History of My Heart
Robert Pinsky’s History of My Heart is the third book of poetry by a writer who is also known for his translations of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czesaw Miosz. In Pinsky’s first book, Sadness and Happiness (1975), he wrote in a distinctive style, developing poetically subjects that customarily are presented expositionally. These poems are attractive to read, as they combine the abstract comment of an essay with poetic imagery and conversational idioms. The result of the blending is a richness of poetry coming through the guise of informal discursive analysis. In the poem “Essay on Psychiatrists” from Sadness and Happiness, Pinsky begins: “It’s crazy to think one could describe them.” Pinsky’s use of the poem for writing about topics—psychiatrists, sadness and happiness—recalls William Carlos Williams’ observation that the poem is where a poet does his thinking.
History of My Heart is a slim volume composed of nineteen short poems sandwiching one long narrative poem after which the book is titled. The poet’s appetite for the world, and extensive addressing of a topic in a poem, is not as apparent here. Pinsky writes these poems from a forthright introspectiveness.
The title is arresting in its frank admission of self-interest. Throughout the book, the first-person pronoun and the poet’s name appear and reappear. Childhood memories, experiences with named relatives, and the street on which Pinsky lived as a boy serve as points of focus for several poems. Alongside the personal evocations, Pinsky is eager to suggest what it all means, and cosmic patterns are what he concludes it does mean. The terms “fate,” “chance,” “luck,” and “fortune” occur frequently. The first poem, entitled “The Figured Wheel,” tells of the indomitable wheel that is fortune, history, and material change. The wheel grinds everything to dust, including Pinsky, his wife, and children. Another poem, “Three on Luck,” presents three points of view on life: that of a senior poet, a late child, and a man whose prostate gland has been removed. All three are unhappy with the ways their lives have been arranged, though the poet has the advantage of understanding suffering and luck and accepting them as a code by which to live.
Informing the poems in History of My Heart is a complaint against an ill-mannered demiurge—creative, destructive, random—intent on creating pain in people’s hearts. Pinsky broods in these poems on the conditions of existence which leach people of desire, hope, and love. Pinsky’s placement of himself at the center of the subject he writes about gives this book an intimate and potentially risky tone. His wager is that a reader will not be put off by the apparent presence of one more whiner against life. The reader who reads all the poems will not be so put off, for the poems positioned near the book’s end document Pinsky’s growing awareness of his heart’s life other than as merely the locus of life’s thorns.
Pinsky’s title combines two words, “history” and “heart,” whose incompatible connotations describe the stress out of which he wrote the poems. At the end of “The Figured Wheel,” Pinsky announces the confrontation between history, the grinding wheel, and his heart. Pinsky surrenders the particularities and intimacies of his life to the neutralizing destroyer, and he phrases his giving-up in the somewhat formal tone of a legal document: “And wife and children and his sweet self/ Which he hereby unwillingly and inexpertly gives up, because it is// There, figured and pre-figured in the nothing-transfiguring wheel.” Life has one’s number. The “nothing-transfiguring wheel” signals a flat pessimism. People are changed by life, but from form to formlessness. Everything is equally significant, whether it be Christ’s obliviousness to hurt or a “feeding pig that without knowing it eats a baby chick/ And goes on feeding.”
The second poem, “The Unseen,” rings with Promethean sonority and addresses itself to the Creator. It narrates a visit which Pinsky paid to a Krakow concentration camp. Here is all the monstrous oppression of Nazi terror, which God allowed to wipe out His chosen people. Jehovah is “discredited,” and the tone in which Pinsky speaks to God is mockingly submissive: “your servant gapes// Obediently to swallow various doings of us, the most/ Capable of all your former creatures.” The artist, stuck in such unsavory conditions, has always tried to make the best of them. Before God was “discredited,” and history had presented itself as inscrutable, the artist covered the wheel with figures, created religions, pantheons, imaginations, out of the need to know the personality of the All-Powerful. Now, however, the artist, always the first to see things because he is the most sensitive to metaphysics, is a “crippled sloop,” dubious of the shore where others live but also afraid of the alternative. The artist’s or poet’s traditional habitat, the world of spirit and the unconscious, is no longer comfortable. In “The Volume,” Pinsky says of it: “To try to picture it is like looking down/ From an immense height, the oblivious black volume./ To drown in that calamitous belly would be dying twice.”
A poet, says Pinsky, falls into madness these days, overcome by Spenglerian darkness, or chooses a sanity maintained only by a willingness to represent the unrepresentable and to experience tremendous suffering: “But Berryman said he wanted the good luck/ To be nearly crucified” (“Three on Luck”). To die once and still observe is the true...
(The entire section is 2310 words.)