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Mona Van Duyn 1921–
The following entry presents an overview of Van Duyn's career through 1994. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 7, and 63.
Van Duyn's verse reflects intense emotions and thoughts beneath a placid surface of domestic life. In strictly metered poems that often recount such mundane events as trips to the zoo, hospital visits, and grocery shopping, Van Duyn reveals a constant struggle with time and relationships. The poet commented in an interview that "one of my major obsessive themes was the idea of time as a taking away of things and love and art as the holders and keepers of things." In her work, Van Duyn endeavors to perfect both love and art, thereby maintaining the aspects of life that time erodes. Although they often address such topics as a failing marriage and stressful interactions with one's aging parents, Van Duyn's poems remain essentially optimistic, focusing on the preservation rather than the devastation of relationships. While occasionally rendered in a colloquial voice, Van Duyn's verse is most often distinguished by references to classical and eighteenth-century poetry, long lines, and complex rhyme schemes.
Van Duyn was born May 9, 1921, in Waterloo, Iowa. She attended Iowa State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Iowa, where she was awarded a B.A. in 1942 and an M.A. in 1943. The same year she completed her master's degree, Van Duyn married Jarvis A. Thurston, a professor of English. She has worked as an educator at the State University of Iowa, the University of Louisville, Washington University, and University College, and has been a poet in residence at the Breadloaf Writing Conference. In addition to numerous other awards and honors, Van Duyn was granted a National Book Award for Poetry in 1971 for To See, To Take (1970), received the Pulitzer Prize for Near Changes (1990) in 1991, and was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1992.
In her first collection of poetry, Valentines to the Wide World (1959), Van Duyn introduces many themes that she would develop throughout her career. In the title poem, which ad-dresses a child's loss of innocence, the speaker discusses the possibility of rebuilding the child's worldview of hope and trust through art; Van Duyn suggests that an artist can recapture that which has been lost simply by re-creating it. The world of art, Van Duyn implies, can therefore justify the trials and disappointments of life. The poet also explores her recurring theme of marriage in Valentines to the Wide World. In the poem "Toward a Definition of Marriage," for example, she describes wedlock as a "duel of amateurs" that should endure despite hardships, emphasizing her belief that marriage is an essential component of civilized society. The title poem of Van Duyn's second volume of verse, A Time of Bees (1964), relates a story of bees that have died in the walls of a married couple's house. As the husband and a scientist-friend sift through the dead insects, collecting enzymes from their flight-wing muscles for an experiment, the wife watches, identifying with the few bees still fighting to live. The speaker views this episode as a clear illustration of the irreconcilable differences between men and women. Other poems in A Time of Bees deal with friendship, gardening, and mental illness. Considered until A Time of Bees as a "poet's poet," Van Duyn gained a wider audience with her next book, To See, To Take. The best-known poems in this collection are written in response to William Butler Yeats's sonnet "Leda and the Swan." "Leda" and "Leda Reconsidered" paint a less romantic picture of the myth than Yeats's elevated version. Van Duyn's lovers are perpetual strangers, destined to wrestle with the complexities of their relationship. Again, man and woman have little in common, but submit to love and its inherent difficulties. The title poem in Letters From a Father and Other Poems (1982), written in the form of six letters, describes in candid detail the physical ailments of the poet's aging parents and the symptoms that foreshadow their imminent death. A gift from their daughter, however, restores their interest in life. In Near Changes, Van Duyn's Pulitzer prize-winning collection, she again treats such topics as love, marriage, friendship, aging, and nature, but the poems are lighter in tone than her earlier works, aiming more at illuminating certain aspects of each topic rather than at communicating a sense of dissatisfaction or conflict. If Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959–1982 (1992) contains all of Van Duyn's previously published collected works up to, but not including, Near Changes. Firefall (1992), according to William Logan, "is very much a book of elegy and farewell, a catalogue of the ills and complaints of age, the losses endured and the losses still to be faced." In this volume, Van Duyn explores familiar subjects such as love, art, and death through elegy, epistle, interpretive responses to well-known poems by W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Robert Frost, and experiments with "minimalist" sonnets, a variation of the traditional forms.
Many critics labeled A Time of Bees, as well as many of Van Duyn's other works, "domestic," including James Dickey, who observed: "[Van Duyn] is a master … of the exasperated-but-loving, intelligent-housewife tone." David Kalstone noted: "Every poem [in To See, To Take] staves off the executioner, like the home canning to which [Van Duyn] compares her work." To See, To Take's straightforward, often wry poems prompted Thomas H. Landess to dub Van Duyn a "tough-minded" poet. He added: "I can think of no contemporary poet who looks at the world with a steadier eye than does Mona Van Duyn. Not only does she fail to flinch in the face of what is distasteful or awry, but more importantly she never has visions." Letters From a Father, published twelve years after To See, To Take, reinforced Van Duyn's reputation as a "tough-minded" poet. Robert Hass noted that the "detail [in Letters to a Father] is potentially gruesome, the story potentially sentimental, but there is something in the implied attitude of the daughter—her clear eye, amusement, repugnancy, fidelity—that complicates the whole poem and brings it alive, and it gets at an area of human experience that literature—outside of Samuel Beckett—has hardly touched." Alfred Com has asserted that for Van Duyn to have maintained her affirmations of the powers of love and art into the latter part of her career is a notable achievement. In assessing Near Changes, Corn declared: "To be older, tired, and still 'pleasure-hoping'; to be realistic and also subject to transcendent intuitions; to weigh the claims of love along with the claims of poetry; this is the vision informing Near Changes. During the past several decades Mona Van Duyn has assembled, in a language at once beautiful and exact, one of the most convincing bodies of work in our poetry, a poetry that explores, as [Wallace] Stevens put it, '… the metaphysical changes that occur, / Merely in living as and where we live.'"
