. In “Madstone,” for example, we learn that a “seed of polished brick / taken from a deer’s belly” will “breathe venom from a snakebite.” Morgan’s best poems shimmer with the authentic strangeness—and durability—of such practices. Morgan has been writing poems like these for a long time, and from afar. Perhaps the distance shows in some subtle ways. In his best books, like Groundwork (1979) and At the Edge of the Orchard Country (1987), Morgan’s idiomatic tones seemed quick and right to the ear, and his narratives present and dramatic. But some of the poems in Topsoil Road feel crabbed or run together; his pitch doesn’t vary enough beyond a precise, good-natured hum, and his strategies are often more descriptive than dramatic. That’s partly because there are few people in the poems, and these are either long-gone parents or anonymous hill folk. Morgan builds the poems by memory and occasionally lapses into typical southern fare—kudzu, rattlesnakes—and a corresponding, contented nostalgia. Recalling Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” the opening lines of “Care”—also a sonnet— don’t convey real gravity, the felt “threat” of the moment. On a cold morning when our grits, oatmeal, cream of wheat, were dragon hot, Daddy would take the threatening plates out to the back porch and blow at the smoking porridge. He would pant the steam away and huff. . . . 148
There’s no doubting the value of the poems’ memories; but, as here, they can seem quaint, like documentary good deeds rather than dramatic or artful lyrics. Morgan’s best poems are usually experiential rather than documentary. In Topsoil Road, they are also best when Morgan employs additional elements of tension or difficulty, whether formal or thematic. A number of the poems employ tropes from physics and mathematics, providing fruitful irony or depth to the homespun, as in “Music of the Spheres” and “[pi].” In “Hearth,” he makes masterful use of the pantoum to trace the slow collapse of a “houseplace in the meadow.” Here the plaintive echo or reiteration of the form suggests the inevitable progress of time, as the building falls, piece by piece. At the houseplace in the meadow grass is rising in the fireplace, lush, and scoured by rain and thaw of soot. Licked by wind it leaps off the hearth, grass is rising in the fireplace, lush, and reaches up the chimney’s throat; locked by wind it leaps off the heart, kindling in the afternoon sun, and reaches up the chimney’s throat, bending in the dance of rooted things. . . .
Morgan’s graceful iambic tetrameter conveys real dignity, and his sinuous syntax reinvests each recurring phrase with vibrancy, a kind of lovely doom. When he writes with “lush” natural sensuality, when his memory achieves an active and dramatic pitch, when his impressive formal command is in full swing, Morgan’s poems shine with beauty while maintaining the important regional commemorations to which he is devoted.
Story’s Stories Anne Carson, Susan Mitchell, Carl Phillips, D. Nurkse, and Michael Collier*
Poets use stories to tell stories. Inside, outside, or alongside the particular narrative of a poem, other frames of reference inevitably operate. This is a feature of serious poetry that especially attracts and compels me—not just the local situation of a poem, but those larger stories, too, obvious or suppressed, mythological or intimate, active or psychological. How complex, after all, are our local narratives? A lover woos, or is abandoned. Someone grieves. Another complains or accuses or, walking down the street, meditates on a cool autumn evening. The details may vary endlessly, but our stories themselves—or the rhetorical structures of those stories—are relatively few. A poet’s style derives from those local narratives, but perhaps even more from the surrounding, larger schemes he or she brings to bear—the worldly material by which the poet articulates and measures the local matter of a life. This dynamic gives a poem its distinct, and occasionally distinguished, features. Sometimes, as in the richness of baroque and metaphysical poetries, a surface complexity may itself be the dominant story, where the machinations of conceit supply the narrative drama. Sometimes, as in plain-style poems, there is almost no surface, no distinguishing features of a larger scheme, as the poet ushers us transparently toward the archetypal. Always what’s fascinating On Men in the Off Hours. By Anne Carson. Knopf, 2000. Erotikon. By Susan Mitchell. HarperCollins, 2000. Pastoral. By Carl Phillips. Graywolf, 2000. Leaving Xaia. By D. Nurkse. Four Way Books, 2000. The Ledge. By Michael Collier. Houghton Mifflin, 2000. *
is the manner by which a poet matches stories and styles, the local and any larger narratives. Talk about stories. Anne Carson has cranked up the world’s largest satellite dish to play hundreds of channels at once—from Greek classics to hip comedy, Hollywood noir to self-help. Men in the Off Hours is a really big show. In fact, one group of poems is called “TV Men” and features such guests as Antonin Artaud, Leo Tolstoy, and “TV” women like Sappho and Akhmatova. The whole book proceeds in a buzzing and overlapping of input, full of static and vivid outbursts, all 167 pages stacked like an archeology of references, narrative modes, and poetic forms. Just as Thucydides meets Virginia Woolf to parse the nature of war in “Ordinary Time,” then meets her again in a “TV Men” installment on the “Set” of the Peloponnesian War, so does Edward Hopper confront Aristotle, and the ancient epitaph-quatrain argue with the interview, and catastrophe collide with sentiment; and so do formalized stanzas bump up against a kind of self-conscious, post–theoretical scattering. She wants to cross- pollinate every epoch, genre, and personality she can conjure. As she says (or someone says) in “TV Men: Lazarus: Director of Photography: Voice-over”, art is a matter of keeping all your channels open. I put tiny microphones all over the ground to pick up the magic of the vermin in his ten fingers and I stand back to wait for the miracle.
Anne Carson is herself many things—critic, novelist, classicist, and one of the most progressive poets in many decades. She is like a performance artist on paper, with that kind of adventurous chutzpah, as hyper as she is brilliant. In the way that both Whitman and Dickinson seem to me wonderfully amateurish, especially compared to the professional bards of their day like Whittier and Lowell, Carson also projects an amateur roughness and daring, though I suspect her poems appeal mostly to academically well-trained professional poets. What, other than its visual line breaks, makes this flat, prosaic passage a poem? 151
Freud spent the summer of 1876 in Trieste researching hermaphroditism in eels. In the lab of zoologist Karl Klaus he dissected more than a thousand to check whether they had testicles. “All the eels I have cut open are of the tenderer sex,” he reported after the first 400. Meanwhile the “young goddesses” of Trieste were proving unapproachable. “Since it is not permitted to dissect human beings I have in fact nothing to do with them,” he confided in a letter.
“Freud (1st draft)” is clean and lucid, just like a report, but works more effectively because of its many tasty ironies: the dissonance between such impersonal rhetoric and an intimate subject; the juxtaposition of clinical surgery and erotic aloneness; the funny, phallic (female!) eels and our pathetic human hero—and the brutality of his confidence. It’s fourteen lines with a turn after the eighth. But is it a sonnet? Does it otherwise possess the density, figuration, and rhythmic intensity of poetry? Is it a poem? How you answer that question will determine how you read this book. In fact, Carson worries about these things too. More than a hundred pages after “Freud (1st draft)” we come across “Freud (2nd draft).” This one’s an entirely different story in a similar language and form. But herein lies the project—and the “magic” mentioned earlier—of Anne Carson. A book of poems, a work of history or of art, language itself, each is not an “each” at all but rather part of a long sequence of retakes—palimpsests, overdubs, rubbings. Each of these revisionary tropes applies in her poems. Redoing becomes the core obsession of Men in the Off Hours, as in “Lazarus (1st draft)”: “Actions go on in us, / nothing else goes on. While a blurred and breathless hour / repeats, repeats.” Audubon makes a painting so real it replaces 152
birds; the X-ray remnants of nuclear-holocaust victims haunt their war-blown landscape; film revises film; in turn, each narrative rewrites each previous one. “No use being historical / about this planet,” shrugs the director in “TV Men: Lazarus,” “it is just an imitation.” History is the matter and manner of our retelling. And so the trope of the mistake, or “error” as Carson reveals one of her finest poems, “Essay on What I Think about Most,” becomes the central figure of repetition: “Imitation (mimesis in Greek) / is Aristotle’s collective term for the true mistakes of poetry.” That must be because our errors yield “fear, anxiety, shame, remorse,” each of which in turn impels our obsession to revisit and redo. The real tragedy that underlies Men in the Off Hours is the death of Carson’s mother. The book’s last piece, a short prose work entitled “No Epitaph,” finally identifies this “error,” though we are embattled by the scorched earth of other disasters (madness, battle, failure, tyranny) from the book’s opening prose piece on the Peloponnesian War. The connection? “Death,” she writes in “Catullus: Carmina,” “makes me think (I said) about soldiers and autumn.” Carson’s re-creation of our “off hours” finally denotes anything but a vacation; it is the reiteration of our flawed or “off” condition. The flaw is our condition, she determines in “Appendix to Ordinary Time”: “Crossouts sustain me now.” Men in the Off Hours is a sustaining achievement—loving, inventive, and surprisingly original, given its heavily layered borrowings. It can also be maddening with its headers, footers, scatterings, and blurts; it can be hasty, for Carson is possessed of a quick-shot velocity that sometimes leaves me wanting focus, more time (or space) for meditation; and for all the hubbub of her stories and allusions, I am not sure she always conveys the startling strangeness of the Greek culture she so clearly admires and empathizes with. Or, maybe it is we who are strange. Maybe that is how we are their paraphrase. Carson’s book is elegiac, though her poems are derived as well from the odic tradition, for they speak of public matters with an energetic dignity. Susan Mitchell’s Erotikon represents a lush, almost overwhelming variety of the third rhetorical mode of classical lyric poetry, the erotic. Compared to Carson’s abundance, her experiments, her public declarations, Mitchell’s new 153
work is intimate, obsessive, and repetitive. She’s more Sappho than Pindar. Sometimes, though, these eleven poems can also be prolix and mundane. Mitchell’s book is about desire, and one of its fundamental desires is to align itself with classical mythology. Even Mitchell’s title suggests such. Eriotikos is the adjective form of the Greek root erot, describing something “of” or “used by” love. Erotikon would be its neuter form, meaning literally “(the thing) of love,” though here, used as a title, it also implies erotikon poiema, a poem of sexual desire. The gently fictive nature of the title suits Mitchell well, for the whole book is driven by its fancy, the delighted rigor of inventing and sustaining itself. Just like that, I decide to translate a poem that has never been written, a poem that will be literal and free, haughty and humble, ornate and spare. As I work on the translation, I begin to feel close to its author, so close I can sense what was in earlier drafts. There it is like wreckage strewn across a beach. It is difficult to convey in our language the willfulness, the animal energy of the original. All those snorts, growls, leaps, and bounds. To ride that language bare-assed: no saddle.
