The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374

“Against the Evidence,” a thirty-three-line meditative poem, is characteristic of the autobiographical nature of much of David Ignatow’s poetry. In free verse, it presents the contrast between the “estrangement among the human race” and the narrator’s determination to live.

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The poem opens with a seven-line stanza in which the narrator attempts to “close each book/ lying open on my desk” but is attacked by the books themselves as they “leap up to snap” at his fingers, causing pain. The action suggests a mutiny of the books against the speaker, although they have obviously been a significant part of his life.

The conflict is heightened when, in the second, longer stanza, the poet reflects on his heretofore harmonious relationship with books. He has “held books in my hands/ like children, carefully turning/ their pages.” This harmony has resulted in a close identification of the poet with what he reads: “I often think their thoughts for them.” Following this benign reflection, a jarring shift occurs as the narrator plunges into the dark message of his musing: “I am so much alone in the world.” The books, which have been such a dominant part of his world are not, after all, human beings. Their mutiny at the beginning of the poem seems to suggest that the speaker is becoming estranged even from them. The poet mourns the loneliness of his preoccupation with inanimate elements such as stars or steps. He then links humans with these cold, unfeeling objects: “I can look at another human being/ and get a smile, knowing/ it is for the sake of politeness.”

He has finally arrived at the core of his sadness and disillusionment, “estrangement/ among the human race,” about which “Nothing must be said.” In fact, “nothing is said at all” because to speak about estrangement might begin to break it down. The evidence has been building throughout the poem. It seems as though the poet has taken refuge in inanimate objects such as his books. Despite all this evidence, however, and despite his troubles, the poet asserts: “Against the evidence, I live by choice.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, February 1, 1994, p. 990.

Library Journal. CXIX, March 15, 1994, p. 75.

Poetry. CLXV, January, 1995, p. 219.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXX, Summer, 1994, p. 99.

Forms and Devices

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David Ignatow’s language is deceptively simple, his images spare, and his metaphors often obscure. Like William Carlos Williams, he uses few typically poetic devices. Rather, his language carries his message. Initially in this poem Ignatow personifies his books. As he attempts to close them, they “leap up to snap” at his fingers. As realization explodes upon him, he is weakened and must sit down.

The uprising of his books seems to jar his whole existence. He reflects on the prior harmony he felt with his books, which might almost be considered symbiotic: “All my life/ I’ve held books in my hands/ like children.” One wonders whether this means that he holds them as he holds children or as children hold books. In either case, he implies a nurturing relationship. However, the books betray him, unable to fulfill his need for community.

Juxtaposed with his comfortable perception of the books in his life is the alienation that breaks into verse 2: “I am so much alone.” He reinforces his aloneness with a series of sterile images: “the stars,” “the breeze,” and the “steps/ on a stair” that he can count as he climbs and descends them. When he speaks of other human beings, they are no more communicative, for he feels that their smiles are only “for the sake of politeness.” He pinpoints his apparent despair in the word “estrangement.”

The feelings of alienation, separation, and estrangement are further expressed in the unresponsive images of familiar objects around him: “I stroke my desk,/ its wood so smooth, so patient and still.” Despite all this “evidence” of his isolation and lack of community, the poet finishes with a note of affirmation that belies the note of despair in the poem: “I live by choice.”

In addition to metaphor and imagery, the poet uses the arrangement of lines and stanzas to reinforce his consciousness of estrangement. The mutiny portrayed in the first seven lines of the poem in a single stanza shatters the comfortable life that many people experience with books and catches the poet in the knowledge of his own isolation. The beginning of stanza 2 lulls the reader into that former life. However, in line 15, a jarring change occurs. The suddenness of this change heightens the mood of separation, although no separation in format occurs in the stanza arrangement.