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Valentines to the Wide World (poetry) 1959
A Time of Bees (poetry) 1964
To See, To Take (poetry) 1970
Bedtime Stories (poetry) 1972
Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished (poetry) 1973
Letters from a Father and Other Poems (poetry) 1982
Near Changes (poetry) 1990
Black Method (poetry) 1991
∗If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982 (poetry) 1992
Firefall (poetry) 1992
∗Includes the collections Valentines to the Wide World, A Time of Bees, To See, To Take, Bedtime Stories, Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished, and Letters from a Father and Other Poems.
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SOURCE: "The Teeming Catalogue," in Poetry, Vol. 96, No. 1, April, 1960, pp. 47-51.
[In the following excerpt, Woods surveys some of the poems in Valentines to the Wide World.]
Mona Van Duyn appears to be a fully-engaged poet. She is not the house organ of any special lobby, but is trying on several attitudes, several voices [in Valentines to the Wide World].
About poetry she writes:
But what I find most useful is the poem. To find
some spot on the surface and then bear down until
the skin can't stand the tension and breaks under it …
Only the poem
is strong enough to make the initial rupture …
And I've never seen anything like it for making you think
that to spend your life on such old premises is a privilege.
I am sure that some of her passages are mistakes. In Part Three of "To My Godson, On His Christening," she writes:
Oh, we know our tongue tollings, baskets of wellwishes, won't
keep you back from your life. Still burnt from birth, you jump
toward that fire. Yet the pause we've programmed here is misleading,
whips me (balky, strange to the course and the speeding)
off, in a halter of words, to run for your meaning.
Although "Each skull encloses / trinkets, museums of rarities, whole zoos of wishes," the mind has a limited willingness to catalogue such variety.
These poems are committed, also, to love, to love of the world. "Love is that lovely play / that makes us and keeps us," the eight-year-old girl is told. In her third "Valentine to the Wide World," she states that "Beauty is merciless and intemperate", but that one "against that rage slowly may learn to pit / love and art, which are compassionate".
In "The Gentle Snorer," when two had "dimmed to silence" in a Maine retreat, a three-weeks cabin guest brought back the world, as he snored. He "sipped the succulent air", and "sleeping, he mentioned death / and celebrated breath".
He went back home. The water flapped the shore.
A thousand bugs drilled at the darkness. Over
the lake a loon howled. Nothing spoke up for us,
salvagers always of what we have always lost;
and we thought what the night needed was more of man,
he left us so partisan.
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SOURCE: "Four Gentlemen, Two Ladies," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1960, pp. 120-31.
[In the following excerpt, Snodgrass provides a favorable appraisal of Valentines to the Wide World.]
At least in this present book, there are no large efforts comparable to Scott's "Memento" or "The U.S. Sailor with the Japanese Skull"; consequently there are no comparable major triumphs. At the same time, there are none of the failures or half-resolved poems; each of these poems seems achieved and delightful. Again, in developing her style, [Van Duyn] has not pushed (like Scott) toward a gnarled and crabbed lyricism; she moves instead toward a discursive style in which she tempers her natural awkward prosiness with a quiet and eccentric music. The result is something quite airy, peculiar and gracious. Here is the largest part of one of her poems on the christening of a godson:
I've thought that the dream of the world is to bring, and again bring,
out of a chaos of same, the irreplaceable thing,
so, when it dies, we may clap for that brilliant wasting….
This black bubble eye of a pike, ringed with gold,
that neck-wattle, leaf veining, shell crimp, tailfeather, holds
marvel enough. But it's we who're the perfect, pure manifold.
Each sculp of feature is sole. Each skull encloses
trinkets, museums of rarities, whole zoos of wishes.
No one's repeated. We're spent; earth is dazzled with losses.
Farewell and farewell and farewell; yet we honor each going
with a feast of awareness whose richest flavor is knowing
our breed as snowflake, ourselves as yesterday's snowing.
And there's always something new under the sun
that warms toward our thaw. Look, the gifted air swarms
with it, falls from the weight of it, all those shapes, storms
of fresh possibilities. Now spindling down, we see one
who'll drift near us. With special pleasure we watch you come.
A long quotation; yet this language, so generous finally, makes so few claims for itself that shorter quotations would scarcely represent it.
Nearly all the poems in this book deal with love, marriage, children—with the common domestic problems. That is a sharp limitation upon the book. As Rilke tells us, for the poet whose aim is praise, the great test is how much of the world's misery and sorrow can be digested into that praise. It is not that Miss Van Duyn ignores the suffering in her material—it is only that her material excludes such wide realms of experience. Yet, sometimes it is good to know one's limits…. Miss Van Duyn, trying for so much less, always gives a sense of some significance, and (because of her range of diction, which can describe birth in paratrooper's terms, or marriage as a World's Fair landfill) of a fairly wide world of solidly realized objects. Much that is excluded from her subjects sneaks in through her style….
Perhaps I am misled by the lovely job of bookmaking that Cummington has done for these poems. Or perhaps misled by my approval of what Miss Van Duyn is saying. I must confess that if someone said, concerning the relation of the poem to the world:
… I've never seen anything like it for making you think that to spend your life on such old premises is a privilege….
