Sally M. Gall
Did you ever imagine, as a child,
these silences falling away
from where death watched us for a moment
and then the mockingbird's manic medley
wild with the morning, wild for heaven to notice.
So ends the epilogue to M. L. Rosenthal's masterly new sequence, She, his finest achievement and in my estimation a leading candidate for the best love poem in English since William Carlos Williams' "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." These closing lines, with their imagery of ardent song flung forth on the brink of the abyss, are suggestive of Rosenthal's practice as a whole: this situation is a recurring one in his poems. Also, the phrase "manic medley" is apt for his intensely energetic poetry with its quick shifts of focus and tone. Just in the brief space of five lines, for example, the speaking voice moves from conversational, nostalgic reverie to appalled confrontation of disaster to triumphant yet dismayed song in an effort to overcome death's ultimate silences. In "To His Other Spirit," the key poem of the sequence "His Present Discontents," Rosenthal uses the phrase "stormy, volatile, tentative as all living thought." His thought and poetry live precisely in this volatile, energetic fashion; and the shifting points of attention in his poetry—its volatility—and the high degree of craftsmanship make for intelligent, varied, passionate poems. There are few if any barren or dull stretches in Rosenthal's books of poems (or, for that matter, in his extensive criticism of modern poetry). (p. 119)
In his first book … Rosenthal showed how much he had learned from such masters as W. B. Yeats about the art of integrating quite varied poems into a coherent, satisfying whole. Blue Boy on Skates is an engaging collection of thirty-four lyrics and the prose-poem "Footnote." "Psalm" and "Footnote" provide a frame for lyrics that range from the humorous and whimsical to the nostalgic, elegiac, philosophical, celebratory, satirical, or politically anguished. The underlying theme is the need to keep an intensely loving stance not only toward family and friends but toward strangers and "enemies" as well…. (p. 120)
Love—not so incidentally, the word appears in the first and last lines of the book—is the all-important counter to the violence of the twentieth century, a violence engendered in part by historical hatreds, by the "sick Memory" and "foolish History" that made schoolboy enemies of the Polish Catholic Raymond and the "Jewish kid" the poet once was. In "The Enemy," the mock-epic battle by the bakery is treated humorously enough, but the implications are, of course, deadly serious and treated so elsewhere. (p. 121)
The two sequences in Blue Boy, "Three Conversations" and "Liston Cows Patterson and Knocks Him Silly," differ in structure and length from the later sequences—"Beyond Power" in the book of that name; the three sections of The View from the Peacock's Tail; and She—yet they offer a similar blend of personal and political notes. I should stress that Rosenthal's poetry is not "political" in the obvious sense of being written to support a political position; he is no Imamu Amiri Baraka whipping up racial hatred or Vladimir Mayakovsky lauding the Soviet state—not, fortunately, the only modes of poetry practiced by these poets. Rather, Rosenthal's poetry is "saturated with political consciousness," a condition of much modern poetry, as he points out in the "Politics" chapter of Poetry and the Common Life…. Both sequences suggest how impregnated with violence and terror the modern experience is and how vulnerable and helpless average human beings are…. (pp. 121-22)
The title sequence of Beyond Power is longer and the individual poems more independent than either "Three Conversations" or "Liston Cows Patterson." The book as a whole—also closely organized—is informed with a deeper despair; the poet's state of mind is evidently linked to the worsening world situation during the late 1960s, as...
(The entire section is 2,107 words.)