Mona Van Duyn

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Mona Van Duyn American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2681

Van Duyn protested the application of the label “domestic” to her work, noting that male writers who write about their spouses and the events of their daily lives, as she often did, are never labeled that way. In fact, she frequently found her subjects in literature, including the subject of poetry itself, as well as in history, mythology, and even newspaper items. Nevertheless, her subject matter frequently came from her daily life, its various events, her family, her travels. At the heart of her achievement is the fact that those domestic events, even those she treats with considerable humor, become metaphors for the complex statements she makes about the world and the place of people in it.

Van Duyn is a formal writer, almost always using rhyme (often slant rhyme) and frequently using regular stanzas. The volume Firefall (1993) may serve to illustrate the diversity she achieves. The first poem in the collection, “A Dog Lover’s Confession,” is prefaced by a lengthy note that identifies it and several other poems in the book as “Minimalist sonnets.” She explains that she has kept the Petrarchan or Shakespearean conventions in these works while shortening the conventional ten-syllable line length. She sometimes also added an extra quatrain.

“Miranda Grows Up” works like a sort of inverted Petrarchan sonnet with two-syllable lines, and several similar poems are included in a section called “Minimalist Sonnet Translations of, or Comments on, Poems by Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Frost, Hopkins, Arnold.” The collection also contains works in quatrains and other stanza forms as well as some poems partly in prose.

Rhyme is everywhere in Van Duyn’s work. In “Christmas Present for a Poet,” for example, she manages to find seventeen rhymes for the word “hornet” (after originally claiming she can find only “hairnet”); they range from “hornat” (“horn at”) to “howornate” to “hearnot” to “hernit” (in the phrase “her nit-wit”). The poem is partly a joking apology for a Christmas-gift shirt that made the recipient look like a hornet, but, typically, the work becomes more than that. Van Duyn considers the implications of the shirt’s golden bars on the dark background to suggest that they are like forms in poetry, like the strands of a hairnet that keep neat what they confine. The shirt was bought as a bargain, she claims, and is not the miraculous weave she would like to have sent, but, like life, it is a bargain of which the best must be made.

Poetry that uses humor and a modest subject to talk about something more serious is typical of Van Duyn. In “Mockingbird Month” (from Near Changes), for example, she describes a July in which, apparently ill, she is confined to a house where she spends her time listening to a mockingbird. At first she admires its virtuosity, reads about its abilities to imitate, and notes that it bullies the neighbor’s cowardly cat. By the end of the month, however, her feelings have changed. She says the lesson is both for art and art lover: When the bird sings all night, she begins to long for silence and concludes that she should also husband her own “apprentice words.”

In “In Bed with a Book” (from Near Changes), Van Duyn uses the detective novel, her favorite sort of escape reading, to talk about death. The first stanza of the poem describes the novel’s crimes; bodies are found everywhere. The second stanza asks a serious question: What difference does it make that these dead are denied the joys of human experience? In the third stanza, the speaker notes that all the novel’s mysteries will be answered with the detective’s solution tomorrow night. Meanwhile, surrounded by her loved ones, the speaker is falling asleep, a sleep she calls a “little rehearsal,” evidently a rehearsal for the same death that fills the novel.

Van Duyn’s work is filled with pictures of family life—an aunt in Texas who describes her apocalyptic religious visions in her chatty letters, a grandmother’s series of memories of immigrant life in the Middle West in the late nineteenth century, a speaker’s sudden awareness of her love for her husband of many years. By the same token, Van Duyn also makes generous references to the literature of others, to history, and to mythology. Christopher Smart, Alexander Pope, Plato, and Graham Greene all find places in her work, sometimes alongside more immediate references to the speaker’s private life.

The nature of love and its place in people’s lives is one of Van Duyn’s most compelling themes. In “Three Valentines to the Wide World,” from her first collection, an eight-year-old child asks whether God’s hobby is love. Van Duyn’s later poems repeatedly answer that question affirmatively and suggest that humans are at their best when they, too, share love, however raggedly they manage to do it.