I would probably like it even in Deaf-and-Dumb. Again, I may be misled by my belief that Miss Van Duyn's imagery and diction can teach me a good deal. Yet again, perhaps I really am right—that Miss Van Duyn, neglected as she has been, has written some poems which will seem genuine for a good long while.
At any rate, it does seem just about time that somebody sent this world a valentine. And if I were a poor, old, monstrous, pragmatical pig of a world (as who shall say I'm not), I can't think of who I'd rather set one from.
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SOURCE: "Charms to Stave Off the Executioner," in New York Times Book Review, August 2, 1970, pp. 5, 22.
[In the following review, Kalstone offers a positive view of To See, To Take.]
To See, To Take, Mona Van Duyn's title, like our first verbs, sounds innocent at the outset, fierce and telling later on. Infinitives in certain languages are imperatives as well; and so they are here, in poems where seeing and taking are urgent as well as pleasurable activities:
And now, how much would she try
to see, to take,
of what was not hers, of what
was not going to be offered?
The subject of these lines is "Leda Reconsidered," the lady trying, in a reflective moment before the swangod takes her, to escape the fate of an earlier Leda in this same book who "married a smaller man with a beaky nose, / and melted away in the storm of everyday life."
Dwindling: it is as if all the poems in this not-so-slim volume were charms—successful ones—against that fate. Like Scheherazade's stories, they are accomplished, never ragged; and their restlessness, their driven quality, is apparent not in any hysteria or lapse in technique, but only in the felt necessity to continue the activity. Every poem staves off the executioner, like the home canning to which she compares her work:
Oh I know, I know that, great or
humble, the arts
in their helplessness can save
but a few selves
by such disguises from Time's
and yet, a sweating Proust of
the pantry shelves,
I cupboard these pickled peaches
in Time's despite.
Tart, literary, self-mocking, the lines are typical of one kind of poem in this book: verse which sees with an anthropologist's eye the strangeness of common activities and takes pleasure in our peculiar adaptations to survival. Many of the pieces, obliquely or head-on, concern marriage. They entertain with a certain toughness the notion that intimacy may cloud the vision, be "the absolute narrowing of possibilities." Hence, I think, the pressure to explore landscapes and vantage points which, like Miss Van Duyn's "Colorado," open the half-desired way to "private enterprise," where the poet "washed once and for all / from my lips and eyes / the sexual grimace."
There are travel poems like "Into Mexico" and "Postcards from Cape Split" whose intense clarity allow her to be, really, at home with strangeness. In this last, one of the best pieces in the book, she and her family live "uncentered for three weeks" in a house engulfed by heliotrope and learn to get by on two buckets of water a day. They drive inland through the Blueberry Barrens:
You almost miss it.
Suddenly, under that empty space,
the curious color of the ground.
Blue mile, blue mile,
and then a little bent-over group
creeping down string-marked
aisles. Blue mile, blue mile …
These trips act as an endowment, allowing her fresh vision throughout and fresh returns to the everyday world, wary of its snares and wanting to make it count or rather tell. Among conventionally light subjects there are wild imaginings. "In the Cold Kingdom" describes an orgiastic afternoon with technicolor flavors in an ice cream shop (Zanzibar Cocoa, Mint Julep, Pumpkin), exorcising greed, "the Unconscious, that old hog, / being in charge here of the / creative act." If there is any flaw in these poems, it is the temptation yielded to in that amusing line, or in the book's self-conscious dedicatory page in praise of "poets"; on occasion Miss Van Duyn talks too much of poetry, tells what she has already shown so well, insists on a literary salvation which has obviously worked for her.
Still, it has worked. Verse in a sense restores her humanity. The book as a whole has a special rhythm, swinging out, exploring, detaching itself, and falling back to embrace the troubles it departed from. A final adventure, the long climactic poem "Marriage, with Beasts" is funniest and eeriest of all, making an unsparing tour of a menagerie of appetites and feelings: "Bringing our love to the zoo to see what species / it is, I carry my head under my arm, you cradle yours." Talking about the animals as a way of sharing unsharable instincts, unable to case aside her heady articulate manner, she has a brutal, comic moment facing the mountain lion and a welcome lapse back into the disguises of marriage:
Now take what you've seen of me home, and let's
go on with our heady life. And treat me, my pet,
forever after as what I seem; for it seems,
and it is, impossible for me to receive,
under the cagey wedlock of your eyes,
what I make it impossible for you to give.
This is Mona Van Duyn's third book and should, because of its sustained skill and wisdom, be the one which introduces her to an audience wider than the select one which has prized and praised her work for the past ten years. It is a volume which makes large, painful, powerful connections, and one in which we sense a whole life grasped, in the most urgent and rewarding senses of the word.
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SOURCE: "Deer, Doors, Dark," in Southern Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 243-56.
[In the following excerpt, Oberg responds favorably to To See, To Take.]
Unlike [Peter] Russell's book, [The Golden Chain,] Mona Van Duyn's To See, To Take takes notice of where modern poetry has been going as much as it succeeds in evolving a style that is unmistakably Miss Van Duyn's.
To See, To Take is full of things to admire—generosity and intelligence, wit and love. Beyond that, it is an outrageous book in ways that only major books, and major writers, can afford to be. Both Shakespeare and Yeats are prominent here, not so much as literary ghosts, but as sensibilities with whom Mona Van Duyn has much to share. The multiplicity of Shakespeare and that perfect control of tone which Yeats displayed in poems like "Leda and the Swan," "Among School Children," and "The Circus Animals' Desertion" find their comparisons in the best poems of this book.
