Pinsky continually confronts the major contemporary issue of human interconnectedness and every person’s involvement in one another’s lives: ethnically, socially, politically, historically, religiously, temporally, and through place. Though raised in a Jewish household, he seems to express an ambiguity or inner conflict of calling himself Jewish in his poems and dismisses a labeling of himself as only a Jewish author. His poetry encompasses far more than one religion or one place. In the closing notes of The Figured Wheel, Robert Pinsky states: “Religion concerns me . . . as a vivid, charged example of the passion to create.” His affinity for religion then may be a religion of art itself.
Pinsky’s poetry is known for reverberating and echoing the past in each present moment and image. For example, in “Shirt,” one finds a circling back and forth in time and place between a shirt the speaker is wearing, the people who made this shirt, a fire in 1911 at the Triangle Shrtwaist factory in New York City, and the English poet George Herbert. This poem acts like a photograph album where each image is like a depiction of different scenes but all of the same book, all somehow of similar fate and destiny.
For Pinsky, it became art that could translate the complexities of the world and its people into an understandable language. This language is best understood through hearing poetry spoken by a living human being. Pinsky often claims that a person’s actual voice in poetry is necessary to the art of poetry.
Pinsky’s poetry is also known for its sharp contrasting images and juxtapositions. For instance, in “The Figured Wheel,” an imaginary wheel of fate rolls through several scenes set in contrast with one another: In the first line, for example, the wheel rolls through “shopping malls and prisons.” By setting up this contrast within the same line, Pinsky forces the reader to reexamine all that is viewed as generally good and bad. In the closing lines, the wheel rolls by Pinsky himself and his family, and this is where Pinsky’s major theme of human interconnectedness, a theme that reverberates throughout his life’s work, becomes explicit.
On a smaller scale, the poem “The Unseen” takes a specific scene and concentrates on the immediate effects of one place while broadening itself to the effects years later on tourists going through the Nazi death camp in Krakow, Poland. The poem begins with a general visual description of Krakow and its surroundings. The dream vision in the poem brings the reader back to a hypothetical historical account of the death camp in action during World War II. In this way, it acts as a striking contrast to the tourists roaming around an empty death camp like a museum. Once again, Pinsky echoes the past through each present moment, and as each moment unfolds, the reader may understand more about where he or she has come from rather than where he or she is going.
In poems such as “The Want Bone,” Pinsky is less specific about a certain place with a particular history. Instead, the poem’s scene is a beach with a shark’s dried mouthbone opened like a gaping hole, and the speaker in the poem is describing the bone and his reaction to the bone. The poem still uses a specific object as a vehicle to a universal idea. In this way, it is similar to “Shirt” but leaves the reader craving something more, because there are less specific details about this bone’s history. It is a universal bone, some object that desires or wants or instills desire in the person seeing the bone.
Furthermore, a sense of desire lurks throughout Pinsky’s poems, and sometimes it is a desire to know the reasons for history’s outcome and humanity’s fate. Pinsky’s use of the wheel is appropriate in his cyclical analysis and descriptions of generation after generation being faced with the same problems. In “The City Dark,” from The Figured Wheel, one may use the line “the mathematical veil of generation” to describe this unknowingness which the mysterious figured wheel rolls through. There are an infinite amount of possibilities and poems to describe another aspect of this mystery. It is a mystery that plays on human interconnectedness as in “An Explanation of America” from An Explanation of America: on the death and life cycle, the learning and forgetting of each generation in one nation, and particularly, the negative things of the past. “An Explanation of America” is a poem written for Pinsky’s daughter, and therefore one must notice the poem’s contrasting grievous and joyous moments. For instance, in the section titled, “IV Epilogue: Endings,” his daughter (and the reader) is presented with hope and fear as the poet describes children that “bind us to the future.” In the following scenes, there are more hopeful descriptions, such as “In the Sierras,/ Where Winter’s never far, the country is clear,/ A stage of granite swept for mediation.” It may be hope and fear then, that accurately describe Pinsky’s poetry, a fear of the figured wheel and the cycles of the past continuing through each generation, committing the same atrocities, yet somewhere, there is a hope for the future.
“The Figured Wheel”
First published: 1984 (collected in History of My Heart, 1984)
Type of work: Poem
A poem depicts an imaginary collective wheel that rolls through the human condition.
“The Figured Wheel” is a poem that reports the condition of humanity. The first line describes the wheel as rolling, which immediately gives the reader a specific image that acts as a device to carry the reader through each scene.
The images and actions of the poem are set in contrast within each line throughout the poem. In a single line, snow and sand are separated and then recombined, and the wheel rolls through fresh water and salt water as well as flecks of tar and molten rock. There is a constant separating and combining through each image as the reader passes through the pantheons of gods, demigods, gargoyles, and dryads. An inescapable terror also exists in this “cold, cyclical dark, turning and returning,” an undeniable guilt that is in both the scorched and the frozen parts of this world.
These images and scenes through which the figured wheel rolls are collected by the wheel and eventually include the life of Pinsky and his family. Because the poet is also a part of this figuration, the reader may get a sense of himself or herself as a part of this wheel’s accretion, and thus one is led to a vision of complicity. In the final line, three versions of this figuration are presented: figured, which may represent a present state; prefigured as in a past figuration; and transfiguring, something that will continue to change. This suggests that in all three states—past, present, and future—Pinsky, his family, and the reader exist on this wheel.
(The entire section is 2876 words.)