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.
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...
(The entire section is 2027 words.)