I had read To See, To Take before being invited to review it, and before the major prizes came. It has weathered all that attention in the manner that only important books somehow are able to do.
I have no preference for long poems to short poems, or large books to small ones. But one of the pleasures for me in reading Mona Van Duyn has always been a largeness, and a largesse, which defines her work and which the process and progression explicit in the title, To See, To Take, confirms.
In A Time of Bees (1964), there are poems, or at least parts of poems, that do not work; sometimes an inventiveness of image becomes so self-generating as to threaten a larger unity within a poem. Sometimes a poem takes in so much as to forget when it might best conclude. But these faults not only occur less frequently in To See, To Take, but are forgiven and forgotten in the grand successes of the strongest poems in the volume.
To See, To Take makes out of potential risks—the welter of prose-like experience, in particular—the very substance of its art. When, in the conclusion of the poem for Randall Jarrell, "A Day in Late October," Mona Van Duyn resorts to prose, she insists upon the prose bone of death, Jarrell's and her eventual own:
Before that happens, I want to say no bright
or seasonal thing, only that there is too much
the incorruptible poem refuses to swallow. At
the end of each line, a clench of teeth and
something falling away—tasteless memory, irreducible
hunk of love, unbelievably bitter
repetition, rancid failure at feeling and
naming. And the poem's revulsions become a
lost world, which also contains what cannot be
imagined: your death, my death.
And, all the while, the prose turns into a poetic prose, uniquely hers. More often, however, Miss Van Duyn is content to transform what she thinks and feels, or sees and takes, into artful verse. Conversely, she makes verse as unflinching as any prose could hope to be. In both cases, the poetry matters. I quote the poem "Homework" in full:
Lest the fair cheeks begin their shrivelling
before a keeping eye has lit on their fairness,
I pluck from the stony world some that can't cling
to stone, for a homely, transparent form to bless.
Smothering Elbertas, if not Albertines,
in the thick, scalding sweetness of my care,
I add a touch of tart malice, some spicy scenes
and stirring, and screw the lid on love's breathless jar.
There in a frieze they stand, and there they can stay
until, in the fickle world's or the jaded heart's
hunger for freshness, they are consumed away.
Oh I know, I know that, great or humble, the arts
in their helplessness can save but a few selves
by such disguises from Time's hideous bite,
and yet, a sweating Proust of the pantry shelves,
I cupboard these pickled peaches in Time's despite.
"Homework" is typical of Mona Van Duyn at her best. "A Sweating Proust of the Pantry Shelves": this is Mona Van Duyn finding her own intimacies, using her own memories, breaking down the old distinctions between poetry and prose in order to form a style recognizably hers. "Homework" uncovers the same strengths—her own savage indignation, her loving care—obvious in the other, longer poems in the book: "Outlandish Agon," "First Flight," the Leda poems, "The Creation," "Into Mexico," "To Poets" Worksheets in the Air-Conditioned Vault of a Library," "The Twins," "Marriage, With Beasts."
Neither the length of the volume nor the poet's ability to work in various poetic modes can disguise the essential lyricism of the book. To See, To Take is lyrical in the compression of form and in the relentless variations on love—its anatomy and chemistry, its relationship to art and neurosis, its power in the face of cold death. Mona Van Duyn fears her capacity to love and knows how love can hallucinate. But she is also one of those few poets who can carry in her poems the convincing impression of a very non-abstract physicality and of that joy before love, and before words, which all important poetry learns to convey. On every count by which I would approach and arraign it, To See, To Take comes out as one of the finest books to appear in American poetry in recent years.
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SOURCE: "As Three Poets See Reality," in The New York Times, Vol. 123, September 22, 1973, p. 22.
[In the following review, Shapiro provides a mixed review of Merciful Disguises.]
Mona Van Duyn's poems, crammed with reality, present a curious case. She has been much honored by the academy—a National Book Award and a Bollingen—but among the poets in New York she has few readers. That has to do with the nature of her reality: She writes as a wife, indeed as a housewife, putting up poems as another good woman might put up peaches (she can begin "An Essay on Criticism" with a description of making prepared onion soup). Her poems describe vacation trips to the mountains or the shore. She writes about female friends, children, relatives. All of this is patently unfashionable. Unfashionable also is the fact that her poems have subjects. More damning than that, there is the basic assumption in her work that it is possible to elicit meaning from the world.
The early poems [in Merciful Disguises] sometimes wobble unsteadily (reading this book, a collection of all her work to date, is a bit like watching an ungainly girl grow into a graceful woman) because of the disparity between the prosaic, even folksy, detail and the very learned, literary and skilled mind alive in the language, propelling the poem. The effect is of the rhetoric sometimes jumping away from the detail into its own orbit. This plus excessive detail makes the poems difficult to take in. I assume some of this is intentional—modern metaphysical—but it misfires.
In the last poems of A Time of Bees (1964) there begins a chastening of language and detail that brings them together into a complete saying (for example, the moving "A Garland for Christopher Smart," based on quotations from his Jubilate Agno). And this success is repeated throughout To See, To Take (1970), particularly in "A Day in Late October." "Postcards from Cape Split," "What I Want to Say," "The Good Man." These are not poems that begin with a lyric impulse. They are essayistic, discursive but powerful in their wisdom.