“Golden Fleece” is the final poem in Erotikon, and it clarifies Mitchell’s purposes and tactics to “ride language” with passion, to self-spawn and maintain a textual body. Elsewhere, we find out that the Fleece is named Chrysomallus, that “Catullus could get away with a lot because he wrote in Latin,” that “ciccus, core of the pomegranate, / that elusive fruit” also means “worthless.” And we parse words from languages ancient and modern: “clit clitch clitoris”; or, “the word sparrow in one dialect was pronounced shparrow.” Mitchell often conveys great delight in her saying as she enacts these wet mouthfuls of sound, savory, sloppy, and sexy. As she testifies in “Bird: A Memoir,” the whole motivation of Erotikon is not to “[wait] for something extraordinary to 154
happen,” but rather to turning anything, or nothing, into a kind of big-bang event. How to apportion the self from branch to branch. To taste and by tasting know. To delight to alight. These were the mottoes of my youth. And also, song rejoices the mouth. And where buds in goose bumps all along the branch, where newness in flummery foiled and fooled, I the manifold its many folds unfolding filled full of, always read with my buon appetito. O Tite, tute, tati, tibi, tanta, tyranne, tulisti! The kisses tumbling over one another like the letters of a tongue twister.
Gerald Manley Hopkins would be proud of such dense, rhythmic, generative lines, though he might blush to be so “stirred” by this bird. So might Chaucer, whose Criseyda “dreamed a bird exchanged its heart / with hers” and whose rhyme-royal stanza in The Parliament of Fowls provides the formal precedent for “Bird: A Memoir” with its forty-nine seven-line stanzas. The most difficult task Mitchell has set for herself, I think, derives from the severe interiority of these poems. Though there are plenty of images (especially birds, boughs, songs, feathered pens), these can quickly seem more symbolic or figurative than material. In other words, there are hardly any outer markers in these poems, no real people, no names, locations, or dramatic actions, and no “great narrative Other” (to use Roland Barthes’s phrase) to receive the adoration and pain of Mitchell’s erotic beseeching, though there’s a lot of talk about desire. Sometimes the passages seem more massive than they are, accruing into flat or undirected discourse. This is especially true in the book’s two long poems, “Bird: A Memoir” and “Erotikon,” a twenty-page excursion of poetry and prose. If Mitchell’s project is to make a rich poetry out of pure desire, is her song a sufficient narrative? The question becomes, in Mitchell’s case, not whether this is self-indulgent but rather whether this self-indulgence is too pleased by its own exposure. Sometimes I fear it is. But Mitchell often does make meaningful contact. Her anon155
ymous or neutral stance (remember the neutered noun of the title?) clearly wants to be more pansexual than desexed. Such pure passion, such autoerotic “heavenly perfume,” is also part of the pleasure of Erotikon—to be so within the one shared body that “feelings” become “selves.” In a critical study of the Greek erotic lyric, Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson identifies the play of language with its “power to allure and alarm” as the lover’s most tantalizing resource. In Mitchell’s shorter poems, and many short passages in the long poems, I find the stress and rigor of this power most successfully enacted. Here Mitchell shows that the lyric imagination is sex itself. Her skill at linguistic invention is dazzling in “Golden Bough: The Feather Palm,” where even her demure claim to plainness quickly intoxicates itself: “oh, I can be plain I can be / plain green in the slippery sunlight the oily—/ like an extra limb like a fetish.” And the alluring interplay of pleasure and pain in “Pussy Willow (An Apology)” smartly verifies Carson’s premise that Eros derives from the convergence of “want” and “lack.” A self-interrogation into the “scratch and bliss” of delay, this poem plays with its own question (“Why delay?”) to determine that the state of deferral is the fundamental erotic “delight.” Anticipation is pain and pleasure—it is bittersweet—for it embodies not just desire but absence, succulence as well as agony. To delay is how desire suspends its fulfillment; to “dillydally” is to remain in the body, to prolong the state of want. That’s the ultimate meaning of Erotikon: to want is to wait. And to wait is to speak—though the lover discovers there is really nothing new to say. Desire is, after all, the only thing desire wants. That’s the heart of this book and the aching pleasure of erotic love. Erotikon is a sustained, uneven, but very adventurous song of (and to) itself. My desire, said Speed, is for new desires, new appetites to hunger and surprise me. To desire tomorrow what I have not desired today.
Carl Phillips is one of the brightest poets to have emerged in some time, publishing an impressive body of poetry in the scant first decade of his work’s appearance. Pastoral is his fourth col156
lection since 1992. Each book has brought a deepening of Phillips’s skills; none has seemed hasty or slack. Like Carson, Phillips was trained in the classics. Like her, he brings a resourceful seriousness to his language, and like Mitchell a powerful, erotic intimacy. Yet his combination of these traits produces a poetry very different from either Carson’s or Mitchell’s. Phillips succeeds in bestowing a high dignity to privacy and intimacy, when what we are used to, in our memoir-crazed era, is a blurting, blushing casualness. It’s an art of poise and doubt, of elliptical severity. Or he says himself in “Abundance,” “an erotics / of cooled distance.” There are two fundamental narratives beneath the local narratives of Pastoral. The first, of course, derives from the matrix of classical allusions he deploys. Especially in the book’s first poems, we follow Phillips’s reconstruction of the elements of myth. Populated by stags, saints, horses, and clouded in a weather of portentous detailing, these poems assume the figuration and posture of allegory. Even the speaker of “Clap of Thunder” depicts himself thus: “And then my hands found, / classically, / my brow. . . .” The metafictional quality of these artifacts is central, for Phillips’s pastoral field is not just artistic but artificial, a meadow that is only a “kind of” meadow. It is a figment of will: “whether trees as trees actually, / for their shadow and what / inside of it // hides, threatens, calls to; / or as ever-wavering conscience, / cloaked now, and called Chorus” (“A Kind of Meadow”). Even the people are made as though biblically. Notice in “Clay” how the speaker’s body is clarified by the hands of his maker: “The shape of any thing / is the shape a line makes / around it. // So whatever my body can recall / of another’s hands—/ hard, spent upon it.” The other whose hands construct the speaker seems to be both lover and deity. And through his creating touch, when this “man single-fingered me / toward him,” the speaker of “Clap of Thunder” finds his own hands and “[begins] writing.” Phillips follows the classical lyric through its metaphysical and romantic incarnations in “Hymn,” a dense poem on the nature of transgression and “pardon.” How vivid is his Donne-like eroticism, as the opening scene becomes both more clarified and more abstracted. 157
Less the shadow than you a stag, sudden, through it. Less the stag breaking cover than the antlers, with which crowned. Less the antlers as trees leafless, to either side of the stag’s head, than— between them—the vision that must mean, surely, rescue. Less the rescue. More, always, the ache toward it.
