David Slavitt has written in a range of poetic styles, from tightly crafted poems treating mythical or historical subjects to poems in looser forms better suited to more contemporary concerns such as his family, the nightly news, and visits to F. A. O. Schwarz. Slavitt’s wide vision of humankind is enhanced by his formal study in history and classical literature, his translations of Vergil, his work as the “witty, offbeat, irreverent movie critic” for Newsweek, and his writing of popular novels under the pseudonyms Henry Sutton, David Benjamin, Lynn Meyer (his first wife’s name), and Henry Lazarus. He has been praised for his ability to find poetry not only in the domestic occasion but also in his understanding of current affairs and historical events. As a result, there is a dark side to Slavitt’s poetry, a side that seems almost fearful of death, no doubt concerned about the world as it must appear when viewed and analyzed by the historian-classicist. For a poet such as Slavitt, with an impressive intellectual range that renders him uniquely aware of the continuous reenactment of grave mistakes because human beings rarely learn from history, the only certitude ultimately is form, and the only objective validation for behavior is not one’s performance itself, but how one’s behavior is reported later, most often by others.
Suits for the Dead
Examining Slavitt’s first collection of poetry, Suits for the Dead, John Hall Wheelock, editor of the Scribner Poets of Today series, notes among other qualities the poet’s command of form and point of view, two characteristics that continued to distinguish Slavitt’s poems. Wheelock stresses “the brilliance and clarity of [Slavitt’s] work, its brisk pace and taut resonance of line, its sardonic counterpoint, and, above all, its dramatic tensions.” Suits for the Dead is remarkable, as are the first books of many first-rate poets, for the territory it marks off as Slavitt’s own, the juxtaposition of the historical and mythological to images of the contemporary world. Such juxtapositions are subtle reminders of the cyclical nature of history, the arbitrariness of what is regarded as significant about events from the past, the contrariness concerning which of these events to celebrate and which to ignore, and, finally, the necessity of questioning authorities to determine why certain events and not others have been judged historically significant and whether they have been accurately portrayed.
While these concerns are brought to light in Suits for the Dead, they receive a greater depth of treatment and clarity of articulation in Slavitt’s second volume, The Carnivore. Here again Slavitt deftly juxtaposes scenes from contemporary life to images of lasting historical import. “Item from Norwich” expresses the predicament a poet who has been strongly influenced by his classical background must confront. The poem depends for its success on a series of images. For example, “the bit before the baseball scores: the man/ seventy-two, found in a tarpaper shack” sets up in Slavitt’s mind a comparison with the Syrian, Simeon Stylites, [who] raised near “Antioch/ a column three feet around and sixty high,” upon which he perched for thirty years, until his death. Slavitt then moves in this same poem to “the regimen of the Egyptian monasteries” and then back to “the man by the dump” in Norwich. The images Slavitt rolls before the reader suggest an ongoing motion picture of history and significant events, and he questions whether they are, in fact, the same.
The poem concludes by noting how natural, how futilely human it is to record such senses: “The impulse [to make such records] is always with us.” What is history? Slavitt seems to ask. What is news? Which events merit reenactment, even celebration? Do the historical events that are remembered rise above the “traditional mortifications” of events found newsworthy today?
There are, however, more than these epistemological concerns in The Carnivore, because history is full of reminders of aging and death and the inevitable hardship of endings. Slavitt writes in this volume about aging film heroes in old Westerns, Leonardo da Vinci’s last years, wreckers smashing gables, the practice of fishing with grenades, and Eskimos floating away on ice floes. An excellent example of his concerns comes in “The Lemmings,” where Slavitt writes that “they begin to swim/ westward in the nobility of despair.” Then, however, he adds an overlooked complication: “who can say the conclusion/ is the obvious drowning . . . ?” Slavitt reinforces here and elsewhere in the volume the notion that the writer-recorder and not the actor is the maker of history. In “On Realpolitik and the Death of Galba,” he writes, “There are some that say/ the death of Galba was noble, some say not.” After all, in reviewing historical occurrences, historians must either record accurately and without the filter of subjectivity, so that later generations can interpret and evaluate such events themselves (which means that they must record all events), or sit among poets in a Platonic celebration of the event, re-creating it with the republic and its hero in mind, with the lone goal of making the event memorable. No doubt history, like the news it immortalizes, depends on who tells the story.