“Quebec Suite” concludes with the speaker identifying the loon, which is lonely in its solitude and spends its days calling across the water to its mate, as her favorite bird. In “The Stream,” the speaker recalls her mother, who died a night after she and the daughter had shared a special lunch. Now the speaker knows that she will never be able to talk to her mother about love, that she can no longer be sure even what love is. Yet she knows that although love may be stained by abuse, still, like a narrow underground stream, its existence hidden and even unsuspected, it continues to press its way to the surface.

“Three Valentines to the Wide World”

First published: 1959 (collected in Valentines to the Wide World, 1959)

Type of work: Poem

The three parts of this long poem attempt to define the interrelationship between love, beauty, and art.

“Three Valentines to the Wide World” is the first poem in Van Duyn’s first book. In looking at the poem’s three parts, the reader should remember that a valentine is a short love message, and Van Duyn has addressed these messages to the world, emphasizing in her title the world’s vastness.

Part 1 is written in twelve-line stanzas, each stanza composed of three rhymed quatrains. That the rhyme is often slant rhyme (listening is rhymed with chastening, for example) does not diminish its effect.

The first stanza describes an eight-year-old child, awkward and graceless, who stands scratching a scab on her knee. In the second stanza, she asks her profound question without even looking up from her knee: “Mother, is love God’s hobby?” The speaker believes that the girl has not yet noticed that suffering and death inhabit the world, that she thinks of God as a gardener who will eventually create new leaves from dead stems. The child receives no answer, and the speaker takes her mind back to her own childhood, when anything seemed possible, including the idea that love sustains the world. Section 1 ends with a sort of prayer that the child will be able to maintain her sense of a world eternally re-created as she grows into “the grace of her notion.”

The second section is composed of seven four-line rhymed stanzas. The tone of this section is more reserved than that of the first; the section forms a sort of meditation on beauty and the function of poetry. The speaker begins by saying that she has never liked landscapes that are huge vistas, the kind one sees from roadside overlooks. They are too divorced from the immediacy of specifics. That loss of awareness of the specific must affect truck drivers, she thinks, as they roll along in a world where everything below the cabs of their trucks must blur into abstraction.

The antidote to this distance is the poem, the speaker says; its function is to create a sort of pressure. “To find some spot on the surface/ and then bear down until the skin can’t stand/ the tension and breaks under it. . . .” Only a poem is strong enough to do that, and when it does, the result is both discovery and reminiscence—just what the speaker experienced in the first section. The writer’s joy is to use discovery and reminiscence to create, rather like God the gardener.

Section 3 is composed of three eight-line rhyming stanzas and is introduced by a quotation from Geoffrey Chaucer in which the poet says that he cannot bear the beauty of a certain lady’s eyes; they will slay him. The speaker here says that, like the lady’s eyes, the beauty of earth seems merciless, powerful enough to kill, except when it is tempered by love and art—things in which compassion resides.

“Letters from a Father”

First published: 1982 (collected in Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, 1982)

Type of work: Poem

These “letters” picture an elderly couple who find solace for their declining health in the pleasure of watching a bird feeder.

The six sections of the title poem of Letters from a Father record the slow growth into health and peace of an elderly couple, presumably the speaker’s parents, as they find increasing pleasure in a bird feeder the speaker has given them. The voice throughout most of the poem is that of the father. Throughout, the stanzas are composed of rhymed quatrains.

In the first section, the speaker offers a long list of his pains—an ulcerated tooth, pressure sores from a leg brace, a bad prostate gland, and a bad heart. He feels ready to die. His old wife is in even worse shape: She falls down and forgets her medicines; her ankles are swollen, and her bowels are bad. This letter concludes with the old man chastising his daughter for wasting good money on a bird feeder; better to poison the birds and be rid of their diseases and mess, he says.

The next section notes that the daughter has brought her parents a bird feeder of their own—a waste of money, the old man says, as they will surely live no more than a few weeks. Still, he confesses that they are enjoying it. In this section, the old man’s physical complaints are still vivid—deafness, a bad heart, and belching—and he has added complaints about the birds. They are not even good for food, like the ones the father used to hunt years ago.