Analysis

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A small volume of David Ignatow’s poems not included in this collection,The Animal in the Bush: Poem on Poetry, opens with the following lines: “I dig black hunks out of myself, making way for light and air./ I admire the ugliness of the pieces, bulky and shapeless, and set them/ on a mantlepiece for study.” This odd little metapoem is as much a precise statement of Ignatow’s aesthetic and poetic objective as it is an inaccurate one. One could also say that the effect of reading his collected poetry is much like being stuck in an Edward Hopper painting, hunched over a bleak counter, resigned to no coffee and a flat, two-dimensional existence. Such a self-conscious and unromantic sensibility is strikingly postmodern at the same time that it is elegiac of a period of American life and sensibility gone by. It is also unpredictable, in that just when readers might think they know what is coming, they get a strong, hard curveball. The certainty of the surprise curve is actually a defining feature of this collection, spanning seven decades of poetic achievement. Ignatow writes in a voice that chases its tail and watches itself do so vigilantly, fiercely, a characteristic that has prompted critics to praise and criticize him for decades.

Those who have heard the stories of their grandparents or great-grandparents who immigrated from Europe to work in the cities and factories of the eastern United States in the first two decades of the twentieth century have a link to the sensibility about industrial work and the alienation it can cause which fuels Ignatow’s poetry. It is this version or channel of history, no matter what decade of this century the poems have been written in, that informs his vision. What then, have younger poets and readers of poetry to learn from him, in a society running at breakneck technological speed down the information superhighway, reinventing the concept of history itself as human beings race through their lives? Surprisingly, or perhaps predictably enough (depending on one’s point of view), there is plenty to learn. Robert Bly commented twenty years before this collection that of his generation of poets (Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Karl Shapiro), Ignatow “is the only [one] to whom the young have rallied.” He bases his contention on another fascinating observation that seems to illuminate a driving force in Ignatow’s sensibility: “Ignatow notices human emotions are not becoming less insistent, but more insistent, and they have a greater influence on events. As western man sinks nearer to his instincts, his emotions become more demanding.” Twenty years after Bly made this remark, the phenomenon he articulated has become, if anything, even more insistent, and it is the rising pitch of this phenomenon that makes Ignatow’s poetry riveting and keeps it as far away as imaginable from being obsolete. However “unpleasant” or “raw” it may make readers feel at times, it is always honest about feeling the pulse of this elemental reaction forced on Westerners by the living conditions of their culture.

Ignatow’s poems are tightly knitted together. His “confessional explorations of the private self” travel the length of the instinctual scale in such a way that pulling one line out seems to ensure that its strangeness or humor or haunting image will deflate once outside the powerful context of juxtaposition in which it thrives. Discussing the personal voice and vision of existence driving these poems seems especially important, since they do not offer themselves up willingly to line-by-line explication. In spite of the fact that the poet makes much in his preface of the reorganization of his work by decade as opposed to the thematic and less chronological nature of earlier collections, the dynamic of mood and voice is what unifies more than sixty years of poetic craft.

The best way to describe this ingenious roller coaster, which is simultaneously minimal and convoluted, is to look at some poems that break the back of any other attempt to impose a scheme on them. Ultimately, David Ignatow does not “soften with age” or “harden with age” or move away from one subject and back toward another. He has one subject: the opaque inevitability of death and the dances people do around it. These urban “dances” celebrate the rare sense of connectedness that meaningful, creative labor brings while being astutely aware that meaningless, life-sucking toil robs human beings of the life force even before death can get around to it. The poems, early, middle, or late, are always insistent, and alternately haunting, violent, amusing, and terse in their mirroring of people’s attempts to delay or welcome or dread what is unavoidable for breathing, mortal creatures.