What do you think love is, anyway?
I'll tell you, a harrowing.
And I stand here helpless with what I know,
because in that Ministry
to be understood leads straight to the room
where understanding stops
and a final scream is that of the self
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SOURCE: "Mona Van Duyn And The Politics of Love," in Ploughshares, Vol. 4, No. 3, March, 1978, pp. 3 1-44.
[In the following essay, Goldensohn examines Van Duyn's treatment of love and the female domestic experience in her works.]
A long time ago I watched Margaret Mead's film, Four Families, with a bunch of high school kids. While I sat there, wholly mesmerized by the dark flow of those domestic images with their latent and compelling content, the kids' responses had been quite different. "Is that all there is?" one prescient fourteen-year-old demanded: "Eating, sleeping, getting married, having kids and working?" The question is fair. Also a question that the very body of Mona Van Duyn's work tends to answer affirmatively; then, in a hundred fevers of dissatisfaction, ask again. Fortunately, question and answer are never so simple or final that we stop needing her additions and complications, or that large and eloquent garner of wit and good judgment which brings to her registration of ordinary life its extraordinary interest. A poet of both analytic and sensual intelligence, she asks for an alert reader, responsive to a leisurely, unforced diction, but with a fondness for paradigm and complex formal strategies—although her subjects rarely stray from that unhonored kingdom which, by so much, constitutes the heaviest weight of human experience, the domestic. Also, in Mona Van Duyn's care, the definitively female.
Ground clearly taken at her peril! To be firmly domestic in subject is to be seen as denying the heroic; to be concerned with an accommodating, rather than with an imperial impulse: "the earth in its aspect of / quiescence." Because domestic acts are rarely audible in a world of power: God may hear the fall of a sparrow, a peach pickling in a cupboard, or a married couple quarreling, but he does not then convey the sound to a very august audience chamber. Edging into the usual areas of female concern, however, like the "windy oratory of marriage" or "the politics of love—" also tends to neutralize the impact of any artist, male or female. As most artists who deal with the dailiness and private singularities of life discover, in the public beholding, artists belong to an effeminized occupation. They handle the subjective—something always suspiciously allied to the weakly feminine ground of feeling, unless it is clearly the ground of manipulated feeling, and hardened into a communications, or therapeutic industry.
But Mona Van Duyn risks a further de-glorification of her subject, love. Generally, not choosing to focus on the only theme of love traditionally allowed grandezza, the forms of illicit love, she concentrates instead on married love, with its problems of conflicting interests, its sagas of endurance and survival. With the exception of that enigmatic poem, "The Voyeur," and the two Leda Poems, Van Duyn eludes the particular explosiveness, the short-term anarchic disruptions of romantic love, and focuses instead on household; on neighbors and families; and on the gains and losses that people make of long lives spent together.
This is not a world without pain. In "What I want to Say," here is her representation of love:
What do you think love is, anyway?
I'll tell you, a harrowing.
To say I love you is a humiliation.
It is the absolute narrowing of possibilities,
and everyone, down to the last man,
In "The Gardener to His God," even what she conceives as "love's spaciousness" is a dimension of sacred defeat:
For in every place but love the imagination lies
in its limits. Even poems draw back from images
of that one country, on top of whose lunatic stemming
whoever finds himself there must sway and cling
until the high cold God takes pity, and it all dies
down, down into the great world's flowering.
Although here the conception clothes love in a limitless amplitude, rather than in a "narrowing of possibilities," the attribution is generally consistent with the other poem: "flowering" is the culmination of a great sweeping down, of that great crashing and bending of egos that come about through the union of any two loving souls.
While in these poems submission to love is viewed as a human obligation, in other poems, the gender that bends is usually feminine, because for Mona Van Duyn, the female carries most of the particulars of her message about love and endurance. The male has other errands. Although a transfigured Leda, privileged to see through to the heart of the god, glimpses
what he had to work through
as he took, over and over,
the risk of love,
the risk of being held,
and saw to the bare heart
of his soaring, his journeying
Leda herself, as in the earlier poem bearing her name, contracts in aspiration:
To love with the whole imagination—
she had never tried.
Was there a form for that?
Deep, in her inmost grubby
(how could he know that,
in his airiness?)
lay the joy of being used,
and its heavy peace, perhaps,
would keep her down.
To give: women and gods
are alike in enjoying that ceremony,
find its smoke filling and sweet.
But to give up was an offering
only she could savor,
simply by covering
Sounds like the feminine means utter passivity and denial. But, getting Leda closer to that form, "love with the whole imagination—" and, in a specifically female way—Van Duyn continues:
He was close to some uncommitted
part of her.
Her thoughts dissolved and
fell out of his body like dew
onto the grass of the bank,
the small wild flowers,
as his shadow,
the first chill of his ghostliness,
fell on her skin.
She waited for him so quietly that
he came on her quietly, almost with tenderness
not treading her.
Her hand moved into the dense plumes
on his breast to touch
the utter stranger.
In the poem's concluding lines, which I quote in full, Leda's emptying out makes room for divinity; a providential loss of ego so complete that the mystery of otherness can be taken on. It is Leda's utter quietness, her suspension of restless advance, that "almost" disarms the god—neutralizing conquest and transforming submission into assent. In that "almost" lives the specifically feminine achievement, the mid-point which is "past the bird, short of the god"—a feminine celebration of wholly human powers that renounces the "airiness" of masculine sky-storming as vanity. A vanity, however, that Leda meets with the enabling and transformative powers of her submission and consent, thereby reading sexual relations as an almost Taoist, certainly quietist, order of acts and attitudes.
