At the age of fifty-six, with a distinguished record in teaching and literary scholarship as well as two published novels (The Vigil of Emmeline Gore and The Party) behind him, Rudolph von Abele seems rather an unlikely figure to be publishing a first collection of poems. He was, after all, already a graduate student at Columbia University when Allen Ginsberg entered there as an undergraduate more than thirty years ago. The intervening years have been a particularly active and exciting period in American poetry; hosts of groups and individuals have brought forth manifestos, both political and aesthetic, linking the course of our literary tradition with the Beats and the “Counterculture,” with the antiwar movement and the sexual revolution. With these changes in what, somewhere along the way, began to be known as the “national consciousness” have come corresponding changes in our notions about poetry. Through all of this instructive turmoil, von Abele’s talent as a poet appears to have lain dormant, and now that his first book of poems has appeared, he presents something of a puzzle. While his work seems to reveal no direct influence by his contemporaries, von Abele still writes a kind of poetry that is very much of our time.
One reason why von Abele’s poetry seems so appropriate for the late 1970’s is that it focuses so consistently upon its author. The poems in A Cage for Loulou do not, for the most part, dwell upon autobiographical detail—quite the opposite. Yet no matter what their subjects, the typical situation in these poems is that of the author explaining himself—in a very literal sense—to the reader. In the era that Tom Wolfe, and everybody else by now, has called the “Me Decade,” this emphasis on the self might be considered so universal as to make it hard to determine whether it is actually a feature of a text or an inevitable interpretive strategy. Yet it is precisely because of the indirection of their method—throwing widely disparate types of data at the reader, and introducing the author as a figure in this flux—that we can see von Abele’s poems stressing the self as relentlessly as those of the Confessional poets of the 1960’s: Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath. At his best von Abele continues along the path trod by these poets and speaks more eloquently than most others who have done so.
Many of von Abele’s poems ground themselves in the details of a breadth of knowledge few American writers could match. Besides its frequent references to works by Flaubert, Joyce, Beckett, Stendhal, and the like, von Abele’s poetry often draws upon twentieth century developments in mathematics, physics, philosophy of language, aesthetics, and music theory. A Cage for Loulou is, in fact, a virtual compendium of contemporary esoterica. And this is another way in which von Abele’s poetry is right for its time: Few enough of our poets actually inhabit Einstein’s universe, trilling lines of verse in curved space among the black holes and red shifts. Yet the erudition of these poems, especially the presence in them of fairly complex ideas from philosophy and the sciences, is rather like the spirits that spoke to Yeats through his wife: it is there not to draw attention to its own existence, but to provide metaphors for poetry. Ideas are not used to intimidate the reader, but to serve as a common object of contemplation for him and the past.
This shared contemplation is not easy for either of the parties in the process. The self the poems present is perplexing and perplexed. But the puzzles in which it engages itself and the reader, though framed in intellectual terms, are moral and emotional rather than intellectual. The poems do not serve to expand and comment on scientific ideas, but to chart emotional life, as in “Astronomer’s Complaint.” In this poem, the phenomenon of the red shift in the light emanating from receding stars, with its corollary idea that the universe continues to expand, is used economically and intelligently to describe the relationship between two people—almost after the manner of the scientific metaphors of the Metaphysical Poets. Similarly, in the poem “Une Semaine de Bonté” (the title is taken from Max Ernst’s famous collage, a surrealist story without words), a meeting between two lovers is expressed by the formula, “Let A conduct himself toward Z in the modality p,/ Let Z conduct herself toward A in the modality q.“
In these two poems, the first drawing upon physics and the second upon symbolic logic, metaphors from science and philosophy seem to be used for two main reasons. First, in each case the author is talking about communication, and he wants, quite seriously, to adopt a stance that will allow him to observe human phenomena objectively; hence, at the end of “Astronomer’s Complaint,” the lines “When I was younger I/ never knew how cold/ observatories have to be.” Second, the use of material from the sciences operates, in a contemporary poem, like the introduction of God or the Imagination in a nineteenth century work. It provides something unchanging, above and beyond the sphere of human relationships, something to serve as a matrix or background of meaning to set those relationships against, as in the last stanza of “Une Semaine de Bonté”:
A febrile hand or two contracted all those eyes to zeroes,after which, feathers gave way to scabrous fingernails,and these, in turn, to blood,...
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