Sometimes such a dance takes the form of surreal narrative, as in “The Briefcases,” a poem written during the 1960’s. The poem begins with the narrative dislocation “It was then that,” which is repeated when women, as well as men, are “prohibited” from “carrying briefcases . . . in public as a mark of impotence.” The strangest turn of the narrative comes with the revelation that the women’s briefcases hold “tiny men/ packed neatly in small cartons/ to be opened in private homes.” Inside this vivid image of sexual politics is the same concern for death that is revealed more blatantly and openly in other poems. Loving is an act of surrender on frighteningly intimate terms with impotence, as death is, and is imaged powerfully in the lines that follow: “Oh the little men danced on the tables/ and kissed the lips of the women/ who gave their lips to be kissed, and the tall men who carried the briefcases/ withdrew into the dark rooms of the houses.” The strange attractors of birth and death are “married” in the end of the poem, when the speaker tells us he could not say for sure how this all ended, but he did “hear/ that the women chose to live/ and the once little men and/ those withdrawn into the dark/ gave birth.” If such an ending seems unexpected, it is important to note that such surprising disjunction is Ignatow’s signature way of ending his poems.

Such images as the tiny men are memorable because they are delivered in a stark, colloquial reporting style. Thirty years later, Ignatow’s characteristic brand of black humor, which seeks to heighten this “realistic” style of diction until it and the scenes it describes become absurd, is seen in the short prose poem “Here I Am with Mike,” dedicated to Dan Rather. The speaker is evidently a persona of the famous newscaster:

Here I am, with mike in hand, shooting down the rapids in my business suit, broadcasting to the world my sensations as I near my death. Occasionally you hear me blubber, a wave having knocked against my mouth. But it all gets said, though when I plunge over the falls the force of it will knock the mike out of my hand. In the meantime, I keep my head, reporting myself in fear, fright and elation at the experience I could have only by shortening my life. I’m enjoying it all.

Ignatow named the collection for a poem from the 1960’s with a similar combination of death’s grim inevitability and the individual artistic stand in the face of it. “Against the Evidence” is perhaps less strange and more straightforward, though it is an equally voyeuristic look at an idiosyncratic, self-contained sense of isolation that attempts to claim universal sway over human existence—in effect, it is human existence, according to Ignatow. Though some postmodern critics wish not to concern themselves with the author’s intention at all, Ignatow’s poems scream insistence on such individual proclamation. While his narrative style and accompanying images may startle with their apparently postmodern disconnectedness, the sum of such images is not to assert or proclaim disconnectedness as a state of being. “Against the Evidence” is an important case in point. It begins with a somewhat surreal image that might appear to indicate the absolute autonomy of the text: “As I reach up to close each book/ lying on my desk it/ leaps up to snap at my fingers.” Inside the narrative of the “biting book,” he muses that he “believe[s] [he] often thinks their thoughts for them (the books)” and that he never knows where “theirs leave off and [his own] begin.” Yet the poem does not end with a vindication of this disclaimer, which might seem further enforced by the odd and beautifully syllogistic lines that echo each other by claiming, “Nothing must be said of estrangement/ among the human race and yet/ nothing is said at all/ because of that.” Instead, the poem ends with an unadorned, even raw attempt to vitiate such abstract complexities, and it is this very rawness that identifies an Ignatow ending. Since no book will help, despite his love and awe for them, the speaker of the poem declares:

I stroke my desk,
its wood so smooth, so patient and still.
I set a typewriter on its surface
and begin to type
to tell myself my troubles.
Against the evidence, I live by choice.

In the Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, volume 31 (1990), Ignatow reiterates the intention voiced in “Against the Evidence,” showing the poem to be another articulation of the vision that shapes this late collection of his life’s work: “My avocation is to stay alive; my vocation is to write about it; my motivation embraces both intentions and my viewpoint is gained from a study and activity in both ambitions.”

If such a statement might not be considered explicitly hopeful, it is certainly a compelling embrace of existence, despite its elemental and sharply tuned delivery. Throughout his long career, Ignatow has been noticed for such bald statements of intention or fact, characteristically placed at the end of his poems. Often they are not as “hopeful” as this one, but always they seem determined to brandish the opaque quality of flat, personal statement, which either closes down or invites connection to the reader independently of its own intent, or even more strangely, because of it.