For Leda, there is no attempt to imagine the future as different; no attempt to gain Zeus' knowledge, or put on his power. With a refreshing absence of up-dated rhetoric about the approaching feminine heroic, which amounts, also, to a refusal to add aggressively simple-minded models of self-fulfillment to the vacuum that her dismissal of the conventional heroic has created, it still seems the deepest part of Van Duyn's retelling of the legend of male and female to leave the future, and the option of initiating action, to masculine prerogative:
The men do it. Making a claim on the future, as love
makes a claim on the future, grasping.
Although this observation comes from one of her earlier poems, it is matched by re-statements in much later published work, like "A View," and "The Cities of the Plain." In the latter poem, the nameless Lot's Wife declares,
… My husband
and our two adolescents kept their faces
turned to the future, fled to the future.
The only woman who would think this way is crazy Sarah "whose life, / past menopause, into the withered nineties / was one long obsessed attempt to get pregnant, / to establish the future." There is little sympathy here for this unnatural matron's activities. As for the Wife:
… I stood for nameless women
whose sense of loss is not statistical,
stood for a while, then vanished. Men
are always being turned to stone by something,
and loom through the ages in some stony
sense of things they were shocked into.
Once again, like Leda, like the "ungainly, ungodly" Danae, Van Duyn's representative woman refuses a masculine imagination, that stony, power-driven sense of the future's possibilities, which in this retelling of the legend, fixes the male in rigidity, but allows the woman her transfigured motion. Nameless, Lot's Wife disappears into the nameless flux of the natural scene, a mute and mutable portion of its irrepressible vitalities:
I turned to pure mourning, which ends the personal
life, then quietly comes to its own end,
Each time the clouds came and it rained,
salt tears flowed from my whole being,
and when that testimony was over
grass began to grow on the plain.
The Wife's role is to mourn: salt of the earth as she is, death and anonymity become her fortunate flaws, and in her end are all of our beginnings. Like other "low" figures in post-Christian and secularized mythologies, within the symbols of this poetry, the female is granted her exaltation as a pinch of salt, a small wildflower, a blade of grass, a drop of dew; that is, as a bit of divinized nature.
Feminized and divinized as she is, however, Van Duyn's version of Dame Nature, Lot's Wife, rejects the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah as "blasphemous, impiety / to the world as it is, to things as they are." She says instead:
Don't ask me why, for the sake of a Perfect
Idea, of Love or of Human Community,
all the innocent-eyed, babies and beasts
and birds, all growth, both food and flower,
two whole cities, their fabulous bouquets
of persons, frivolous, severe, rollicking,
wry, witty, plain, lusty,
provident, every single miracle of life
on the whole plain should be exploded
to ashes. I looked back, and that's what I saw.
Unlike those future-driven ideologues, the prophecy-ridden men of her family, the Wife rejects the future's unforgiving abuse of the life around her and continues to thrive in the backward face of an ample present.
"Along the Road," another dark and rather beautiful poem really belongs to the same schematization of values, but refines them further, as it puts the drama of the poem outside human dress altogether. In this poem, enacting an Apocalypse in miniature, "They are burning the dump:"
During the first days there will be
only an interruption, gorgeous, mutual,
of the textures and temperature of the world,
a representation by three of its acres
of uproar, extravagance, primitivism, seething,
and our senses will tire from it
as they tire from any other
overmastering abundance, yet
we will use memory and imagination
to inform ourselves that it is a process
of reduction. In its center
something serious is happening.
In its slow, and leisurely language, the poem sketches that "pure mourning, which ends the personal life," as backward-turning memory and imagination; a simultaneously collecting and disbursing aesthetic that allows the transformations of life's "processes of reduction" into these serenely "serious" events:
… springs and bones
have been bitten from their fat,
barrels, cans, cars
set free from the need to contain.
All over the area there goes on
a slow, entranced emergence
of things out of the ashes of their usefulness.
There is nothing seasonal here.
If we have lost sight of comfort,
of fleshy, vegetable consolations,
still we have arrived at an entanglement
of true weight, a landscape of certainties.
If we compare this with the mnemonic orotundities of Eliot's The Waste Land, we may arrive at some exact sense of the originality of this text; of the fairly delicate balance of its ironies of acceptance and detachment; of its definitions of powerful, or significant act. Once again the future is gingerly held in the mind, its grander possibilities of change gently derided:
… this antic
tin stretch, that petrified
moment of rage when something tried
to ooze out of its own nature,
eyeful by eyeful the exact, extensive
On the one hand of this poem, "The comic keeps." On the other, "our heavy, / drossless, dark deposit." It is this literally conservative awareness of matter and life-forces, this steady levelling view which is also the antithesis of the romantic. In these asperities, if the human and mortal are given amplitude, and larger significance, they are also given the limit of that largesse as equally real. Another particular quality of the poetry is its insistence that comedy prevail; death itself must be allowed its withering force, without promotion to tragedy. Akin to Lot's Wife's salty dissolution, and Leda's raining-out in "the storm of everyday life," here is a characteristic scene from "A Relative and an Absolute:"
When she died last winter, several relatives wrote to say
a kidney stone "as big as a peach pit" took her away.
Reading the letters, I thought, first of alt, of the irony,
then, that I myself, though prepared to a certain degree,
will undoubtedly feel when I lie there, as lone some in death
and just as surprised at its trivial, domestic imagery.
