Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2298
At the age of fifty-six, with a distinguished record in teaching and literary scholarship as well as two published novels (The Vigil of Emmeline Gore and The Party ) behind him, Rudolph von Abele seems rather an unlikely figure to be publishing a first collection of poems. He was,...
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At the age of fifty-six, with a distinguished record in teaching and literary scholarship as well as two published novels (The Vigil of Emmeline Gore and The Party) behind him, Rudolph von Abele seems rather an unlikely figure to be publishing a first collection of poems. He was, after all, already a graduate student at Columbia University when Allen Ginsberg entered there as an undergraduate more than thirty years ago. The intervening years have been a particularly active and exciting period in American poetry; hosts of groups and individuals have brought forth manifestos, both political and aesthetic, linking the course of our literary tradition with the Beats and the “Counterculture,” with the antiwar movement and the sexual revolution. With these changes in what, somewhere along the way, began to be known as the “national consciousness” have come corresponding changes in our notions about poetry. Through all of this instructive turmoil, von Abele’s talent as a poet appears to have lain dormant, and now that his first book of poems has appeared, he presents something of a puzzle. While his work seems to reveal no direct influence by his contemporaries, von Abele still writes a kind of poetry that is very much of our time.
One reason why von Abele’s poetry seems so appropriate for the late 1970’s is that it focuses so consistently upon its author. The poems in A Cage for Loulou do not, for the most part, dwell upon autobiographical detail—quite the opposite. Yet no matter what their subjects, the typical situation in these poems is that of the author explaining himself—in a very literal sense—to the reader. In the era that Tom Wolfe, and everybody else by now, has called the “Me Decade,” this emphasis on the self might be considered so universal as to make it hard to determine whether it is actually a feature of a text or an inevitable interpretive strategy. Yet it is precisely because of the indirection of their method—throwing widely disparate types of data at the reader, and introducing the author as a figure in this flux—that we can see von Abele’s poems stressing the self as relentlessly as those of the Confessional poets of the 1960’s: Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath. At his best von Abele continues along the path trod by these poets and speaks more eloquently than most others who have done so.
Many of von Abele’s poems ground themselves in the details of a breadth of knowledge few American writers could match. Besides its frequent references to works by Flaubert, Joyce, Beckett, Stendhal, and the like, von Abele’s poetry often draws upon twentieth century developments in mathematics, physics, philosophy of language, aesthetics, and music theory. A Cage for Loulou is, in fact, a virtual compendium of contemporary esoterica. And this is another way in which von Abele’s poetry is right for its time: Few enough of our poets actually inhabit Einstein’s universe, trilling lines of verse in curved space among the black holes and red shifts. Yet the erudition of these poems, especially the presence in them of fairly complex ideas from philosophy and the sciences, is rather like the spirits that spoke to Yeats through his wife: it is there not to draw attention to its own existence, but to provide metaphors for poetry. Ideas are not used to intimidate the reader, but to serve as a common object of contemplation for him and the past.
This shared contemplation is not easy for either of the parties in the process. The self the poems present is perplexing and perplexed. But the puzzles in which it engages itself and the reader, though framed in intellectual terms, are moral and emotional rather than intellectual. The poems do not serve to expand and comment on scientific ideas, but to chart emotional life, as in “Astronomer’s Complaint.” In this poem, the phenomenon of the red shift in the light emanating from receding stars, with its corollary idea that the universe continues to expand, is used economically and intelligently to describe the relationship between two people—almost after the manner of the scientific metaphors of the Metaphysical Poets. Similarly, in the poem “Une Semaine de Bonté” (the title is taken from Max Ernst’s famous collage, a surrealist story without words), a meeting between two lovers is expressed by the formula, “Let A conduct himself toward Z in the modality p,/ Let Z conduct herself toward A in the modality q.“
In these two poems, the first drawing upon physics and the second upon symbolic logic, metaphors from science and philosophy seem to be used for two main reasons. First, in each case the author is talking about communication, and he wants, quite seriously, to adopt a stance that will allow him to observe human phenomena objectively; hence, at the end of “Astronomer’s Complaint,” the lines “When I was younger I/ never knew how cold/ observatories have to be.” Second, the use of material from the sciences operates, in a contemporary poem, like the introduction of God or the Imagination in a nineteenth century work. It provides something unchanging, above and beyond the sphere of human relationships, something to serve as a matrix or background of meaning to set those relationships against, as in the last stanza of “Une Semaine de Bonté”:
A febrile hand or two contracted all those eyes to zeroes,after which, feathers gave way to scabrous fingernails,and these, in turn, to blood, and bone, and marrow,as each fought the other down into the dizzy absolutes,of which neither dreamed they might be merely in the mind.
There is fairly subtle play here with the notion of the transcendent or sublime, an implication that the poet will concede the possibility of the real existence of the “dizzy absolutes” beyond the particulars of human life, without relying upon such extrahuman entities to redeem the human world from its frequent disappointments and occasional brutishness. Von Abele’s intellectual openness here, as well as his frequent use of questions rather than declarative sentences throughout the book remind one of Keats’s remark on “Negative Capability”: “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” After the manner of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), then, whose influence appears in such poems as “Die Welt Ist Alles, Was der Fall Ist” and “About That of Which One Cannot Speak, One Must Be Silent,” von Abele presents to the reader more questions than axioms, more puzzles than solutions.
