Robert Bagg is a translator of Greek, a professor of English, and a poet, it seems, in both languages. The first poem in his collection Body Blows is a “free translation,” as he calls it, of one by Sappho. It is a lyrically beautiful translation in which the poet prefers death to the lonely despair she feels upon desertion by her lover. Parting provokes Sappho to ask her errant lover, “why not leave radiant/ as if you remembered the/ honey of it?” She calls forth the memories of “how lazy and sensual” the two had been, of the scents and the feel of lovemaking. The poem is, at once, joyful in memory and melancholy in loss—a tone to be found often in the works which follow it. In fact, Bagg chooses wisely this touching fragment to introduce his own work with its themes of time and memory, love and loss, even birth and death.
Body Blows is a collection of poetry written over some three decades, most of which has been previously published in Bagg’s four earlier volumes of verse. Bagg presented his first collection, Madonna of the Cello, in 1961, only three years after he was graduated from Amherst College. That book aroused Ralph J. Mills, Jr., to pen a particularly virulent criticism for the pages of Poetry; he essentially called young Bagg’s work sophomoric and suburban. In the same issue, however, the poet James Merrill leaped to Bagg’s defense; he found the works revelatory and pronounced the young poet a man of talent and promise. Most critics seemed to agree with the latter view, though not without reservations.
Three other volumes followed: The Scrawny Sonnets and Other Narratives in 1973, The Worst Kiss in 1985, and Special Occasions in 1986. For the present collection, Bagg has chosen the best of the poems from his four earlier volumes; most have undergone minor changes, he notes, and several have been revised substantially. In addition, he has included several heretofore uncollected works. This judicious selection demonstrates his mastery of several forms, most notably the elegy, the long narrative, the sonnet, and the meditation.
If any force can be said to unify these poems, it is the power of memory to erase distance and time and to allow the poet to roam freely over those experiences which gave him his voice. In those poems where place is emphasized, it is never incidental, never trivial, never “occasional.” Rather, these wanderings are most often trips through time—the poet’s childhood, his visits to France and to Greece, the year in Italy when he won the Prix de Rome (1958-1959). For example, the casino in Juanles-Pins is a metaphor for the gamble he makes when he spins the roulette wheel of a telephone dial on the chance he may reconnect a love affair gone awry. “Trompe l’âme” also has for its setting the French Riviera, where casual cosmopolitanism so quickly seduces as well as deceives the soul.
The road to Epidauros evokes the timeless grandeur of the Greek landscape while it allows the poet to meditate on the power of myth to explain and to subdue its natural savagery:
Pasiphae at lastbraces her feet as she swells to the bonelessmurder of the bull’s orgasmits mythical rage now a soft pulse herhysterical delicacy lost on him
Rather jarringly, “the movie star McQueen” (as an icon of modernity?) has overtaken the poet on this road, and his intrusion, “his body vibrating from/ power he sits astride,” is as foreign to the theater at Epidauros as Pasiphae’s delicacy is to the bull.
A return visit by the poet to the American Academy at Rome in 1980 calls forth a meditation on just how “eternal” the city can be, menaced as it is by terrorism, by class struggle, and by nuclear annihilation. Under the specter of such modern calamities, the city’s ability to inspire the poet is distorted; the comforting voice he seeks in its majesty and history is mute, stilled by fear and danger. It is a singularly disturbing vision, but one which captures the complexity and liveliness of the great city.
Rome’s sunny markets, great domes, satyrs and martyrswhose thought and impulse wellimperiously to their eyes;lovers, mad traffic, skittish aristocratswhose speech dances from one language to the nextlike feeding sparrows—all of that is still there,but often at gunpoint, and so worth...
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