(Poets and Poetry in America)

From the outset, Ben Belitt’s poetry was aurally remarkable. Though his first volume was excessively alliterative and was spoken in a too-mannered voice, it revealed a poet whose first priority was control of traditional forms, in terms of meter and stanza. He managed this with a fluent prosody driven equally by the line and the sentence. After that first volume, Belitt wrote a freer verse in accommodating his times and the dictates of his own sensibility. His genius for linking the sounds of words abided, however, and he would rather have risked verbal excess than spoken flatly.

Belitt’s imagination is demanding. Images and the terms of his similes and metaphors are brought together rapidly in his work. The reader may feel that some unimaginable step by which the poet mediated the associations has been left out. Moreover, Belitt requires intellectual rigor from his reader. Often, he brings an immediately realized object or event into relation with historical figures and their ideas. His practice assumes that these unions are self-evident.


Perhaps more than anything else, Belitt’s poems strive to realize and throw light on the nature of place and his response to place, which originates in alienation and need, moves on to solace and immersion and thence to a mature acceptance of rootlessness. (The reader who interprets this as the displacement of childhood anxieties overlooks the philosophical richness of Belitt’s mind.) This enterprise is only roughly chronological in his work, as Belitt works by perpetually reconnoitering the old ground of his thought. As he goes, place is always complex, sometimes consoling, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes antagonistic; it can be all these at once.

The reader sees then that place, though sharply focused and delineated by Belitt, is rendered in an essentially impressionistic manner and stands more for the poet’s metaphysical and aesthetic probings than for its own pictorial value. Thus his common practice of envisioning place through contrasting entities such as stone and tree, gem and flower, desert and water, is deeply related to his existential struggle to achieve, without self-delusion or the consolations of defunct mythologies, a stable and abiding worldview. It is not surprising that such a poet would eventually write a book titled Nowhere but Light, having touched with clarity the innumerable dark places of his outer and inner landscapes.

The Five-Fold Mesh

In a prefatory note to The Five-Fold Mesh, Belitt speaks of two of its sequences, “Many Cradles” and “In Time of Armament,” as dealing, respectively, with a “problem in orientation” and an “expanding record of change.” The whole collection he sees as moving from “simple responses to the natural world” to “usable relationships between the personal and the contemporary world.” This is the case. The poet is lost in the face of absolute flux. His “contemporary world” is not rife with technological paraphernalia; it is the psychological state of incertitude in the province of metaphysics and value. Thus he says in “The Unregenerate”: “Cherish this disbelief/ For final truth, although the end be grief.” The “heart,” he argues, should confront and “accept this thing” (disbelief); the mind has been long aware of it. This collection then is largely about the heart and mind’s taking up the “problem in orientation” to utter mutability.

Many of the poems, to test the poet’s integrity, confront suffering and death. In these provinces, mutability is most vexing and makes disbelief small consolation. “John Keats, Surgeon” is preeminent in this category. It goes beneath the ceaselessly kindling fever of that poet’s tubercular dying to discover first his broken heart and then his great integrity. He sees every impulse of Keats as rejecting the balm of easy, traditional consolation (the “kindly unguent”) and, equally, any kind of nepenthe. Better to treasure the merciless truth, a poet’s duty, and be left with the “ruined heartbeat ailing still.” This is the archetypal spirit of the poet, who must be surgeon to himself. If darkness and this tragic unconsolability mark much of the collection, however, it is noteworthy that Belitt closes with the more hopeful touches of “Battery Park: High Noon.” Here the controlled and behatted individual of workaday lower Manhattan is pulled irresistibly toward the allurements of nature’s ancient condition by a concert of spring’s forces.

Wilderness Stair

Wilderness Stair continues in a dark vein, its concluding sequence of war poems contributing largely to that effect. There is, however, much balance of joy and despondency here, an “equilibrium” in Belitt’s lexicon.

Four sequences make up the volume. The first, “Departures,” dominates by length. Its main body is a tour of places, each a blend of antithetical features that usually astound by their grace on one hand and their starkness on the other. A maple in a Vermont quarry constitutes the wholeness of fragile fruitfulness and hard duration. A dead bull in a Mexican bull ring testifies to the commingling of dark and light: the “hilt . . . in a column of gristle” but also “Dionysus drowsing in a meadow.” The second section, “The Habit of Angels,” suggests transcendence and entails a struggle with the inner conflict created by the world’s wildness. Belitt is moved by the call of moral rectitude, sent to one sensually engaged on the “wilderness stair.” (Stairwells and ladders, venues of psychological and spiritual ascent and descent, make up much of Belitt’s terrain.) However, his testament is, finally, an affirmation of the worldly stance, there being a “void at the sheer of the stair” and a fading godhead at the “place of the rock and the ladder.”

The third section, “Karamazov,” gets at the wish to murder the father. It is a tribute to Fyodor Dostoevski, like Keats esteemed by Belitt, and an exploration of the oedipal urge. Certainly, the section has biographical overtones but is very distanced in accepting...

(The entire section is 2522 words.)