Yet, just as it was Wittgenstein’s contention that he embarked on his complicated path through language theory in order to arrive, eventually, at a system of ethics, so von Abele’s play with ideas is not free, undirected play—his games with language and with the processes of reasoning are rarely light-hearted. Here again von Abele is a twentieth century man, one who has absorbed the idea that game theory is a serious matter. We might say that whereas a poet such as Frank O’Hara—whose work also abounds in references to figures in the arts, and who also indulges in frequent games with the reader—strives usually for the exuberance of a boy playing kickball with words, von Abele achieves the tone of a determined and sometimes grim chess master. Occasionally, as in “Am I Not Your Son?” and “Will the Black Watch Hesitate to Shoot?,” von Abele, like the Knight in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, plays a game with Death. But always, no matter who his partner is, his stakes are peace of mind, intellectual growth, and, above all, moral integrity.
Like Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha, von Abele seems to be forever asking, “What is the right way for me to do?” The first poem in A Cage for Loulou sets the tone for the book: “Poet Counterpoet” describes the Chinese philosopher-poet Li-Po “lying back/ drunk in a boat, without oars, among reeds,” contemplating the image of himself engaged in relatively aimless contemplation. In the course of the poem the poet gets so involved in reflections that he seems to become entirely passive, and this is a kind of serenity, a goal some poets might work towards. But for von Abele it seems to be also a moral abdication, and this cannot be allowed; he transfers Li-Po from his bateau ivre to a “down-screaming fiery plane,/ studying the Jersey meadows.” It is as though he says here that serenity belongs to the realm of language and signs, or mathematical symbols; to the process of analysis and description; but never to the things analyzed and described. Out of our wish for serenity we may construct, in Yeat’s phrase, “beautiful lofty things,” yet life as it is lived more often recalls the lines from the Irish poet’s “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”: “Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement.”
The poem “Moons and Caves,” besides providing the memorably wry comment, “The real estate of man is such that any sensitive/ proprietor ought to find the form and file for bankruptcy,” stresses once again the distinction between the world of words and symbols and the world we must live in. Within its context in the poem, the phrase “find for form” is like “real estate,” a pun: the idea of poetic, perhaps even of Platonic, form is being toyed with here; and the suggestion is that the moons and caves of poets, existing in individual imaginations, may be of less use than a few cold, hard, palpable, and unpoetical facts, the physical presences in the world we live in.
Still, poems are made of words, not things. Though in “Variations on a Paradox”—which appropriately enough provides the title for the first section of the book—von Abele says, “That we must make poems is a perplexity,” it seems to be the kind of perplexity he can find both engaging and morally instructive. So, as “Moons and Caves” suggests, he continues to look for appropriate forms; a dedication to life becomes a dedication to speaking about life. Like Samuel Beckett at the end of The Unnamable, von Abele’s poems seem to say, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” The search for appropriate symbols, subject matter, and objects of contemplation often leads to other literary works; Beckett and his characters, for example, appear more than once in A Cage for Loulou, and with good reason; Beckett constitutes probably the most important contemporary influence to be found in von Abele’s poems.
James Joyce, too, appears in the background of von Abele’s book, not merely in the author’s fondness for wordplay, but in the consciousness running through all the poems that human beings are made of flesh and blood—and several other, grimier substances often bypassed in our thought and literature. Von Abele’s is a profoundly physical world, but one which through language attempts to make myth of the poor human body, as Joyce begins to do in Ulysses and does on such a grand scale in Finnegans Wake. In the cycle of “Dublin Poems,” von Abele builds on Joyce’s use of the personification of Dublin’s river to make one of the loveliest, most balanced poems in this book: “Four Movements of Anna Liffey” uses a kind of symphonic form—note the pun in the title—to express compassion for a female river about to merge with a male sea. The conceit is convincing because the compassion is genuine. Yet here the reliance on Joyce is not particularly marked; it is as if von Abele inhabited Joyce’s world but viewed it from another perspective.
In a similar fashion, von Abele builds upon Gustave Flaubert’s short story “A Simple Heart” in the long title poem of A Cage for Loulou. Flaubert’s Loulou is a gaudy-colored parrot belonging to the housekeeper Felicité, who has the bird stuffed and mounted upon its death, making of it a kind of shrine that soon becomes tattered and infested with worms. On her own death, Felicité sees the stuffed bird in a kind of vision as the Holy Ghost, conventionally portrayed as a dove. It is important for both Flaubert’s story and von Abele’s poem that the bird be a parrot, mimicking human speech, but without the force of consciousness and intention behind its locutions. But von Abele takes this figure a step farther; the subject of his poem is not really the parrot in the story, but the stuffed parrot Flaubert kept on his desk to serve as a model while writing the story.
In “A Cage for Loulou,” then, von Abele brings together all of the major themes and attitudes we have seen controlling the rest of the poems in the book. The poem is compassionate, but frequently ironic; playful and grim at once. It employs metaphors derived from both literature and science, setting up a series of reflections of reflections that may well become too complex for many readers; yet the poem sincerely attempts to guide the reader through a genuinely labyrinthine reality. Finally, “A Cage for Loulou” is authentically humble: It does not provide manifestos, but modestly asks whether there is, or can be, a way of bringing words and human life together for the elucidation and enrichment of both. Though the focus is, as we have said, on the self above all, the emphasis on moral integrity in this poem, as in the other poems in A Cage for Loulou, makes Rudolph von Abele a welcome new voice in our poetry—especially at the end of the “Me Decade.”