Cool, Calm, and Collected

by Carolyn Kizer
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2027

Decades are the governing principle of Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems, 1960-2000, as Carolyn Kizer divides the book into periods of time rather than books of poetry. This format reveals a number of clear changes in subject, style, and approach over the years, although her wit and feeling are present from the earliest to her newest poems. She is a remarkable and very accessible poet and this large collection should win a wide audience.

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Kizer’s poems are formal in their use of regular meter, often a loose iambic meter, and a few use rhyme; some poems are in a free verse that has a clear line integrity. Perhaps the greatest divergence from poetic formality can be found in her prose poems. The subjects of the poems of the 1950’s are various, although there are a number on domestic life, myth, and politics. “The Intruder” begins by defining the poet’s mother as “preferring the strange to the tame.” This is tested by the bleeding bat the cat “laid at her feet.” She still maintains her love for the “[w]ild and natural” in the face of the feral bat. However, when lice appear “nested within the wing pits” she drops it from her hands to the waiting cat. The blood on the floor is all that remained of “my mother’s tender, wounding passion/ For the whole wild, lost, betrayed and secret life . . .” The poem ends with the mother washing “the pity from her hands.” There may be an amusing echo of Lady Macbeth here. The poem deftly portrays the mother’s admirable love of wild, and her return to a cleaner and more ordinary existence. The tone is sympathetic but mocking of the mother’s naïve idealism.

“The Death of a Public Servant” is a political poem and an elegy for Herbert Norman, a victim of the McCarthyism of the 1950’s. The poem begins by speaking in general of the effects of the witch-hunts: “This is a day when good men die from windows.” She names a few who have been hounded to suicide, and then describes the suicide in Cairo of Herbert Norman who was “killed by slander.” These “servants of the world” were forced to seek a liberation in the oblivion of death. Others attempted suicide only to fail and be pulled back to an empty life where “they have managed to catch their death.” Kizer takes the cliché and gives it an ominous meaning in this disturbing time. The last stanza in the poem returns to Norman, and Kizer becomes bardic in this section as she states: “I mark the fourth of April on this page. . . .” This is even more apparent when she lifts her voice in memory of the dead diplomat: “A poet, to whom no one cruel or imposing listens,/ Disdained by Senates, whispers to your dust.” Her words will stand in place of the “words” that hounded him to his grave. They will be words “of rage, of grief, of love.” It is a powerful poem in which the poet controls her rage at injustice in order to find an appropriate tribute in words to a public servant who was destroyed by the foul words that were all too common in those days. Kizer is one of the few remaining political poets; she continues to write in the 1930’s leftist mode into the early twenty-first century.

“The Great Blue Heron” is, perhaps, Kizer’s best-known poem, and it is an impressive and moving one. The poem begins with a description of the heron that is rather ludicrous. It wears its wings as “a hunchback’s coat.” In addition, it is somewhat unreal, since it is “cut out” and “on a poster.” The young girl who is speaking the poem asks, “Heron, whose ghost are you?” She then turns to share her discovery with her mother. The heron has flown away, but the mother saw it in flight and “knew who he was.” The heron is the mother’s ghost.

An older person speaks the second part of the poem, addressing the heron that has returned fifteen years later to a scene in which “the summer house has burned/ So many rockets ago . . .” She questions the heron again; This time it is, “Why have you followed me here . . .” The answer is that he was waiting for the day when “[m]y mother would drift away.” The departure of mother, identified earlier as the “ghost” the heron represents, as well as that of the heron is beautifully joined in the poem. The heron becomes an ominous bird announcing and then symbolically revealing the loss of the mother.

The poems of the 1960’s are marked by a number of translation of poems from the Chinese and a prose record of a month-long affair that is interspersed with haikus. However, the most interesting poem is the long, three-part “Pro Femina.” The poem is satiric, and the first part deals with women’s place in society. Kizer takes an opposite position to the usual feminist one and says women are “hyenas,” since they “howl” for “free will” rather than assume it as males do. They may seem downtrodden, but they are able to “absorb,” like China, and triumph over their oppressors. The second part deals with the “Independent woman” and not “scabs.” If women fail to speak out for themselves, they will end up forgotten or discarded. Taking a strong position is essential for survival in a male world. The third part deals with women writers, and Kizer condemns some of the roles those writers have assumed, such as “Quarterly priestesses,” or sickly virgins. However, they are “emerging from all that, more or less.” A series of “if” clauses announce what women writers must do in order to come into their own fully and finally. If they do not allow their children to “devour us, whom we shall not devour/ And the luck of our husbands and lovers, who keep free women,” they will become true writers and truly independent women.

