In Hurricane Lamp, Turner Cassity visits the geography and history and art of mankind, and in each he finds examples of paradox. On one side of the paradoxes he considers are life, desire, and immortality, and on the other are death, corruption, and mortality. Each side presupposes the other, and time is the lens through which he often looks at both. Time for him is the past where man’s lust for power and immortality lies in the arms of ruin; it is also the present, where man looks back and finds the mirror image of himself, and the future, where he sees the failure of desire as well as the fact that desiring names him. In some of Cassity’s poems, time is youth, where desire focuses on its goals, and maturity, where desire focuses on itself. In youth, excess predominates; in age, moderation does.
In searching for lost treasure in “News for Loch Ness,” divers encounter an image of doom in the figure of a trumpeting angel and actual doom in the figure of Leviathan. Man searches, the poem says, for what will make him powerful, even immortal, and finds what his ancestors found: mortality. Moreover, the monuments to idealism in the past become, in surviving ruin, debased in the present to commercial ventures, as “Berolina Demodée” points out. The formulations of man’s idealism never seem to last; what does seemingly survive the process of time from the past to the present is human striving itself. As the Nile in “The Aswan Rowing Club” was once the scene of galley slaves rowing the ships of their masters, it is now the scene of a crew club striving as energetically as its predecessors. One of the major forces behind this striving or desire is egotism, which at one time may be images of the divine, such as Diana, through which man worships himself, and at another may be the gold in those images by which man feeds his avarice. In one’s personal time span, desire is again the common element, though in different ways: In youth (as “U-24 Anchors Off New Orleans” shows), desire and pain depend on each other to produce pleasure, and in maturity, they occur as a paradox that produces understanding. Youth and maturity, in fact, define a temporal process which desire as imagination begins and desire as responsibility ends.
No matter the time or the place, desire or striving is accompanied by failure and ruin because man, the creature who experiences desire, is mutable. One type of ruin generated by desire is sin. In “The Chinaberry Tree,” for example, desire as temptation leads to ruin, but this ruin leads not to wisdom but more temptation. The paradox is this: If sin is ruin, man longs for more ruin. In pursuing self-gratification, man ends up, like the demonridden swine in “I the Swineherd,” paradoxically pursuing self-destruction, even when he sees what is happening and tries to restrain himself. For man’s greatest sin is pride, and it is stronger than the humility that restraint requires. Like the diver in “After the Fall,” who discovers a huge statue of Apollo underwater, man exults in the discovery itself of images of his own godliness, forgetting that these images are subject to corrosion and point to the fact that man is anything but immortal.
Cassity underscores the paradox of a mortal creature with pretensions to immortality in a trope in “Pausing in the Climb.” The thistle in the poem flourishes on a mountain, which puts it between earth and sky. Man derives his energy from what he cannot escape (mortality) and expends it on what he cannot have (immortality). Man hangs between the limited and the limitless, the former making him harsh, the latter beautiful.
Other natural phenomena provide Cassity with images for the paradox of which man is an extension. In “Dispensations of the Date Fairy,” day and night in the desert show the cold in heat and the heat in cold;...
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