And in the final lines, how eloquent is Phillips’s great, sad devotion, as dignified as Herbert’s. My fears—when I have fears— are of how long I shall be, falling, and in my at last resting how indistinguishable, inasmuch as they are countless, sire, all the unglittering other dropped stones.
This is splendid writing and thinking. The poem’s two narrative possibilities (is it a love poem or a tract on religious salvation?) seem equally weighed, hence equally valid. And its metaphysical richness vibrates subtly with romantic passion, for here is Keats’s desperation (“When I have fears that I shall cease to be”) and Hopkins’s sinuous phrasing (for instance, in the way the interjected adverbial “at last” ruptures the prepositional “in my rest”). For Phillips, metaphysical lyricism is less a matter of sustaining a conceit than it is a larger manner of rhetoric—a way of solving the enigma of the poem. His interrogatives are revealing, his declarations precise, and his phrasing is meticulous in its halting, deliberating, self-discovering strategies. His is, in other words, the idiom of complex meditation, where syntax seems 158
like the processes of thought made tangible. When I follow his best sentences, I can feel him thinking—elliptical, self-revising phrases giving way to bursts of clarity. The opening lines from “Hymn” are a good example, as the shadowy scene becomes one figure, then another, and finally emerges as the consuming “ache.” For Phillips, such a “vision” requires us to see so we can comprehend. Like Carson, Phillips most fully reveals the other fundamental narrative in the book’s final poem, “The Kill.” It is a love poem for two men. Though he defers the gay narrative throughout Pastoral, or suits it in densely figurative material, he doesn’t finally withhold it. In fact, the tactics of deferral and disguise are central features of much recent gay and lesbian poetry, as Vernon Shetley argues in his excellent After the Death of Poetry. But in “The Kill,” while the men’s lovemaking may be encrypted in the figure of “the swan unfolding upward,” it is also here clearly literalized: “By then, you were upon me, and then in me.” As in several previous poems, Phillips builds his poem around the figure of the hunt, as the phallic “single arrow” searches for the stag, its antlers “a chandelier, rushing for me.” The final clause of this poem, and book, verifies even more obviously the erotic narrative. Having established the eternal entanglement of the lovers—the give-and-take of power—Phillips provides the final prospect of their relief: “one animal at attack, / the other—the other one / suffering, and love would // out all suffering—.” With “out” in its uncommon use as a verb, the revelation is complete; the gay narrative is “outed.” And so, many of the previous poems in Pastoral also refocus. In “Hymn,” for instance, we have more reason to see the stalking of the stag (the Him) as an erotic quest. Phillips concurs: “When I think of desire, / it is he same way that I do / God: as parable.” Notice how the speaker’s position of faithful supplication reforms as a sexual tryst in “the stranger’s / strange room entered not for prayer / but for striking / prayer’s attitude, the body // kneeling. . . .” Pastoral is a wonderful book, threading so many narratives into a highly distinctive, passionate style. Nearly every poem sings. Phillips’s one weakness (as in “Stars” or “Lay Me Down”) may be a lingering, overdramatic woundedness, where the swoon or the tear turns to melodrama. That should subside. For 159
Phillips, the bittersweet secrecy of erotic passion is like a powerful god, to whom we kneel in injury and devotion. For every nuance, dense trope, and elliptical construction of Phillips’s, D. Nurkse answers with plainness and open lucidity. While both poets employ a type of restraint, Nurkse’s variety seems more integrated into his larger vision of things—Phillips’s restraint is anxious; Nurkse’s, calm. The plain style provides a forceful irony to Leaving Xaia, for this book is perilous with political strife and dangers both personal and historical. Like Anne Carson’s work, it speaks of public matters, but quietly, humble and alert, as in “Letter from the Capitol.” I know drunks who make a point of asking only for food as a gauge of sincerity. But who would trust a stranger’s offering? I never see them eat.
There are forty-nine poems in Leaving Xaia, mostly short, all concise and vivid. The scenery is contemporary and urban rather than figured in metaphor or ancient myth. In “A Pause at Delta Assembly,” people labor and are hurt (“When the foreman brought my pay / it was sixty dollars short. / I complained, my voice cracked, / he smiled and said, / you must have been sick”); in “These Are Your Rights,” a group of peaceful activists is threatened by raging “counterdemonstrators” with their “Bricks in paper bags, / bats, hoarse voices shouting / faggots, these streets are ours” ; and in “Peace after Long Sickness,” the speaker’s own serious illness during “the winter of the riots” seems a manifestation of the larger, surrounding damages: “The door opened and you entered /—you and pain, like two guests / who know each other by accident.” Nurkse’s speaker serves as an actor in these narratives, but also as a witness. His political sense is acute but devoid of righteousness, more conscience than condemnation. Among the primary sites of contention in Leaving Xaia are Iraq (the Gulf War) and El Salvador. In the first case, Nurkse represents many of the war’s horrors even though, like most Americans, his experience is through the sanitary witness of television; here, though, such easy entertainment becomes part of 160
the trauma or guilt of the poem: “In the middle of a meal / we checked the dial . . . / in the act of love / we watched. // What were we staring at? / Why did we imagine it was the war?” His interrogations spread to Saddam (“Why did he put mothers and children / in the air-raid shelter / where we could kill them?”), as well as to ourselves (“We bombed / until the enemy was immortal . . . // was there a mind there / still living, or just a device // trip-wired to return our fire?”) El Salvador provides the setting for others of the strongest poems in the book. In this case, the speaker finds himself in Salvador “by will, not accident,” a human-rights activist battling famine and “brackish wells” as well as military police, wondering “why don’t they kill me?” In “The United States Embassy in Salvador,” he and his colleagues listen to the double-talk of an attaché who “explained how the killings / had receded, and unfurled / a graph big as a flag.” Then, in the last lines, they step back into the reality of Salvador. into the lines of those who wait permanently, the widows, the amputees, the visa sellers, who parted, as if by instinct, without looking at us, perhaps knowing us by scent, or the heaviness of our footsteps, and let us pass.
The plain style evolved in religious discourse from the desire for humility and purity, but it has also become a marker of journalistic honesty or objectivity. Nurkse’s plain style is a blend of report-like clarity and spiritual, or more exactly, ethical deportment. It’s also true, I think, that there is little to distinguish among the subjects, tones, or demeanor of much plain-style poetry; sometimes that is the case in Leaving Xaia. This is a liability of the plain style itself, which can offer little opportunity for distinguishing features. It is a style meant to be seen through rather than seen. But in his best poems, as in the aforementioned lines, Nurkse exercises a subtle artistry. These predominately three-stress lines are crisply broken, and the increasing rhymes provide a growing finality to the scene. Not only do “pass” and “heaviness” shut this poem like a sonnet’s last couplet, but the 161
inner music of “footsteps” and “perhaps,” as well as “let,” “scent,” “without,” and “instinct,” reinforces the end-rhyme as it underscores the inevitability of the American characters’ separateness. Nurkse’s second, less obvious narrative purpose in his book is to describe the growth and strife of a marriage. Even within the overt political scenes of Leaving Xaia, we find an equally complex drama between husband and wife. As the speaker marches at a rally in “Bring the War Home,” then fasts at a Mark Clark vigil, he also keeps one eye alert, “hoping to see you / one more time or at least / hear the tremor of your voice / among those voices. . . .” Several poems describe the lovers’ good days, “when she still loved me,” but eventually we see the marriage dissolving, and by the book’s last section Nurkse has constructed a complex story where politics and personal life are almost seamlessly coupled. I don’t want to go too deep into Xaia again. Not past the wells into the black onyx desert. Not so deep in love I lie beside you as you sleep. . . . Not back to the plain of voices where I spoke your name.
