Land of Superior Mirages
This posthumous collection of Adrien Stoutenburg’s best work establishes that relatively obscure poet as a major voice of conscience. The new poems, as well as those selected from her three earlier volumes, show her to be a vivid, passionate writer whose concerns touch the most fundamental issues in human experience. There are poems here of pain and outrage, as well as poems of more gentle emotions—but there is never merely an unfelt thought. While ideas are plentiful in her work, they are always ideas cloaked in sensation. Moreover, though her works reveal her great skills and her attentiveness to finding the most effective word or image, one never gets the impression that her style is showy. Every poem, every trope, is in the service of something else.
In his foreword, James Dickey calls attention to Stoutenburg’s blend of delicacy and power. This quality is nowhere more apparent than in the selection of new poems that David R. Slavitt has decided to place first in this collection. These pieces are mostly short sketches, hoarse lyrics of stubborn frailty and a tough courage that does battle with despair. The section is framed by “Next Door to the Rest Home Laundry” and “Intensive Care Unit,” two poems that seem most directly autobiographical as responses to the poet’s battle with esophageal cancer. The poems surrounded by this pair reflect a time of summing-up, something Stoutenburg does not only for herself but for everyone as well. A characteristic passage is the following one from “Before We Drown”:
We are here to measure wavesand the length of the marlin’s gilland to gather up into castlesthe wandering, witless sandbefore the tide turnsand we see our dead selvesmirrored, open-mouthed,in its glass shoulders.
Mankind’s civilized pursuits and the question of how these test the claims of time and nature are Stoutenburg’s subjects over and over again. Here, they are quietly joined in the poem’s closing images. “Storm’s Eye” is another kind of farewell, a poem of lashing sounds and images in which the valiant but doomed flight of Icarus feeds the speaker’s imagination: “But when I arrive there/ at the fire-ringed hub,/ I shall not blaze any more fiercely/ than I do here and now.”
As a poet, Adrien Stoutenburg burned fiercely through her whole career. Her first book, Heroes, Advise Us (1964), announced her intense ambition with the long poem “This Journey,” an imaginative re-creation of Captain Robert F. Scott’s arduous effort to reach and return from the South Pole. This powerful work is really a sequence poem in various voices and mixed styles. Generally, though, the lines are rough-hewn into a kind of verbal echo of the nerve- and muscle-shattering experience. “This Journey” illustrates Stoutenburg’s fascination with history and her startling ability to throw herself into the past so as to extract and project its constant human meaning. Though sometimes individual units in this long sequence go flat, they are more than redeemed by the majority of strong passages and the cumulative effect—Stoutenburg creates here an impression of epic energy and magnitude.
While “This Journey” risks being downright prosaic for the sake of certain kinds of verisimilitude, many of Stoutenburg’s poems from Heroes, Advise Us gain their power from the poet’s sure and appropriate handling of traditional devices. A stanza from “The Allergic” can serve to demonstrate that formal ease:
Gazelles must keep in bounds, and oriolestransport their gold combines to darker trees;the world of pelt and plume and naked roseis battered by the dust’s duplicities.
The world of pelt, plume, and rose is man’s world, too, but in a great many of Stoutenburg’s most majestic poems, she reminds her readers that the world is not only man’s and that man’s exploitation of it is a crime of such proportion that it calls into question the very notion that humankind constitutes a higher order of life.
(The entire section is 1,801 words.)