When Irving Feldman’s prodigal verbal gifts are under control, which is most of the time, his poems provide some of the richest pleasures available in contemporary literature. In an earlier book, Leaping Clear (1976), Feldman occasionally overindulged his affection for playful sound effects; in this collection, though the sound effects are frequently dazzling, there are no more than three words which seem likely to set some teeth on edge. Along with this greatly increased tact, one finds here a profound wisdom, an ability to speak clearly and compassionately of the nearly unspeakable. This wisdom is not at all new in Feldman’s work; he has been a keen observer of the urban scene for a long time, and his sense of the tragicomic, as well as of the purely tragic, is among the gifts that have sustained him the longest.
Feldman writes often of the city, and sometimes of the academic world, with its shifting notions of what ethics and good sense might be. These worlds are not everyone’s, and there are things one needs to know in order to enter Feldman’s poems. This is especially true in the case of this book’s title sequence, a group of twenty poems arising from an exhibition of sculptures by George Segal. Fortunately for Feldman and his readers, this necessity has been brilliantly dealt with in the design of the book, whose cover photograph is of The Brick Wall, a 1970 Segal sculpture in which his characteristic plaster casts of actual if anonymous people are shown walking along in raincoats. Whatever this phase of Segal’s art amounts to as time passes, it seems a fair bet that Feldman’s poems will contribute heavily to our ways of responding to it.
Yet it is not as art criticism that the poems themselves have their being. Like the best of that class of poems whose points of departure are works of art, they are no more dependent on Segal’s sculptures than other poems are dependent on one’s knowledge of the Trojan War, for example, or the death of Abraham Lincoln, or the normal behavior of cows and dogs. Furthermore, the jacket illustration turns out to be useful primarily to those who are not helped by the sequence’s opening poem, “—OH, IT’S ALL SO,” which consists of snippets of gallery conversation at the exhibit, such as the following:
—These statues are plaster casts of real people?.................................—To me it’s like a wax museum.—Of victims? That’s a new one..................................—What’s this guy got that I don’t have?I’ll tell you what. Connections, man, connections.—God, sometimes I feel just the way they look.—I think he sympathizes with people.He must be a nice man.—I don’t know what it is about these statues. . .
The remaining poems in the sequence constitute a meditation on the helplessness with which people try to puzzle out the meanings of their little lives. At first, the viewer compares his state to that of the sculptures, and feels alive, more with it (since the sculptures are in backgrounds suggestive of a decade past). As the sequence progresses, however, the thinking darkens; the sculptures remind him of a stockroom where great marble classics lie pell-mell or of the last vestiges of some holocaust. The threat of human extinction next occurs to him when he sees the sculptures as “our fleet forerunners in prospective elegy,/ champions, pioneers of the missing future.”
Nearer the end, the sculptures suggest again the frozen last moments of people who could say what they were doing when the world ended, but then the human heart must occasionally contrive some comfort:
We should envy them, no? Immortalityexperienced from within must seem just suchimperturbable ordinariness as theirs,repose deep in the simple heart of averageness,which death, raiding along the frontier, must takeforever to reach. The eternal verity oftheir middle way nourishes with safety and seemliness.
The final poem in the sequence, “They Say to Us,” is one of the few poems in it which could be completely detached from the sculptures as a takeoff point; it portrays the ordinary ritual of looking at someone’s family photographs, listening to...
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