These first lines of “The Interior” show Nurkse’s double fear stemming from the horrors of his activist travels and from the trauma of the broken marriage. Even the book’s title suggests this double “leaving,” for Xaia has never been clearly identified. It seems in most cases to name an imaginary city (or territory? or state?); it looks like an old Mayan name and, as well, like the primitive Earth-goddess Gaea. Or is Xaia a lover? Nurkse doesn’t say, and finally we understand that this collection of realistic poems is underwritten by an imaginary or fanciful presence: Xaia is ultimately a mysterious entity, a complex “state” of being. It’s a dangerous place, worldly and war-torn, and Nurkse is one of its articulate, bruised citizens. I am reminded less of other American poets, and more of Mandelstam with his haunting clear lyrics or, recently, the fine Bosnian poet Goran Simic, when I imagine who walks the same streets as D. Nurkse. 162
In his fourth book, The Ledge, Michael Collier doesn’t travel so far afield as Nurkse does, nor is his sense of danger so overt or physical. But The Ledge shudders with peril—for the household itself, for the contemporary domestic space and its residents. Collier’s characteristic formal restraint, his apparent calm, is made ironic by the severe tension and trauma in these new stories. It’s the kind of balance—a hurt dignity—that I love in the work of Elizabeth Bishop and William Meredith as well. Behind the seemingly sturdy and soft-spoken poems is a psyche under great pressure. Like several of the other poets here, Collier turns to classical mythology to provide a narrative layer to his new work. “Argos,” the book’s first poem, announces several of the important subjects in The Ledge. Here Collier focuses on Odysseus’s return home to Ithaka, after his long travels, where he must face his greatest obstacle—fitting in as husband and father, earning his place again. But rather make than an honest return, the old deceiver chooses to disguise himself to test his loved ones: “he returned . . . / intent to check up on his wife // and candidly apprize the condition of his kingdom.” The pathos of the scene is emphasized by “the tear / Odysseus shed for his decrepit dog, Argos,” who recognizes him even in beggar’s guise. But the hero’s tenderness is pierced by his wretched doubt, as the inequity of Greek marital life is vivified by his need to be sure of Penelope’s fidelity during his own long (and often unfaithful!) journey. For Collier the contemporary household is an anxious, sometimes faithless, place. That knowledge is the precipitous ledge over which this book looks. In “The Blame,” husband and wife cast their gaze down together, as into water, where the stain of infidelity clouds their lives. That fact seems more awful in Collier’s matter-of-fact tone. That which you made me do I did. That which you made me say I said. Now the blame, like oil over water, spreads, and so our life together that began in vows—the licensed oath— has leased itself back to us both. . . . 163
One of the book’s finest poems, “The Dolphin,” exposes the couple’s shared shame and guilt to a more public view. “Among the surf casters’ gear, / RVs and 4x4s,” the speaker stands at the seashore and realizes that even nature senses the trouble, for “the fin of faithlessness appear[s]” in the form of a dolphin. As he watches “the sleek warm thigh of that image” weave off through the rough surf, he sees in that image a wayward spouse swimming beyond reach, lost in “the ocean, / toward which we call out to a wife // or husband who now beyond the safety / of the store hears that voice / which might turn them from their frenzy.” In “Pax Geologica,” this frenzy is the “peaceful destruction” that “scattered the possessions of our house” on the floor of the sea. Infidelity is a lie among lovers. It is a transgression of legal, erotic, and religious standards. Throughout these poems, characters are forced to look down: Swimmers gaze into perilous depths; a diver ponders the sulfuric vents and strange life-forms “two miles down” in the sea; and two young sisters stand over their aroused brother, reenacting on his body the “murderous pageantry” of the crucifixion. The Ledge is a book about shame, and Collier extends this pattern of narrative beyond the stricken marriage. The shame of the lie shakes a house in “The Hammer,” where a young son lies to his father about a lost tool, and in “Safe,” in the sanctuary of a “safe and warm” house, a character hollows out a book, making a hiding place for “a stolen turquoise ring, / a condom sealed in foil, / a quarter lid of pot.” These deceptions stem from our “need . . . to hide / the self or the things / the self could not contain.” The resulting guilt generates a need for confession and contrition, which Collier often represents in Catholic imagery. Again in “My Crucifixion,” the inappropriate sexual arousal of the boy from his sisters’ “playful holy torture” produces “imagined spikes through my hands and feet,” and their parents, returning home early, look down “like prelates” in judgment. In “A Last Supper,” a wayward spouse decides to return home with “not quite / the evidence of restored faith,” but at least with a contrite gratitude for the stuff of domestic bustle, “the flux / that carries solder to seal the cut.” This cut is a bodily wound with spiritual or moral import, as in the crucifixion poem; it is also the site of a potential detachment, 164
the point where the marital body may be severed. Here, partaking of an imagined meal of “unforgiving grit,” the returning spouse “metamorphoses” into a family member again, not yet forgiven but with the prospect of renewal. Faithlessness and doubt are the subterranean faults of individual lives in The Ledge, and a fine capability with clear imagery and clean syntax marks Collier’s accompanying style. But his phrasing shifts beyond plainness into flatness in the long lines of “The Lesson,” and the simplicity of his rendering is a touch easy in “A Real-Life Drama,” an otherwise strong poem about a neighbor’s dog who attacks another neighbor’s pedigree rabbit. Here the final lines seem mundane as Collier widens blame for the incident to include both men: “the man / who’d raised the rabbit shouldn’t husband something / so rare and beautiful he couldn’t keep it / from the likes of Bosco.” In a few poems there’s just not enough there. Typically, though, Collier is gifted with a graceful rhythmic touch, using a calm iambic base for his coherent lines. And his eye for fitting detail generates some of his best imagery, as in “The New Possum,” which is “Tall like a stripped turnip. / Head as narrow as a blunt carrot wedge.” In fact, many of Collier’s most vivid depictions here are of animals—snakes, swans, hummingbirds, and lots of dogs (from the Cerberus and Argos of myth to neighborhood watchdogs and pets). The Ledge is a surprisingly full, complex book, given the apparent modesty or restraint of Collier’s style. That style operates in tension with the shame and terror at the heart of our domestic lives. In his best poems, Collier, like each of these poets, tells a number of stories in order to tell the story right.
Whitman Alone “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”
Walt Whitman is the great jabberbox of American poetry—its mynah bird and mockingbird. He chants for us, cajoles, encourages, flirts, repeats, extols, and the greatest of his lyric poems have become part of our national identity and treasure. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is one of Whitman’s best known short poems. It doesn’t intend to map out the visionary epic expanse of “Song of Myself” or to explore the complex transcendental procedures of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Rather, it is a single sentence about a single event on a single evening in the speaker’s life. Whitman is occasionally described by detractors as a sloppy poet, an English teacher’s nightmare of run-on syntax and hyperbolic gesticulation. Nothing could be more wrong. He is a masterful writer, and this poem demonstrates the precision and subtle efficacy of his stylistic choices. It also bears a surprise for readers for whom Whitman is the stereotypical “I,” the great egoist of American poetry. The narrative of this poem is simple enough, a two-part story beginning in an academic setting and ending under the broad night sky. In fact, the poem—and the sentence—falls neatly into two discrete halves, each four lines long. In the first part the speaker sits inside a lecture room, listening to a scholarly presentation about astronomy. When the audience responds with enthusiasm, he seems, in fact, annoyed. Here the speaker remains passive, static, a receptor of the lecturer’s data, and his language likewise is report-like, flat, and repetitive. Precisely halfway through the poem, as he becomes “tired and sick,” the speaker’s demeanor and condition both change. His dissatisfaction with the presentation activates him; now he’s 169
on the move, physically and lyrically so, “rising” to become the solitary singer he aspired to be in his own great lilac elegy. He is also now out of doors, away from the language of science (even “unaccountable” hints at his rejection of the lecturer’s arithmetic) and separated from the crowd. The poem begins in talk and company but ends in isolate silence. Here we see important subtle features of Whitman’s stylistic genius. Within the perfect symmetry of this poem’s form, Whitman ironizes that very symmetry with phrasal and tonal patterns distinct to each half. The first part of the poem consists of a series of anaphoric clauses (“When . . .”); this front-loaded repetition seems sterile, as though the scene itself is both empty and redundant, eventually stalling out. Several of the clauses are in passive voice, too, suggesting the speaker’s inactive demeanor. None of the information about the lecture is specific, just a generalized summary of “charts,” “figures,” and mathematical operations. The second half of the poem, at line five, immediately activates the primary independent clause of the sentence (“How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick”). At this point the speaker is more dynamic in his phrasing and complex in his self- reliant observations. When he’s moving, the speaker grows more capable. Now the phrasing becomes fluid, tight, and graceful, with much less punctuation to impede the movement; in fact, Whitman uses only one medial comma in the poem’s last four lines. And in a stylistic flourish that he reserves for very important places, like the opening line of his great “Song of Myself” (“I sing myself, and celebrate myself”), he concludes this poem in a line of iambic pentameter. It’s as if he discovers form and articulate capability even as the poem hushes into the “perfect silence” of the stars. Whitman’s great poems never take place indoors. “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Song of Myself,” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” all position Whitman’s speakers finally not in public but in nature, where he is free, mobile, and self-determining. No doubt, Whitman loves people, the contact of bodies, the presence, commerce, and social knowledge of others: “Hurray for positive demonstration! long live exact science!” he famously cheers in “Song of Myself,” as if in direct con170