The poems from the 1970’s include a number of poems on myth, politics, and some interesting personal poems. “Two Poets by the Lake” is about her meeting with James Wright. The scene is described negatively: “A few aggressive gulls snatched at stale loaves/ We had not yet broken . . .” and a mailbox and a fireplug stand facing the two poets. The day is cold, but Wright invites Kizer to “enter your chill pastoral.” She “could not, would not mirror [him].” However, the second part of the poem speaks of how Wright transformed the bleak scene and the lack of connection between the two into “a bucolic poem.” In the poem, the “Postbox and plug” are gone and the weather has become more “moderate.” The third part adds a “coda” to the poem. Kizer returns to the scene to find the wildlife gone, and “[a] hydroplane has sliced across your voice.” Boats race each other and achieve a “mating” that the poets did not in a fatal crash. The last stanza teases out the true meaning of these divergent renditions. “While we are true neither to life nor nature,/ But perhaps to each other as we write.” That truth consists in the act of writing in “[t]he laying of the past, line upon line.” That alone can encompass “[t]he balked need urgent in your words and mine.” The act of writing in itself is the healing process and can alone reconcile the opposite views of the poem.

“Children” is an amusing poem on the horrors of rearing children in the modern world. The poem begins with familiar laments: “They only break your heart” and “[t]hey don’t even write home.” More interesting, “because they never finish anything,/ . . . Their politics are cruel and sentimental.” In addition, “[b]ecause they are historyless, they don’t believe in history.” They see Roosevelt as a “phony” and can claim that the “Holocaust didn’t really happen.” They also cannot “believe we ever believed.” This condemnation ends with practical advice: “Go on a diet./ Take up the career you dropped for them twenty years ago.” However, the poem ends with a scathing description of those friends “we used to envy” who had no children. Their lives that seemed so free have become obsessed with trivial things, especially, “with their little dog/ who piddles on the Oriental rug.” Their freedom leads only to a diminished world, while those who assumed the unpopular burdens of children find a fuller life.

The poems of the 1980’s are especially strong; there is a fine prose poem on her father, and a political poem on the hated Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. In “Valley of the Fallen,” Kizer’s sympathies are clear from the first section section of the poem. She describes the terrible life a woman friend has with her husband and asks: “Maisie, why did you ever marry him?” The answer is, “He fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” Nothing else needs to be said; Kizer would make the same choice. Kizer describes her leftist convictions as coming from her mother and early experiences. The visit to “Franco’s grandiose memorial” takes place in the third section of the poem. She looks at Franco’s stone and declares: “I’m going to spit on his grave.” However, she does not literally spit on the grave but declares her contempt for Franco as she pronounces the words, “Franco, I spit on your grave.” The last stanza is a return to a classroom in Madrid “scarred with revolutionary slogans,” where Kizer shares her love for fallen causes with the now freer students in Spain. The poem achieves some of its effect from interspersing comments on the monument in travel books that ironically contrast with Kizer’s sardonic view of the monument to a dictator.

“Twelve O’Clock” is the best poem of the 1990’s. It is a poem about a meeting the young Carolyn Kizer had with Albert Einstein. She was seventeen and was at Princeton to read a poem. Einstein emerged from his office at noon everyday for lunch, and she asked to observe him as he passed, since she was too shy to be introduced to the great man. She links this episode with rumors she had heard earlier about Heisenberg and his creating an atomic bomb in Germany. This is linked to a meeting on a train with E. O. Lawrence, the physicist at Berkeley who invented the cyclotron. Lawrence reassures her and her family that there is nothing to worry about concerning Heisenberg or the atomic bomb. The last two stanzas bring these diverse strands together. “Twelve O’Clock” is the anniversary of Hiroshima, the same time in Berkeley where she now is and where Lawrence created the cyclotron; it is also the time of the great scientist passing and smiling at the beautiful young Carolyn Kizer. “An instant which changes nothing./ And everything, forever, everything is changed.” Kizer connects a number of diverse elements in the poem in order to demonstrate Einstein’s principle of “simultaneity.”

The most interesting poem in the section of new poems is “The Erotic Philosophers: Part 5 of Pro Femina.’” The philosophers Saint Augustine and Kierkegaard are mocked for their hatred of women and their portrayal of them as temptations that divert man from his higher calling. She mocks Kierkegaard throughout the poem but is more forgiving of Augustine. At the end she criticizes Kierkegaard for asserting, “he must tear himself away/ From earthly love, and suffer to love God.” Augustine is praised by Kizer for seeing that “love, human therefore flawed,/ Is the way to the love of God.”

The last part of the book is called “Carrying Over” and is devoted to translations from a variety of languages. Kizer is a gifted translator, and the translations from Chinese seen earlier in the book are quite good. However, this section seems inferior to those translations and, especially, to Kizer’s own compelling poems.

Sources for Further Study

American Book Review 22 (September/October, 2001): 18.

Library Journal 121 (July, 1996): 120.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (December 17, 2000): 23.

Women’s Review of Books 18 (April, 2001): 14.

The Yale Review 89 (April, 2001): 170.

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