Of this easy, deliberate tone, serenely above the intricacies of its rhyme, the quickest word to step to mind is adult: surely this must be the apotheosis of adulthood, in its cool judgments and calm skepticisms. And surely steadiness of view is the other striking characteristic of Mona Van Duyn's poetry. Having published her first collection at around 35, perhaps it is also not remarkable that the poems have changed so little in their basic account of things. This is a poet who began mature: the poems in 1959's Valentines to the Wide World have the same varied pace, the same ripe, sure and intelligent touch as the recent Merciful Disguises. An important index of change, however, registers in the new use of metaphors of flight and motion in relation to the feminine speakers of the poems, as Van Duyn wrestles successfully to keep maturity from hardening into complacency, and to keep active that dense thickness of imaginative engagement which has been one of her chief strengths.
In "Three Valentines to the Wide World," the necessary perspective seemed quite clear:
I have never enjoyed those roadside overlooks from which
you can see the mountains of two states. The view
a kind of pure, meaningless exaltation
that I can't find a use for. It drifts away from things.
And, from the same book, in another meditation urging us away from distant prospects:
When we eye it, not one bird's worth at a time
but with eyes like zeppelins, it may be the vista beats us,
for what crowds quietly even through snowfence metaphors
is the unexamined life, shifting and lustrous,
and lands may mellow or chill in that weight of particulars.
If our largeness of view leaks, does it let out more
than we mean to waste, minute encounters, tucking,
tipping the day into an imperceptible contour?
Again, a little later:
I can stand an outside view of myself, but nothing
about a bird's eye view elevates or animates me in the slightest.
Soaring views are for the "grasping," thrusting masculine intelligence, blindly greedy for the future. Our Leda, Lot's Wife, and Danae in their unfeathered adornment, don't generally take to a life in the air; even Midas' Wife is conspicuously content to be touched into staying right where she is.
Although some of the most pleasurable and quietly witty of the older poems do come from a lateral traverse of the earth—Maine, for instance, in "The Gentle Snorer," and "Postcards from Cape Split"—other poems, with noticeably feminine speakers, nevertheless begin to make their appearance alongside the walkers and motorists, and start speaking differently about the overviews of the airborne. From 1970's To See, To Take, "First Flight" begins:
Over forty years, and I haven't left your weather.
Pocketed like a newborn kangaroo,
I've sucked the dark particular.
But in spite of this, the risen speaker says to her man:
So you live here, then, my foreigner …
And now I can look. Oh Lord, why didn't you tell me,
you I guessed at, how serious, how beautiful it is,
that speechlessness below, a sleeping sea,
where, kissing its frost, endlessly, everywhere,
fallen, uttering, one angel voice, desire,
fills the air with light, the perfect blasphemy.
Blasphemous to the female whose recognition of divinities takes place in other elements: nevertheless, for this speaker, the captivation is literal and complete. Once she is up there, though, and turned loose in the visionary precincts, something else shakes loose but the view of the earth, and the view of herself adhering to it. As the poet continues to muse, death dissolves the ground:
The ghosts of night are joining us, shade by shade,
walking unscathed over a burning striation
until it is covered with their cool feet.
The faces around me turn toward me,
beaming, incomprehensible lamps
saying the stranger is the best beloved.
Oddly and without consequence, I am lighted.
If the poem were to speak without its syllables,
and love's spirit step out of its skin of need,
I would tremble like this.
As the earth clears beneath one's feet, the lines connecting one to particularities of sex, of age and of friendship also dissolve. Up here, one is vulnerable, and finally knowing, as revelation is manifest in the loss of categories; it lives in responsiveness, as the literal entering of a foreign perspective alters and deepens one's own. Neither the feminine nor the masculine are to have exclusive possession of any world, because their individual truths must not be trusted—must be twinned, to some extent at least, to be the poem's whole and human truth. In this poem, the narrator continues:
The plane, turning from spaciousness,
will be brought down by whoever believes
earth's the right place.
Don't tell me it is I.
But in conclusion:
When I touch you I know what I'm doing.
Nothing is inconsequential.
Gatsby is dead in his swimming pool.
Stupid children chart the wood with breadcrumbs.
I believe you in everything except
the smoothness of this diminishing.
I look into your hard eyes
since I am home and all is forgiven,
but liar, love, I see you against the sky.
Back home on the ground, the woman, still in the throes of her own expanded vision, has a good look at her lover's persistent strangeness. The truths of his gauzy space have had their gaveling moment: she has been forced to redefine the nature of her own level earth, not as a literal, material connection but as connection through love even throughout absence and strangeness. The ones we love keep to their own elements. For Mona Van Duyn, each vault into the Empyrean that we make to join the beloved is rewarded by a recoil into gravity; nevertheless, for such irresistible leaping, room must be made—even by the most reluctant flyers.
This is a point which continues to be made in "The Fear of Flying." Mere the narrator's reluctance to leave familiar ground is seen not as a fear of death, but as a stubborn, persistent and irrational need to cling to the loved familiar, in the old ways of relation. As Lot's Wife again, in a sophisticated permutation of that role, the narrator rehearses with wry acrimoniousness all of the weary disguises that age and familiarity have imposed on long marriage. Here though, instead of the eternal aspirant, the husband is seen by the speaker as the master of revels, the supreme masquer who will not relinquish his right to assume endlessly and unvaryingly his limited repertoire of roles, most of them now rarely performed for his wife's pleasure of amusement. Although in this version of the Passion of Lot, futurity for the male seems little more than a need to ignore the cumulative past, and a continuous striving to enlarge the present, rather than to entertain the future, the wife's terms still stand unaltered: she remembers, and won't move. She says:
And we know, don't we, the last
of your roles? Remember, my dear, I played it for you
for long bountiful seasons?