tradiction of the present poem. But ultimately his journeys take him away from the social—and those man-made forms of social knowledge and rhetoric—into the more healing capabilities of nature and self-discovery. And self-loss. In those same, most significant poems—and despite his reputation for arrogance and self-promotion—Whitman’s visions ultimately require not the self’s aggrandizement but rather its demise. Here, too. Whitman rejects the academic for the “mystical,” abandons the crowd for the solitary. These extinguishings also enact a wish for self- erasure. This most articulate and public poet desires silence and privacy. His last act is to “depart as air,” as he says at the end of “Song of Myself”: to “effuse himself” into the quiet, vast obliterations of the unstopped night sky. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” When I heard the learn’d astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Walt Whitman “Time to Come”
On July 6, 1855, the first advertisement appeared in the New York Tribune for the slender green book that changed the course of American poetry. Two dollars was a fair price for the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman intended to make his book available on July 4, but the bookstores were closed that day. It is almost impossible now to measure the massive newness of those first twelve untitled poems—the sprawling free- verse lines, the cocksure optimism of his “democratic” voice, the idiom, which fused street lingo and operatic grandeur with religious conviction and erotic candor. Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized his brilliance immediately. His letter to Whitman, written on July 21, famously “greet[s Whitman] at the beginning of a great career.” Whitman carried the letter in his pocket all summer. If Leaves seemed to spring out of thin air, still Emerson shrewdly guessed that it “must have had a long foreground somewhere.” Critics commonly mark the beginning of Whitman’s poetic career in 1855. Whitman himself encouraged such a notion, suggesting in “Song of Myself” that “I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin.” (This line doesn’t appear until the 1881–82 edition of Leaves of Grass, published when Whitman was sixty-two.) But Emerson correctly assumed the serious and long preparation. By the late 1830s, still in his teens, Whitman was writing hard, and through the 1840s he published many poems, about two dozen short stories, a novel, as well as dozens— perhaps hundreds—of sketches, editorials, and reviews for New England newspapers and magazines. Much of this work was gathered by Thomas L. Brasher and reprinted in 1963 as Early 172
Poems and Fiction, a volume of NYU Press’s The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman. Whitman’s first published poem appeared unsigned on October 31, 1838, in the Long Island Democrat. “Our Future Lot” is the work of a talented teenager, conventional in taste and form, whose speaker mines the traditional gloom and melodrama of the period’s magazine verse. Appearing in Aurora on April 9, 1842, and written by “Walter Whitman,” “Time to Come” is a substantially revised version of “Our Future Lot.” I don’t claim that “Time to Come” is a great poem. Rather, it is a fascinating early poem by a great poet. It is also a poem few know and fewer have examined. Between the appearance in 1838 of “Our Future Lot” and Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman himself had evolved from failed teacher, journeyman printer, housebuilder and editor, to poet; from shy teenager to foppish Brooklyn dandy to “one of the roughs,” complete with open- collared, broadcloth shirts and undomesticated beard. Likewise, “Time to Come” falls midway between his sentimental earliest poems and the audaciously original Leaves of Grass. It foreshadows some of Whitman’s greatest, later themes while still demonstrating residuals from his earliest work. “Time to Come” will strike new readers for its conventional poetics. We are just not prepared to hear rhyme and meter from Whitman, our first free-verse poet. His rhymes are obvious but not forced (at least not always). In fact, their frequent ideational juxtapositions show a sophisticated wit. The physicality of “state” is ironized by the abstractness of “Fate”; one must “bear” the “fear” of obliteration; the body’s “play” inevitably must “decay,” and so forth. The final quatrain’s rhyme of “mystery” and “to die” is the poem’s most distant and unbalanced rhyme, and that final, fatal infinitive seems effectively to bite off any further development of the narrative. Whitman’s iambic rhythm is traditional and, occasionally, graceful. Notice how each stanza’s fourth line—trimeter rather than tetrameter—serves to emphasize the shortened life of the stanza, thus marrying form and content. For such a conventional poem, “Time to Come” features a number of well-enjambed lines, as in stanza four. Whitman’s extended syntax unfolds with poise, though he clearly does get tangled in the sixth stanza. 173
Here, as he turns from the interrogative to declarative back to interrogative mode—in a single sentence—his emphatic “Must,” as well as his strained phrasing and ineffective punctuation, all seem to befuddle the poem’s progression. From Gray to Keats, from Poe to Dickinson, to a myriad of lesser “magazine poets,” death was a favorite subject of the Romantics. Whitman’s poem—with its awaiting grave, its corpses, and its “black and pierceless pall”—possesses no small portion of gothic morbidity. His tone is didactic and his diction is archaic, perhaps even a touch Quakerish (his mother, a strong influence, was Quaker), though occasionally he breaks into a cleaner and more contemporary phrasing. “This curious frame of human mould, / Where unrequited cravings play,” for instance, anticipates tones and gestures of his later, great poems. He derives a clever doubleness from “mould,” as the word signifies both a physical shape and the texture of decay. But notice further that “curious frame” and those “unrequited cravings.” In his 1856 “Sun-Down Poem” (recast as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in 1860), he wonders about the “curious” population in their evening commute. His curiosity suggests a subtle eroticism: Whitman wants contact, to be “fused” with “ever so many generations” of people. The body in its “frame” provides the individual’s identity (his “nighest name”) and serves also as a means for physical union. Physical union, in turn, provides for spiritual connectedness. “Curious abrupt questionings” stir there in Whitman’s speaker, suggesting not only his passion for physical contact but his specifically homoerotic desire, embodied by the young men on the ferry-dock “leaning . . . their flesh against me.” The “unrequited cravings” in “Time to Come” may be Whitman’s first guarded intimations of homoerotic passion. “Time to Come” initiates one of the great conundrums of Whitman’s work, the problem of death—that is, the inevitability of death, the individual body’s decay, and the soul’s resulting dislocation. Because the body dies, the soul is imperiled as well, and the speaker’s “struggling brain” remains admittedly “powerless” to propose any answer. The mournful tones clearly express Whitman’s metaphysical concern over a physical, bodily dilemma. Of course, he doesn’t solve the problem in this poem. 174
That will come later. What he can’t see yet is the future, the time to come. The problem of death is central to his great poems like “Song of Myself,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and the sublime elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In these poems he defeats the finality of individual death through a transcendental formula. The body provides our means of contact with others, and this contact—electric, generative, sexual, holy—provides an avenue for transcendence beyond the body to the spirit, which is “framed” or held in the collective and timeless body of nature. The poet’s job is to clarify and articulate this formula. The lilac elegy is Whitman’s greatest death poem, since here he confronts not only the death of a person (his natural hero, Lincoln) but also of an ideal (the perfect, democratic American state, shattered by the Civil War). He thus undertakes a soulful odyssey. In following Lincoln’s burial train, he imagines his own death, losing himself in the landscape of a hidden swamp, and is reborn into his role as poet, guide, and democratic optimist through the song of a hermit thrush. In other words, he resolves the problem of death by joining it, enlisting its aid, and returning reborn to the world singing a “victorious song, death’s outlet song”—the transcendentalist’s song of grief turned to praise. The distance between “Time to Come” and his later, great poems is indeed substantial—in form, theme, and ambition. Before Walter Whitman becomes Walt, he must absorb Emerson. He must soak up the expansive grandeur of opera. He must study the rhetoric of the Bible. He must delight in the stump speeches of local politicians. He must immerse himself in the life and language of working-class areas around Brooklyn and Manhattan. He must tend the broken bodies of soldiers at a hospital in Washington DC. And he must work out the scheme of his free-verse formulations. But already, in “Time to Come,” he is asking the single most important question that will guide his greatest poems toward their ends. “Time to Come” O, Death! a black and pierceless pall Hangs round thee, and the future state;
No eye may see, no mind may grasp That mystery of Fate. This brain, which now alternate throbs With swelling hope and gloomy fear; This heart, with all the changing hues, That mortal passions bear— This curious frame of human mould, Where unrequited cravings play, This brain, and heart, and wondrous form Must all alike decay. The leaping blood will stop its flow; The hoarse death-struggle pass; the cheek Lay bloomless, and the liquid tongue Will then forget to speak. The grave will tame me; earth will close O’er cold dull limbs and ashy face; But where, O, Nature, where shall be The Soul’s abiding place? Will it e’en live? for though its light Must shine till from the body torn; Then, when the oil of life is spent, Still shall the taper burn? O, powerless is this struggling brain To rend the mighty mystery; In dark, uncertain awe it waits The common doom, to die.
