In his poetry written in the 1930’s and 1940’s, later gathered in the first section of Poems, 1934-1969, David Ignatow projected an abiding concern for both the well-made poem, however occasionally denuded of conventional lyric devices, and a reformer’s vision of realistic life—in the city, in the streets, in the homes of the poor and outcast, who are romantically linked with the artist’s difficult lot. The subjects were traditional—marriage, murder, sex, love’s complexities, adolescence, the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt—but their treatment exhibited a diverting ability to make sudden leaps from the banal to the profound, always in language direct enough to disarm. “Autumn Leaves,” for example, moves skillfully from an ordinary image of the leaves as Depression victims to a vivid figure of God sprawling beneath a tree, gaunt in giving, “like a shriveled nut where plumpness/ and the fruit have fed the worm.” This kind of dramatic shift epitomizes Ignatow’s focus on social injustice and his often bitter struggle with a religious heritage and the questionable place of deity in a scheme of things so geared to grind down human hopes.
Surprisingly, many of the early poems betray a professional smoothness and a reliance on metaphor and balanced lines that one might not expect from a disciple of Williams; there is scant sense in these poems of a language straining for experimental intensities. “The Murderer,” an undeniable failure, marked by simplistic psychology but true to its author’s identification with the underclass, can only express love for “those who cart me off to jail” in easy prose: “I love them too/ for the grief and anger/ I have given.” More relevant, the murderer had killed with a knife, that most intimate of weapons, which reappears again and again in the Ignatow canon, a reflection of the menace and death lurking behind every scene of ordinary existence, as well as symbolic reminder of murderous impulses and contrary fears of castration by the father and his capitalistic society.
In Poems, which is a bundle of furies, Ignatow’s rage against America’s hunger for money, “our masterpiece” (according to a poem of that title), rarely escapes self-imposed boundaries. Occasionally, as in “At the Zoo,” a quiet pathos gives modest dimensions their proper subject: an elephant trapped and separated from his real self, like the poet of course, in “stingy space and concrete setting.” Repeatedly, however, as in “Come!” and “The Poet Is a Hospital Clerk,” Ignatow underestimates his audience, wherein lies the innate danger of such songs, and settles for either blatant self-abasement—“I have said it before, I am no good”—or political invective: “Come, let us blow up the whole business;/ the city is insane.” At his best, he can produce “Europe and America,” merging anger against world ills with ambivalence toward his father, the knife resurfacing in a climax of fused violences:
My father comes of a small hellwhere bread and man have been kneaded and baked together.You have heard the scream as the knife fell;while I have sleptas guns pounded offshore.
The Gentle Weight Lifter
Working with a larger canvas and a surer touch, The Gentle Weight Lifter evinces a growing dependence on narrative means and on verbal portraits and mirrors of the people who define Ignatow’s imagination. The collection is not unlike Edgar Lee Masters’s urbanized Spoon River Anthology (1915), although it is brightened by exotic historic additions and splashes of darker Kafkaesque tones. In its quest for parallel lives and allegorical configurations, the collection ranges back in time to ancient Greece, to Oedipus at Colonnus in “Lives II”—tellingly centered on the father, not Antigone, his head in her lap as “he thought surely some cover/ could be found for him”—to Nicias in “The Men Sang,” a parable about the poet’s generic function, and to the Old Testament in “The Pardon of Cain,” which captures Cain in the “joy” of having freed himself from death’s insidious allure.
Though not yet prevalent, surrealistic perspectives, when they do appear, tend to be founded on absurd juxtapositions of mythic and modernist elements, as in “News Report,” where “a thing” arises from a sewer to run amok among urban females—primeval sexuality rampant in a city field. Each victim describes her special view, “one giving the shaggy fur, the next the shank bone/ of a beast.” In the end, the creature is an obvious refugee from Greek mythology, “the red teeth marks sunk into the thigh/ and the smell of a goat clinging tenaciously.” Throughout the book, there is a stubborn quest for philosophic truths at variance with contemporary culture, and the governing voice, confounding Ignatow’s own aesthetic, often resounds with a pedant’s dense lexicon, as in “The Painter,” a sensitive inquiry into a particular artist’s world, which has a fourth stanza beginning: “These are not dreams, and the brush stroke is the agent./ At the hour of appropriate exhaustion, leaving the field/ of canvas, she ravens on the transient bread and cheese.”
This is far from streamlined narrative terseness, far from the language of the person in the street, and it points up The Gentle Weight Lifter’s uneasy transitional quality, despite several remarkable poems, and its abrupt swings between simple allegorical spareness and thicker meditative measures.
In Say Pardon, much of the uncertainty has disappeared, carrying Ignatow’s main voice and means closer to the spare slyness that distinguishes his final style. In Babel to Byzantium (1968), James Dickey salutes the collection’s “strange, myth-dreaming vision of city life” and isolates, with acute accuracy, its basic modus operandi as “an inspired and brilliantly successful metaphysical reportage.” Since it announces a greater willingness to accept a surrealistic path to unconscious resources, without jettisoning conversational immediacy and treasured social and moral concerns, one of the key poems is “How Come?” A naked, unpretentious self funnels the experience into Everyman’s tale: “I’m in New York covered by a layer of soap foam.” The conceit, whimsy in service of darker designs, is logically developed, radio newscasts informing him of the foam’s spread to San Francisco, Canada, and the Mexican border, climaxing with “God help the many/ who will die of soap foam.” Light fantasy has suggested the paradox of drowning in cleanliness, next to American godliness, the pollution of scientific and commercial advances against nature.
The relaxed speech is matter-of-fact, contrasting scaffolding for a surreal flight, not quite as jagged as it will later become in Ignatow’s continued effort to simulate urban realities, and the situation adeptly yokes “what-if” fantasy to persistent reformist despair. More touching, though no less characteristic, are two poems about the author’s institutionalized son, “In Limbo” and “Sunday at the State Hospital,” the former a brief statement of grief, insisting that “there is no wisdom/ without a child in the house,” and the latter recounting a visit in which the son cannot eat the sandwich his father has brought him:
My past is sitting in front of mefilled with itselfand trying with almost no successto bring the present to its mouth.
A poem called simply “Guilt” lays bare the emotional core of these and other family verses: “Guilt is my one attachment to reality.”
Jewish guilt, the anxiety bred of childhood training in a context that conditions love to obedience, outsider status, and unresolved Oedipus complexes, must forever seek release not only in the past, but in a specific religious ethos as well. Thus, the last section of Say Pardon is a procession of spiritual selves that assumes a living godhead, who proffers salvation (from guilt, rage, hatred) through the act of loving fatherhood, the “Lord” claiming “you will win your life/ out of my hands/ by taking up your child.” These lines are from “I Felt,” second in the series of twelve poems, after “The Mountain Is Stripped,” in which the poet had conceded, “I have been made frail with righteousness:/ with two voices. I am but one person.” Because of its inveterate opposition to his rational espousal of...
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