A small volume of David Ignatow’s poems not included in this collection,The Animal in the Bush: Poem on Poetry, opens with the following lines: “I dig black hunks out of myself, making way for light and air./ I admire the ugliness of the pieces, bulky and shapeless, and set them/ on a mantlepiece for study.” This odd little metapoem is as much a precise statement of Ignatow’s aesthetic and poetic objective as it is an inaccurate one. One could also say that the effect of reading his collected poetry is much like being stuck in an Edward Hopper painting, hunched over a bleak counter, resigned to no coffee and a flat, two-dimensional existence. Such a self-conscious and unromantic sensibility is strikingly postmodern at the same time that it is elegiac of a period of American life and sensibility gone by. It is also unpredictable, in that just when readers might think they know what is coming, they get a strong, hard curveball. The certainty of the surprise curve is actually a defining feature of this collection, spanning seven decades of poetic achievement. Ignatow writes in a voice that chases its tail and watches itself do so vigilantly, fiercely, a characteristic that has prompted critics to praise and criticize him for decades.
Those who have heard the stories of their grandparents or great-grandparents who immigrated from Europe to work in the cities and factories of the eastern United States in the first two decades of the twentieth century have a link to the sensibility about industrial work and the alienation it can cause which fuels Ignatow’s poetry. It is this version or channel of history, no matter what decade of this century the poems have been written in, that informs his vision. What then, have younger poets and readers of poetry to learn from him, in a society running at breakneck technological speed down the information superhighway, reinventing the concept of history itself as human beings race through their lives? Surprisingly, or perhaps predictably enough (depending on one’s point of view), there is plenty to learn. Robert Bly commented twenty years before this collection that of his generation of poets (Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Karl Shapiro), Ignatow “is the only [one] to whom the young have rallied.” He bases his contention on another fascinating observation that seems to illuminate a driving force in Ignatow’s sensibility: “Ignatow notices human emotions are not becoming less insistent, but more insistent, and they have a greater influence on events. As western man sinks nearer to his instincts, his emotions become more demanding.” Twenty years after Bly made this remark, the phenomenon he articulated has become, if anything, even more insistent, and it is the rising pitch of this phenomenon that makes Ignatow’s poetry riveting and keeps it as far away as imaginable from being obsolete. However “unpleasant” or “raw” it may make readers feel at times, it is always honest about feeling the pulse of this elemental reaction forced on Westerners by the living conditions of their culture.
Ignatow’s poems are tightly knitted together. His “confessional explorations of the private self” travel the length of the instinctual scale in such a way that pulling one line out seems to ensure that its strangeness or humor or haunting image will deflate once outside the powerful context of juxtaposition in which it thrives. Discussing the personal voice and vision of existence driving these poems seems especially important, since they do not offer themselves up willingly to line-by-line explication. In spite of the fact that the poet makes much in his preface of the reorganization of his work by decade as opposed to the thematic and less chronological nature of earlier collections, the dynamic of mood and voice is what unifies more than sixty years of poetic craft.
The best way to describe this ingenious roller coaster, which is simultaneously minimal and convoluted, is to look at some poems that break the back of any other attempt to impose a scheme on them. Ultimately, David Ignatow does not “soften with age” or “harden with age” or move away from one subject and back toward another. He has one subject: the opaque inevitability of death and the dances people do around it. These urban “dances” celebrate the rare sense of connectedness that meaningful, creative labor brings while being astutely aware that meaningless, life-sucking toil robs human beings of the life force even before death can get around to it. The poems, early, middle, or late, are always insistent, and alternately haunting, violent, amusing, and terse in their mirroring of people’s attempts to delay or welcome or dread what is unavoidable for breathing, mortal creatures.
Sometimes such a dance takes the form of surreal narrative, as in “The Briefcases,” a poem written during the 1960’s. The poem begins with the narrative dislocation “It was then that,” which is repeated when women, as well as men, are “prohibited” from “carrying briefcases . . . in public as a mark of impotence.” The strangest turn of the narrative comes with the revelation that the women’s briefcases hold “tiny men/ packed neatly in small cartons/ to be opened in private homes.” Inside this vivid image of sexual politics is the same concern for death that is revealed more blatantly and openly in other poems. Loving is an act of surrender on frighteningly intimate terms with impotence, as death is, and is imaged powerfully in the lines that follow: “Oh the little men danced on the tables/ and kissed the lips of the women/ who gave their lips to be kissed, and the tall men who carried the briefcases/ withdrew into the dark rooms of the houses.” The strange attractors of birth and death are “married” in the end of the poem, when the speaker tells us he could not say for sure how this all ended, but he did “hear/ that the women chose to live/ and the once little men and/ those withdrawn into the dark/ gave birth.” If such an ending seems unexpected, it is important to note that such surprising disjunction is Ignatow’s signature way of ending his poems.
Such images as the tiny men are...