Edwin Denby: The Complete Poems shows the poet’s lifelong concern with how environments—especially cities—define, and are defined by, those who live in them. Through the lens of setting, people are shown to be joined sometimes by their isolation from one another and sometimes by their common desires. Edwin Denby often uses himself as an example of such isolation and of the ways in which it is overcome. The importance of place in his perception of human loneliness and endeavor derives from his travels on the one hand and his long stay in New York City and his summer sojourns in Maine on the other.
The city is often a collection of people who do not belong to one another. They want love so badly for themselves that they do not see that everyone else wants the same thing. As in one of the songs in The Sonntag Gang, when people do find love, they may keep it a secret. The longer one goes without the fulfillment of love, the more the mind suggests that it is impossible, thus helping to isolate one even further from other people. At times this yearning is no more than lust, which warm weather fuels, and it leads less to a true joining than to a selfish moment that cannot last. Even the parts of the body may seem not to belong to the person who has them but to function as parasites on his life. When it comes to the fruits of love, a man’s restlessness may make him run away from the woman who loves him, and a child may end up on his own, like the derelict boy in “Legend (After Victory)” who is full of hate, rage, and impotence.
Denby uses himself to itemize the details of not belonging to anyone. At best, two people may love each other and make no secret of it, but in the end they are mysteries to each other. Part of his own mystery is the monstrous alter ego he conceives for himself in “A Sonnet Sequence: Dishonor.” There is shame and guilt in this self-image, and they make him feel unlovable, confirming him in his isolation. He may be the only one who sees this, but what he thinks others see of him in “Snoring in New York—An Elegy” does not really bridge the gap between him and them. His true public image is complex enough: his age, his intensity, his femininity. He also looks, he thinks, “like a priest, a detective, a con,” mainly because people do not care or have time to look further, and if they do not, how can he belong to them or they to him? Even his loft apartment can be an alien place, giving him cabin fever and driving him out. A place he knew in his youth can also make him feel that he does not belong there in his maturity; this happens in “Brindisi,” where nostalgia is powerless to sweeten the sour experience of alienation. “In Rome,” too, he shows how isolated he feels; this time it is the natives who spur these feelings, regarding him superficially as a tourist.
When it comes to the places where people live, however, it is the integration between the two that Denby often notices. The life of cities depends on the human diversity that characterizes it. In “Syracuse,” visitors and natives alike make for a rich mixture, and in “To peer at the common man as a hero,” the city acts as a magnet to the downtrodden, stressing their unity rather than their individual discontinuity. The city, in...
(The entire section is 1344 words.)