Life Lines Issa and Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Issa’s masterful haiku The world of dew is the world of dew. And yet, and yet—
is one of my favorite poems. The delicacy of the simple first image in the opening line is one thing. But the reiteration of that image in line two becomes a mirror in a drop of water. This in turn prepares the ultimate reflection inside the last line. “And yet, and yet” quivers as though the bead of dew is about to spill or evaporate. What restraint yields what power. The poem’s last repetition seems hesitant, even as it evokes acceptance of its own transience. It seems to me like a kind of beautiful hopefulness sometimes, a kind of resigned grace at other times. Does it help to know that Issa wrote this poem shortly after his infant daughter, Sato, died of smallpox? It is June 1819. The provisional, Issa reminds us, is what lasts. Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s sonnet, “Friendship After Love,” haunts me for its kindred reiteration in the last line. I love the way poems echo and arc, calling, sending their lines to each other across time and languages. Wilcox’s poem is resigned, rueful—Issa’s provisional. Even in her first lines, I admire Wilcox’s fine craft and complex syntax. “All ablaze” points back, as a modifier, to “midsummer,” the object of the preposition; but also resolves forward into the predicate after the line break. Likewise “St. Martin days” closes a phrase but further modulates into the participle in the next line. 177
St. Martin’s Day comes from German culture, and commences on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to mark the end of farming, the beginning of harvest. This reference is part of Wilcox’s larger pattern of seasonal imagery. It’s a familiar association—the seasons of the year reflect a person’s life and love—notable in Wordsworth and Barrett Browning, notable in Yeats’s chilly tropes in “When You Are Old.” Less effective is the bathos of Wilcox’s phrase “large-eyed friendship,” though I remind myself that her image anticipates by a century the cartoonish greeting cards, anime, and black-velvet urchins we find so saccharine. The real power of her poem derives from the way Wilcox leads to the clarities of the final four lines. She proceeds from conventional romantic tropes of language and love toward the surprising modernity of the last lines. Notice how her earlier long clauses and heavy enjambment resolve into her ending’s more deliberate lineation, each taut line a closed clause with no syntactical inversions. A powerful clarity. Notice finally how she slips from one mode into another, the way the erotic poem— with its requisite pain and anguish—becomes the more serene love poem. The grief of her lyric arises from Wilcox’s realization of that transformation. She wants the summer back. The fire. Ella Wheeler Wilcox was born in 1850, lived in Wisconsin, then in midlife moved to Connecticut. She was one of the most popular writers of her day, contributing poems as well as articles for the Hearst newspapers. This poem appeared in 1883, in a book from Chicago publisher W. B. Conkey entitled Poems of Passion. Issa lived in Japan from 1763 to his death in 1827. He wrote more than 20,000 poems and is one of the great masters of haiku poetry. Issa and Wilcox. Like lifelines, poems can bridge across to each other over time and space in the most remarkable ways. “Friendship After Love” After the fierce midsummer all ablaze Has burned itself to ashes, and expires In the intensity of its own fires, There come the mellow, mild, St. Martin days Crowned with the calm of peace, but sad with haze. 178
So after Love has led us, till he tires Of his own throes, and torments, and desires, Comes large-eyed friendship: with a restful gaze, He beckons us to follow, and across Cool verdant vales we wander free from care. Is it a touch of frost lies in the air? Why are we haunted with a sense of loss? We do not wish the pain back, or the heat; And yet, and yet, these days are incomplete.
Kees and Me “Late Evening Song” and “Top of the Stove”
Why Kees? Because when I write a new poem, I encircle it—and myself—with other poems. I let the sound or the story or the design or simple demeanor of other poems make a quiet template for my imagination. For a while Let it be enough: The responsible smile, Though effort goes into it.
And often, it is enough, or enough of an accompaniment, for lines and phrases of my own to come forth. Effort does indeed go into it. These lines form the opening quatrain of Weldon Kees’s beautiful lyric, “Late Evening Song.” I found Kees early in my writing life. I was nineteen or twenty, a just-turned English major at Central Missouri State University, and my poetry guide there, Robert C. Jones, suggested that I search out other poets from the Midwest. There were poets from the Midwest? I discovered in quick succession at the CMSU library Gary Gildner, Ted Kooser, William Kloefkorn, Mona Van Duyn, and Jim Barnes. Of course I knew already that both T. S. Eliot and Marianne Moore had come from my home state, Missouri. But they were from that big city, St. Louis; old and modernist; dead. These others were alive and working now in the same vicinity as me. And then I came across Weldon Kees. I read that he was 180
from Beatrice, Nebraska. He had attended the University of Missouri. He went missing one day in 1955 in San Francisco. Had he jumped, having left the keys in his car at the Golden Gate Bridge, having left his cat, Lonesome, to fend for himself in their apartment? Had he changed his life and sneaked away, as he said he wanted to do, to Mexico? Was he still there? The poems and the life gave me both clarity and enigma. I still turn to Kees for his quiet lyricism, for the graceful melancholy music that I imagine he played on the piano, too, with jazz combos in San Francisco in the early 1950s. Here are the final stanzas of “Late Evening Song.” Across the warm room Shared in candlelight, This look beyond shame, Possible now, at night, Goes out to yours. Hidden by day And shaped by fires Grown dead, gone gray, That burned in other rooms I knew Too long ago to mark, It forms again. I look at you Across those fires and the dark.
At first I knew only that I wanted to write a poem about my grandmother’s house. When I was little, I stayed often with her in Macon, Missouri. A smokehouse out back, a crab-apple tree surrounded by lilacs, a big garden, a white propane tank against the back wall, photographs and hand-sewn decorations everywhere inside the small, clean, clapboard house. A train clacking on the tracks down the hill. Aroma of powder and pie. Vividly, too, I remember the heat and pop of her coal stove. Each morning the ashy dust covered every surface like a delicate skin. As Kees’s poem says, it was warm there, it was “shaped by fires / Grown dead, gone gray, // That burned in other rooms. . . .” The subtlety of his rhymes, the gentle perfection of his quatrains, the complex memory of distant years. I looked at how he 181
ended his lines and yet pushed his sentences on. I studied the plain clarity of his voice, the economy of image, the abiding mystery. These things played in a background melody as I wrote my own portrait of a loved one whose face I saw again “across those fires and the dark.” “Top of the Stove” And then she would lift her griddle tool from the kindling bin, hooking one end through a hole in the cast-iron disk to pry it up with a turn of her wrist. Our faces pinked over to watch coal chunks churn and fizz. This was before I had language to say so, the flatiron hot all day by the kettle, fragrance of coffee and coal smoke over the kitchen in a mist. What did I know? I hear her voice like a lick of flame to a bone-cold day. Careful, she says. I hold my head close to see what she means.
