Henry Reed Essay - Critical Essays


In “A Map of Verona,” Henry Reed states that “maps are of place, not time,” while in “Judging Distances” one reads that “maps are of time, not place.” These two versions of reality are not as contradictory as they might appear, if one considers the source of each. The first version comes from Reed himself, while the second is the official army doctrine mechanically voiced by a training officer to a group of recruits. The first version acknowledges the inability of humanity’s puny symbols to represent reality, while the second asserts the military’s wishful thinking, its need to be in control, to pour reality into a uniform and make it stand up and salute. One cannot blame the military for trying, as indeed it must, but the futility of its efforts is laughable: In “Judging Distances,” the military theory is demolished, appropriately enough, by a pair of lovers in the distance, who finish making love even as the training officer and woebegone recruits watch.

Like the military, though with somewhat more success, Reed in his poems is intent on creating maps of reality. In his poems, both place and time have important roles, as they intersect with human actions. Reed is interested in place for its own sake, but he is also interested in its effects on human actions. Even more, he is interested in how human actions reverberate in time—the anticipation of actions, how actions fade from memory, how the meaning of actions changes with time, how, on the other hand, actions define and transfix personalities. For Reed, reality is as fluid as the stream in his poem “Lives” that cannot be caged. To try as best he can to catch and bottle this reality, Reed concentrates on dramatic moments or their consequences, particularly their moral consequences. Supporting Reed’s penchant for the dramatic is his gift of mimicry, for capturing the sound of the human voice, as amply demonstrated in his parodies of T. S. Eliot and of the training officer in the “Lessons of the War” poems. Thus, it should come as no surprise that, although Reed writes in a variety of forms, some of his best poems are dramatic monologues. It should also come as no surprise that he eventually changed to writing drama.

“A Map of Verona”

Perhaps the most important poem for understanding Reed’s ontology, and a good poem in its own right, is “A Map of Verona.” At first, it seems no more than a pleasant travel advertisement: For “a whole long winter season,” Reed’s thoughts have dwelt on an open map of Verona. His intention to visit Verona reminds him of a stay in another Italian city, “My youthful Naples.” Naples is associated in his mind with “a practice in sorrow,” with “a sketch in tenderness, lust, and sudden parting.” No doubt at the time this experience, despite its air of youthful experimentation, was deeply moving; now, however, he can barely recall its “underground whispers of music.” Reed does recall, though, that he once studied an open map of Naples with the same expectation with which he now studies the map of Verona, and his map-studies then were totally “useless,” since “maps are of place, not time.” Still, studying the map of Verona and hearing other travelers relate their tourist impressions of the city help to “calm” Reed’s “winter of expectations.” The city of Verona does indeed exist, and “one day” Reed will go there: “in tomorrow’s cave the music/ Trembles and forms inside the musician’s mind.” Meanwhile, echoing the poem’s epigraph from Arthur Rimbaud, Reed can only wonder “in what hour of beauty” and “in what good arms” he will attain “those regions and that city.” Finally, he wonders “what good Arms shall take them away again.”

On both a literal and a symbolic level, “A Map of Verona” suggests the nature of experience. Among other things, Reed seems to say that, for the most part, people’s lives are suspended between remembrance and expectation. Then, when a big moment comes, people are often too youthful to appreciate it or too experienced to believe that it will last. Still, even though remembrance fades and expectation is uncertain, both enrich one’s life. Indeed, their enriching context makes it possible for a person to know a big moment...

(The entire section is 1749 words.)