Within this aesthetic consistency, there is an interesting range of suitable subjects, as well as a range of treatment of those subjects. In the second poem by the title “In a Dream,” the poet describes himself at the age of fifty meeting his eighteen-year-old self on the steps of his father’s house, longing for deliverance “into his own life.” The fifty-year-old self tries to tell the eighteen-year-old that “nothing will turn out right,” that he will want to “avenge [himself] on those close to [him] especially,” and that he will become a “passionate stranger,” even to himself. The response? “My eighteen year old self stands up/ from the concrete steps and says,/ Go to hell/ and I walk off.” That the poem allows no reconciliation between the young and the old because it would not be “natural” or “authentic,” even in a dream, is perhaps one reason that Ignatow’s voice seems hauntingly relevant to younger readers. Yet the process of how one’s experience of authenticity changes almost nightmarishly as one ages is powerfully expressed. The wisdom, the sadness, the acceptance of the wild ride “down the rapids” (with or without Dan Rather) is visited yet again.

Perhaps the poems that veer furthest away from such stark exactitude or naturalistic determinism are the ones about trees, leaves, and human hair. These natural objects seem to possess a magical quality for Ignatow, evoking a brand of shameless paganism wherein death is not feared but accepted peacefully, at least by those without human self-reflexivity, such as the trees. In these poems it seems that the best of humankind can be found in people’s willingness to imitate other living things. Noteworthy examples include “Their Mouths Full,” “Behind His Eyes,” and “One Leaf,” though these are certainly not the only ones worth mentioning. The “pagan,” somewhat Heraclitean philosophy espoused in this set of mostly later poems (from the 1980’s and beyond) is definitively expressed in the prose poem “Of That Fire,” though it has no trees in it. It begins: “Inside I am on fire. Imagine, though, coming up to City Hall and asking if there is a Department of Burning Need, ready for emergency, I am the emergency.” Later in the poem he imagines that “the cops will ask [him] sarcastically ‘Where is the fire?’” The speaker pleads guilty, admitting publicly that he has “no evidence but [his] spoken word, and all the while . . . the cop, the judge and jury, too, are burning within, with not a shred of evidence either.” Though they laugh and think him “crazy” and themselves “sane,” the speaker ends by claiming that they do not know “they are dying in the fire that was lit in them, born of that fire.” This beautiful and consuming image of the life force works masterfully to combine humor and poetic vision seamlessly, a rare accomplishment in contemporary poetry.

For readers who may believe that reading these poems by decade does not necessarily augment understanding of Ignatow’s evolution as a poet, there remains a curveball to be thrown as a closing comment. In the “Poems of the Eighties” section there is a small gem titled “Above Everything,” which, placed where it is in this volume, becomes a comment that readers would not understand so powerfully other than in chronological order. It begins: “I wished for death often/ but now that I am at its door/ I have changed my mind about the world./ It should go on; it is beautiful,/ even as a dream, filled with water and seed.” Such an exquisite retraction of the dominant preoccupation with death as an absolute in many of the poems, especially the earlier ones, is breathtaking evidence that Ignatow refuses to fall prey to the limits of his own sensibility. He promises that should he remember this life in the next, he will “praise it above everything.” This willingness to reflect and embrace comes mostly in the later poems and punctuates the very end of the book with a poem titled “The Life.” Although human beings are still in a quirky aesthetic world in which resting after love is like being a water bug, the poet is no longer in a hurry to “catch at [his] prey, the poem that like the victim of the water bug would affirm [his] life.” Instead, he prefers to lose his “sense of self in this watery support,” declaring, with yet another surprising ending to nearly seven decades of poetry, “Let this be the life of love.”

Nobody can throw a curve like that and not be remembered with the kind of coded admiration that writers give one another as they examine one another’s words. Against the Evidence: Selected Poems, 1934-1994 both evokes and deserves the thoughtful attention that constitutes the highest respect one author can give another.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, February 1, 1994, p. 990.

Library Journal. CXIX, March 15, 1994, p. 75.

Poetry. CLXV, January, 1995, p. 219.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXX, Summer, 1994, p. 99.

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