Levis Here and There “In the City of Light” Critics have referred to Larry Levis as a poet of the rural farmland, especially the grape fields and migrant camps of California’s central valley. His voice in behalf of labor and laborers is clear, politically astute, and sustained. David St. John contends that Levis can recall the San Joaquin valley with “John Steinbeck’s dramatic sweep of the landscape.” Other readers point to Levis’s urban sites, identifying him as a city poet; he can be charming, urbane, even droll, like Milan Kundera, and at ease among museums and cloud-high buildings, comfortable walking “the lit streets / Of New York, from the Gramercy Park Hotel / Up Lexington . . . hearing traffic, voices,” like that other great metropolitan writer, Walt Whitman. Neither and both critical positions are, to my mind, exactly right. Larry Levis is a poet of here and there—thus of travel, anxiety, flux—never and always at home. “In the City of Light” is one of my favorite Levis poems, and its fluctuating locus clarifies the poet’s restless need to move and move on and move again. In fact, the dominating trope of “In the City of Light” is of traveling, not stasis, though the poem’s persona at first appears intent to find a way to find his way, even from the poem’s first sentence: “The last thing my father did for me / Was map a way. . . .” Of course the father’s gift is made ironic by two circumstances. The father’s death is less an “honored” destination than a fateful fact; and his mapping of “the way” is superfluous, since death is an inevitable termination. What remains for Levis, in his poetry, consists of a restless meander through loves, landscapes, memories, and, by his admission, mostly “wrong” decisions. His location is less important than his language for moving. Levis undercuts any prospect of arrival by the many quick veerings- 183
away into self- consciousness— sometimes coy withholdings, sometimes equally self-aware but deepened revelations. The poem’s center does seem to be the event of his father’s dying, when the speaker leaves his lover, saying “goodbye in an airport & [flying] west.” Or is that actually what happened? Is that the way “the story goes”? The speaker undermines his own linear narrative with the switchback of “It happened otherwise.” Thus, we wonder, did the speaker forsake the familial obligation of the father’s funeral to stay in New York with his lover? Or did something else happen “otherwise”? The tug between the two coastal cities, as between the two kinds of love—a son’s, a lover’s—provokes this self-incriminating confession: “It’s in bad taste to say it quite this way.” Either way, in this poem, Levis resides in two places at once. Residing in two places is a classical definition of irony. Harold Bloom defines such irony as the “clash of incommensurate forces.” Bloom does not mean, nor is Levis often satisfied with, the irony of voice, mere sarcasm; rather, he prefers the irony of circumstances doubled, events or issues inexorably at odds. For Levis such situational irony is the stepping-off point for mediation and the locus for language’s deepest inquisitions. And even here, in “In the City of Light,” his offerings of wisdom come in two varieties. The first is quick, even admittedly shallow or “wrong,” the temporary solution of an either/or choice: “My only advice is not to go away. / Or go away.” Likewise, as the story goes, Levis’s speaker finds himself “wanting to be alone & wanting / The easy loneliness of travelers.” In such dichotomous cases, Levis realizes that he will never be able to choose a single, sufficient location or abiding stance. He realizes further that “Most / Of my decisions have been wrong.” This is the point where Levis deepens his best poems, in rejecting any singular landedness or site and instead embracing the uncertainty of the plural. Thus his second manner of wisdom, the harder kind, finds Levis at ease, or at least anxiously at home, among contradiction and multiplicity. In this poem he rinses himself of the past, of the determinacy of singular choices, in a cleansing gesture: “I lift cold water / To my face. I close my eyes.” At precisely this point Levis renders the poem’s most splendid moment, enlarged beyond any single place or person, 184
beyond any single relationship, into a kind of brilliant clarity. It is part of Levis’s grand yet self-effacing wit that this moment of revelation is rendered as a question: “A body wishes to be held, & held, and what / Can you do about that?” The doubling of “held” enforces the speaker’s realization that he can have, finally, neither of the poem’s two central loves—not father, not lover. And his transition into the second person further installs a kind of rhetorical difference in the statement. This moment expands the poem beyond any singular choice, as beyond any singular narrative, representing Levis at his best, here and in other poems. The wisdom of uncertainty and plurality occurs at the shifting site of poetry’s truest capabilities: the capable power of metaphor, complexity, and depth. This explains, in the poem’s conclusion, Levis’s condition—a choice? an inevitability?—to live in both places at once. This further identifies his wish and his fate to remember the multiple choice offered by the eastern city and the western promise. Because there are faces I might never see again, There are two things I want to remember About light, & what it does to us. Her bright, green eyes at an airport—how they widened As if in disbelief; And my father opening the gate: a lit, & silent City.
These lines seem virtually to anticipate a posthumous existence, as Keats termed it. The lover’s eyes at the airport widen “in disbelief,” he says, though her reaction also expresses a shocked recognition of the real. The father’s gesture of opening and entrance, however, must take place in the “city” of the afterlife, that immortal but imaginary location. Larry Levis, in his finest poems, opts to be neither here nor here. Rather, he is always already here and there. “In the City of Light” The last thing my father did for me Was map a way: he died, & so 185
Made death possible. If he could do it, I Will also, someday, be so honored. Once, At night, I walked through the lit streets Of New York, from the Gramercy Park Hotel Up Lexington & at that hour, alone, I stopped hearing traffic, voices, the racket Of spring wind lifting a newspaper high Above the lights. The streets wet, And shining. No sounds. Once, When I saw my son be born, I thought How loud the world must be to him, how final. That night, out of respect for someone missing, I stopped listening to it. Out of respect for someone missing, I have to say This isn’t the whole story. The fact is, I was still in love. My father died, & I was still in love. I know It’s in bad taste to say it quite this way. Tell me, How would you say it? The story goes: wanting to be alone & wanting The easy loneliness of travelers, I said good-bye in an airport & flew west. It happened otherwise. And where I’d held her close to me, My skin felt raw, & flayed. Descending, I looked down at light lacquering fields Of pale vines, & small towns, each With a water tower; then the shadows of wings; Then nothing. My only advice is not to go away. Or, go away. Most
Of my decisions have been wrong. When I wake, I lift cold water To my face. I close my eyes. A body wishes to be held, & held, & what Can you do about that? Because there are faces I might never see again, There are two things I want to remember About light, & what it does to us. Her bright, green eyes at an airport—how they widened As if in disbelief; And my father opening the gate: a lit, & silent City.
Jane Hirshfield’s Foxes “Three Foxes in a Field at Twilight”
Galway Kinnell’s famous bauchy bear serves as an emblem for the poet’s primitivist aspirations. He wants to know so wholly what the bear knows that he enters its body. Robert Lowell selects a skunk for his totem animal—diminutive, sneaky, less predator than belated scrounge, rummaging the trash. Thoreau finds the ants worthy of study for their fastidious—and combative—work, but he sees himself more truly in the woodchuck, isolate and feral in an earthen burrow. Jane Hirshfield’s foxes are deliberate, elusive, and (at least two of them) female. It is rare to see a fox, exceptional to come across three of them, and even more so to watch them for some time before they vanish. They are shy, smaller than you’d think, and exactly as the poet says—hardly red, more rust-colored wisps. I stood in an airport bookstore reading over and over “Three Foxes at the Edge of the Field at Twilight” in the pages of the Atlantic. It was the summer of 1996. I bought the magazine, Xeroxed the poem, and kept it by my desk for months afterward. This poem has stayed with me, and I with it. I continue to turn to it for its sense of powerful mysteries opening—and withheld—its awe, and the wisdom of its interiority. I turn to it, too, for Hirshfield’s masterful applications of free-verse tactics. This seems to me a superbly realized poem, situated far beyond the many overwrought yet bloodless works that currently litter our magazines. “Three Foxes” happens on the edge, on a number of edges, where wild and human worlds rub together. It begins in a simple act of observation. Only a mature and self-realized poet could commence with a scene so drained, at first, of a self. The speaker 188
appears at the end of the third fox’s description, and only then at the end of the sentence, and in the plural: “except to turn her head a little as we walked.” Three sentences later the “we” becomes, at last, the “I” of the poem, friendly if secretive, available if cautiously revealed. I love the fine pacing and subtle craft throughout this poem. These traits are common to many of Hirshfield’s best works, along with her balancing humility and visionary strength. How simple the present twenty lines appear, plainspoken and plainly punctuated. That is, except in the second sentence. Hirshfield’s mimetic syntax in this sentence reflects, with its bumpy bunch of three semicolons, the anxious, never-settled habit of the animal, up and down and up again. On a single line and with a stanza to itself, this sentence also anticipates an even more dramatic announcement a few lines later: “I wish I had thought to put my face to the grass.” Here, halfway through the poem, the speaker first depicts herself as an individual and makes the first of her startling admissions, revealing her complex reaction to the foxes’ vanishing “as though they had never been.” Is it shame that makes her want to “put [her] face to the grass”? Or the primitivist desire to smell the animals, or sense the world as they do? She maintains her human decorum, though, and the pair keeps walking and talking together. But who are they, exactly? Hirshfield continues her intricate hold on the poem’s tension, revealing much, withholding more. Are these two friends? Are they, potentially, “loves”? The poem deepens further in the next stanza, with Hirshfield’s second startling self-revelation: “There is more and more I tell no one, / strangers nor loves.” Her intimate confession extends toward us rather than toward the companion. This paradox stems from her earlier description of the two people at the edge of “becoming friends”; here the speaker is pointed in her gesture of withholding, in the pleasures derived from her secrecies—and the pleasure of showing this secret to us. The paradox elides next into metaphor. Just as the foxes “vanished,” so Hirshfield’s admission “slips into the heart / without hurry.” Hirshfield further emphasizes this active figure through her reiteration of “as if it had never been.” The location of the phrase—at the end of a 189
sentence, a line, and a stanza—intensifies its repetition into a kind of free-verse rhyme. Thus Hirshfield heightens and completes the correlation between the foxes’ and the friends’ narratives. We see that the literal edge between the woods and the human world also describes another edge, where the outer public landscape abuts the poem’s rich “twilight” interiority. It is a Romantic trope that nature reflects the state of the human psyche and emotions. In Hirshfield’s poem, the wilderness of trees and foxes suggests the self-sustaining privacy and primacy of the speaker’s “heart.” What entity “among the trees” really knows that “something has changed”? Of course the speaker’s imagination is what has changed, and her relationship with us. Her projection into the woods, where the foxes reside, yields her estimation that they are still watching, measuring, looking “back from the trees.” In fact, while the human “friend” knows only what Hirshfield is willing to reveal, the foxes—like us, the other things “looking back”—are able to know her for “who I am.” Her negotiation of these complicated relationships is both subtle and powerful. Like Kinnell and Lowell before her, Hirshfield investigates the natural order, finding a paradigm both for self-understanding and artistic revelation. Jane Hirshfield is one of our finest, most memorable contemporary poets. “Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight” stays with me, like few other recent poems, for its complex clarity, for the subtle effectiveness of its craft, and for its brilliant rendering of the paradox at the heart of our hearts. The wild world and the human world meet along a sublime edge in this superb work. Just so, the exterior world rubs against the self-preserving necessity of our interior one. Each gazes at the other in wonder. “Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight” One ran, her nose to the ground, a rusty shadow neither hunting nor playing. One stood; sat; lay down; stood again.