The third section creates a sort of transition; its tone is far more positive than that of the first two. The old man is evidently pleased at the large numbers of birds coming to the feeder, and he asks the daughter for a bird book so that he and “Mother” can identify them. They have even sent “the girl” (evidently a household helper) to buy more feed, although the old man tempers the hopefulness of this remark by noting that she had to go to town anyway (the reader suspects that the father is rationalizing).

In the fourth section, the reader learns that, in their feeding frenzy, some of the birds are flying into the old couple’s window and knocking themselves out. The old man recounts how a visitor rescued one unconscious bird and brought it in to be restored by the old man’s stroking. His joy in the little bird’s recovery is evident. He adds that the bird book has arrived.

The fifth section records the old man’s delight in the great variety of birds that frequent the feeder. He has names for all the species and describes their habits with pleasure (reminding the reader of Van Duyn’s assertions about the beauty of the specific in “Three Valentines to the Wide World”). He even has a kind word for squirrels. At the end of the section, he notes that he has pulled his ulcerated tooth himself and, despite his predictions, he did not bleed at all.

Section 6 continues to record the old man’s newfound joy; moreover, he is full of plans for feeding his birds all summer and next winter, too. Mother is doing well, too. She still forgets her medicine, but her bowels are fine. The old man takes some sly pleasure in noting that he has learned that some birds have three wives.

The last line is in the daughter’s voice: “So the world woos its children back for an evening kiss.” The kiss is the healing pleasure the old couple take in the specific beauties of the world’s birds.

“The Stream”

First published: 1982 (collected in Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, 1982)

Type of work: Poem

Shortly after her mother’s death in a nursing home, the speaker reflects on their relationship and compares her mother’s love to an underground stream.

“The Stream” is a narrative poem, written in rhymed couplets, which relates the events of the speaker’s last four days spent with her mother. The time is three months after the death of the speaker’s father; her mother is in a nursing home and hates it. The mother’s memory is failing, with the result that, by mistake, she makes a huge effort and dresses herself for a special lunch with her daughter. The lunch is really tomorrow, but the daughter is touched that her frail mother has made so much effort on her own, even fastening to her blouse a pin the daughter once brought her from Madrid.

The daughter has arranged for a special lunch in a lounge in a distant wing of the home, and when they arrive, the mother is uneasy. She does not like it here, she says, and she worries about finding a bathroom if she needs one. Yet when the lunch arrives with its special tablecloth and dishes, she calms herself and enjoys it. She eats more than she has in months, finishes her soup, and eats her own cakes and the daughter’s, too, with the daughter feeding her. The daughter remembers that her mother used to like restaurants, although her husband refused to spend the money for them, and that memory, along with her mother’s urgent thanks, brings tears to the daughter’s eyes.

On their last night together, the daughter helps her mother get ready for bed and watches her go through the rituals of a lifetime—finding the nightgown, washing her face. She looks at the work of age on her mother’s body and, as she prepares to leave, tries to reassure her mother that she will call and write; however, she is stopped by tears. Her mother takes the daughter’s face in her hands, tells her not to cry, and says that the daughter will never know how much she loves her.

At this point, the reader realizes that the relationship between mother and daughter has not been an affectionate one. The speaker’s recognition that the mother makes this gesture as if she had done it all her life makes the reader aware that, in fact, she has not done it. When the daughter says that the statement about love felt true, it is clear that she has not always believed it. The day after the speaker arrives home, the mother dies.

The poem then moves to its central idea: What is love? The speaker compares it to an underground stream, held beneath the surface by pressures no one can understand, perhaps the pressures of the mother’s own youth, her parents and husband. Aboveground, others would like to locate that stream of love, like dowsers searching for water for a well. Even dowsers, though, are helpless until at last the stream finds its own way to the surface, just as the mother’s love was finally articulated when she spoke to her daughter on their last night. It may happen, Van Duyn notes, too slowly, but after sixty years there is a gathering of water at last; to it, the speaker says, she adds her own tears. They are tears of loss and regret, of course, but also tears of love and joy. The combination, Van Duyn implies, is inevitable in this world.

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Mona Van Duyn Poetry: American Poets Analysis