The question of authority permeates The Carnivore since it spells some kind of death, not only of the historical figure but also potentially of self-determinacy in interpreting events. In “Planting Crocus,” the speaker’s son “is certain the flowers will come, because I have said/ they would.” Readers are required as they read such poems to ask not only who has authored their past and the history of their species but also who has authored their future, their expectations. For many children, Benjamin Franklin is portrayed in school as a historical figure who provided a model for earnest endeavor; the truth of his past is only whispered behind their backs. Slavitt writes with typical wit in “Financial Statement”: “Benjamin Franklin, egomaniac, lecher,/ a penny saved is a penury earned.”
Day Sailing is equally concerned with the theme of authority and self-determinacy. Though Slavitt rises to a more hopeful note in many of these poems, he is somewhat concerned that his craft may be, ultimately, no better than other kinds of crafts, including in the title poem, “a skill, a trade, a duplicity,/ a small boat.” He admits in this poem, “I am no sailor, but there is no virtue/ wholly irrelevant,” as if to suggest a continued search for the causes of this captivity he is beginning now to understand. He describes this captivity in “Another Letter to Lord Byron” as a lack of “something to do.” He writes, “It must be dull to be dead. You can’t write,/ or, if you do, you can’t send it off to the printer/ the way you used to.”
Slavitt is concerned still with the issue of authority as he perceives it, and the poems in this collection are often concerned with the act of creativity as a kind of breaking free of captivity, the deathlike state that prevents one from finding “something to do.” In “Cape Cod House,” he writes about “the builder of this room who had a sense/ of grace and gave more than a thought to grandeur.” In “Three Ideas of Disorder,” he models his behavior after that of his son, “who has learned the tough/ tyranny of blocks” by stooping himself “to make an architectural monster of some kind.” For Slavitt these are expressions that break free from the prison-house of self-consciousness and silence. As he says to George Garrett in “Upon Receiving a Book of Poems,” comparing Garrett’s gift of his book to another friend’s gift of a crystal bowl, “I have read your book, and flicked my nail/ against its rim, and having done so, thank you,/ for the air rings, sings with a clear tone.” Sometimes one can break free of captivity in that way. Sometimes one cannot.
The problem is a matter of articulation, as it is described for historians in The Carnivore and the tales they tell. In “Plymouth Rock,” the true story of what happened “is suppressed/ because we prefer to derive from the rock its gray/ certainties than to romp on the sand. Half-dressed/ little sailors and whores in the school’s Thanksgiving play/ wouldn’t be right.” Slavitt, though in a lighter tone, has not progressed substantially from his earlier position in The Carnivore: History is the record someone chooses to keep. Without truth, one is a victim, a captive of another’s fiction. There seems to be little protection in Day Sailing. When some sort of protection is built, the result is ironic, as in “Precautions,” where the poet recounts efforts to protect his boat against a promised hurricane. When the hurricane does not appear, he bemoans the fact that the unsecured boats of the “careless weekenders” have survived: “Battered to bits/ they should have been, all wrecked, and only mine/ secure in a just world.” In this unjust world, the poet likens the person who takes precautions to a Noah who might have awakened to find that the promised rain never developed, or to a Lot who might have left a city “to which nothing at all happens.”
Fortunately, Slavitt’s sense of irony permits him an acceptance of his place among other captives. All humans are somewhat like the seals, in a poem of that title, who, trapped inside a zoo, lose their “natural seal sense,/ and being captive,/ acquire dependence.” There is ample recompense for Slavitt, however, in “Pruning,” where the reader is reminded that he or she can “read/ with prickered fingers some of the rose’s poems.” Again, there is a hopeful moment in Slavitt’s “The Covenant,” which begins, “Let the world be wary of my son,/ be gentle with him, be reverent.”
Child’s Play and Vital Signs
The logical extension of such thinking, however, leads...
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