One never moved, except to turn her head a little as we talked. Finally we drew too close, and they vanished. The woods took them back as if they had never been. I wish I had thought to put my face to the grass. But we kept walking, speaking as strangers do when becoming friends. There is more and more I tell no one, strangers nor loves. This slips into my heart without hurry, as if it had never been. And yet, among the trees, something has changed. Something looks back from the trees, and knows me for who I am.
Solmaz Sharif “Personal Effects”*
Each time the question invariably makes sense. I’m at a workshop or taking part in a panel discussion or a class, and someone asks about my work as poetry editor of the Kenyon Review: “So, what are you really looking for?” The expectation is that I provide a rubric for excellence, or at least a means to getting a poem published in KR, or at least some rationale for my own personal tastes and intentions as a poetry editor. It is a well-meaning, sensible question, and yet I have no sufficient answer. “I am looking for the poem I didn’t know I was looking for” is usually my reply, if not my answer. And the bounce back goes something like this: “That’s not helpful” or “What do you mean by that?” or “Are you pulling our legs?” I mean my reply seriously and literally. Otherwise, if I knew in advance what the next poem or poems should be, then somehow I will have defeated one of the functions of poetry—to surprise, to offer newness and otherness—and I will have betrayed as well my own sense of pleasure and discovery. Each new poem should change the landscape, even just a little; it should bring something I wasn’t anticipating to the page. I try hard and in evolving ways to prepare myself to recognize that surprise. It is easy to sort out the good from the bad poems. It is hard, and takes longer and more rereading, to sort out the good from the necessary and new. Solmaz Sharif’s poem, “Personal Effects,” reminds me again * Solmaz Sharif’s poem, “Personal Effects,” appeared in the Kenyon Review in the spring of 2013. I urge readers to find the poem, which is too long to reprint here.
why I love this job and what the job actually is. Her poem is atypically long, but in three other ways it is entirely typical of the poetry I seek and need. It offers freshness. It offers accomplishment. It offers significance. It is a poem I did not know I was seeking, and yet from the first encounter I knew it was the poem I needed. “Personal Effects” is a poem by a young poet. Sharif is an American woman, born in Istanbul of Iranian parents, and at this writing is thirty years old. She is a teacher and she is still a student, having completed her MFA at New York University in the spring of 2009 and started, in the fall of 2012, at Stanford University as a poetry fellow in the Stegner program. She has written a poem for herself that is also a poem for us all. There is so much to say about “Personal Effects”—its kinship to Darwish and Carson, to Barthes and Sontag, to Wojahn, Mattawa, Rukeyser, and so many more; its formal adventure and proficiencies; its wisdom, its conscience, and the gift of its profound sympathies. The story itself is simple. In the early 1980s, Sharif’s uncle, Amoo, “son of an imam, brother to six,” was killed. A soldier at the time, he was one of hundreds of thousands who died in the first years of the war between Iran and Iraq. So the poem is Sharif’s attempt to come to terms with his death and the residual losses of his death. It is—she hopes—an attempt finally to meet the man who is already beyond her reach, who died a year or two before her birth, in a war he “didn’t want to have / anything // to do with.” To construct a portrait of Amoo (this informal name in Persian suggests he is a brother of the speaker’s father), Sharif assembles fragments, shards of images, pieces of languages, prior and sometimes contradictory narrative accounts from family, news media, friends and strangers. What skill she brings to bear, even in a single image: “I sat rolling little ears of pasta off my thumb like helmets.” In a simple, literal way these images and stories in “Personal Effects” accumulate into an “album,” as she calls it from the onset, a linguistic rather than pictorial collection that intends a kind of objective focus and clarity, assembling as much information as possible to understand the life and death of a man whom Sharif will never meet. Of course, as with all language, all points of view, the objective is as impossible as the complete, or even the sufficient. As she proceeds, she comes to realize the fundamental irony of her work: “each photo is an 193
absence.” “Personal Effects” is the accrual of pieces, inscriptions concurrent with, sometimes overtaken by, erasures. I greatly admire the political and cultural intensity of this poem. It is a complaint in the ancient poetic mode—a complaint against death, a protest against war, against the damages of history and the brutal abuses of language and, importantly, by means of language. But finally the poem is not so much a political poem (a mode that can be flattened by certainty or indignant accusation) as an elegy. All she wants is to meet her uncle, to say “Hello” and shake his hand, to know him. That is the pointed gesture toward which all the effort of the poem leads. In the final section, she imagines “as if in a film projection” that she approaches him “in the new Imam Khomeini Airport,” and so only here, in the impossible conclusion, do they meet: “You stoop, extend a hand. . . .” The final articulation of the poem—while admittedly a “half-lie”—is also both an affirmation, of love and of art, and a question. In answer to his imagined greeting, “Do you know who I am?” she replies, “Yes, Amoo. // How could I not?” What a fine touch, to italicize her answer to Amoo’s question, but not italicize her final utterance, which therefore is directed to us rather than to him, an acknowledgment of his absence and the substitution of our presence in the poem. “Personal Effects” reminds us of the inevitable, elusive nature of poetic language. The subject is always already gone, beyond us, out of reach, and receding further. The subject is precisely that which evades. “Personal Effects” also reminds us of the powerful uses to which language is put by political forces. Running throughout the poem are terms and phrases which Sharif has lifted directly out of the U. S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (2007). Daily I sit with the language they’ve made of our language to NEUTRALIZE the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS like you. 194
If “Personal Effects” is an album of depictions of Amoo, it is also a catalog of military phrases, those devastating euphemisms made to sterilize the language and control its effects— or the effects of war and destruction— on us. She weaves these terms seamlessly (but pointedly by means of their capitalized appearance) through the narrative accounts of her whole poem. This technique becomes one of the profound accomplishments of “Personal Effects”—itself a phrase from the Department of Defense’s text. Rather than ignore the language of war-makers, or merely to submit to their coercions, Sharif adopts and reimagines that language. The effects are powerfully and alternately ironic and elegiac. She refuses to accept the language as it is given to her (“Fuck // CELESTIAL GUIDANCE.”), and she turns it back on, and against, its perpetrators. Amoo is “COLLATERAL DAMAGE,” his father a “PERSON ELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE EFFECTS,” while grief is “A CLOSED AREA.” In this way Sharif’s poem becomes a brilliant act of intervention and resistance. If she cannot resist death, she can, nonetheless, resist and reinvent the uses of such language. Language, in her hands, is resuscitated, vibrant and alive. This kind of word play is central to Sharif’s poem. Who possesses language? Who has such power? Language is a powerful weapon but it is also a powerful balm of sympathy and love. She accuses, she narrates, she shifts her points of view, she aims widely and narrowly, she stutters and forgets, and persists. In fact, her own poetic techniques take on multiple purposes themselves, just as she has demanded of the Department of Defense’s text. If she adjusts the justification of her margins (sections are left justified, right justified, center justified), that is a way to ask us to consider how any single tactic can be an adequate justification. Is there justice? Is war just? If her margins shift, we consider the marginalized and manipulated lives of soldiers and the other victims of war. If the center of her poem seems to shift, it is to show us that wherever we aim our sights, our gaze, we are always belated in that vision of things, adjusting, slipping, realigning, trying to get one clear view, but too late. Her lines are short and long, lineated and in prose, sometimes punctuated and sometimes erased, evacuated even as we read them. Throughout, with 195
all of these shifting methods, Sharif’s writing is sparkling, precise, subtle, artful, and true. You’ll see. “Personal Effects” is one of the most exciting poems to come my way in some time. My notions here do not begin to articulate its accomplishments and gifts. Why did I choose it? It seems to have chosen me.