We bathed, we melted down to the bone in the
blue air, the ripe suns
of ourselves, stretched and vined together all over,
it seemed, sweltered, grew
lush undergrowth, weeds, flowers, groundcover.
I played and played with you,
day after burning day, the part of our lives
truest, perhaps, best,
and still can play it briefly if someone believes
I can: the sensualist.
Once again, doubting and uncertain, Lot's Wife's refusal to move on is a crisis in the history of faith; paralyzed by nostalgia for the old religion as carried on in the old temple, her feet stall, and finally root where they are:
my world, my senses' home, familiar monster,
it would seem that I still love you,
and, like a schoolgirl deep in her first despair,
I hate to go above you.
There is an enormously moving prayer here, that death—the cooling of lust, increasing age, and time's multiplication of all our preoccupations with self—not isolate, or destroy our fidelities to the human focal points of love. I know of few other poets who write so well and fully about married love.
Similarly, about friendship: each of several elegies, including "The Creation" and "A Goodbye," as well as the more general poem, "Open Letter, Personal," trace the same complex verities, the same difficult balancing acts of perception, penetration and discovery. This fact of extending relationship is as important in the later poems of Merciful Disguises as the development of the flight metaphor, a development which appears to correct the potentially inert, or negatively quietist bent of earlier poems. With this metaphor, the poems literally move to make a place for the visionary and idealistic imagination in a female life, and accomplish their difficult ascent, as the emotional commitment to subject deepens and intensifies many of these increasingly personal poems of the later collections. This expansive movement, up and out, is complemented by another change in language and subject, which laterally extends the poet's range, this time temporally as well as spatially. This movement, a circling back to include a more remote past, allows her to retrieve her own relatively unexplored childhood.
In 1970s "Remedies, Maladies, Reasons," Mona Van Duyn relies on the pace of most of her other long narrative poems—there is the same unhastening novelistic inclusiveness, the same appetite for paradigmatic structures of exploration displayed in all of the objects and persons of its concern. But the scraps of dialogue, the mother's diatribes included here, betray an interest in the actual transcription of the speech of others that is a new element. Later, that plentiful sprinkling of quotation marks which peppers the surface of "Remedies, Maladies, Reasons," and also, implicitly, the surface of poems like "Billing and Cooings from the Berkeley Barb," gives way, as orthography bows to the creation of a new voice—manifestly neither the author's voice nor an author substitute—in a series of poems entitled Bedtime Stories, first published in 1972.
These fourteen poems, framed with a head-piece and a tailpiece in the author's own voice, are spoken by the poet's grandmother: looking back, they continue the threads of an agrarian domesticity in another, foreign-accented English, of another class, and of another generation. Anonymous, and egalitarian in style and intention, these and other poems appearing after Merciful Disguises take the same tack, thereby continuing what appears to be a necessary event in the larger life of these poems: the subversion of their maturities and finish into new vitalities; new ranges of feeling; new subject.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
SOURCE: A review of Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 12, No. 36, September 5, 1982, pp. 6-7.
[In the following review, Hass commends Letters from a Father, and Other Poems.]
Duyn was born in Iowa and lives in St. Louis. Her selected poems, Merciful Disguises, was published in 1973, and has been reissued in paperback this summer by Atheneum. Letters from a Father, and Other Poems is her first book since that gathering. How to convey the flavor of the title poem and the others about her elderly parents? A friend of mine, a pacifist, vegetarian ecologist, from Seattle who works for the Forest Service and lives on tofu, alfalfa sprouts, and the idea of wild rivers, married a woman from a Dutch farming family in Nebraska. Last summer he went back there to meet his in-laws. When he returned, he looked shellshocked. I asked him what had happened. "It was awful," he said. "They ate these huge meat and potato meals starting at about two in the afternoon and then they just kicked back and set around for hours talking about goiters." This is the world that Van Duyn gives us in a suite of salty, baleful and weirdly tender poems.
"Letters from a Father" purports to be just that, six letters from a father to his daughter. The first of them begins with a front-line report from the was between time and the body. There is a tinge of self-pity in its, but also a sort of Brueghelesque gusto:
Ulcerated tooth keeps me awake, there is
such pain, would have to go to the hospital to have
it pulled or would bleed to death from the blood thinners,
but can't leave Mother, she falls and forgets her salve
and her tranquilizers, her ankles swell so and her bowels
are so bad, she almost had a stoppage and sometimes
what she passes is green as grass …
It continues—heart, prostate, bladder. The only diversion is his response to his daughter's expressed pleasure in her bird feeder. "I don't see why / you want to spend good money on grain for birds / and you say you have a hundred sparrows, I'd buy / poison and get rid of their diseases and turds."
The bird feeder, it turns out, is the key to the poem. The daughter gives one to her parents. It is not an immediate success:
I used to like to hunt
and we had many a good meal from pigeons
and quail and pheasant but these birds won't
be good for nothing and are dirty to have so near
the house. Mother likes the redbirds though
But eventually this old couple, with very a few imaginative resources (and who can say just how useful imaginative resources are at incontinent 85) and nothing to think about but their bodies, begins to take an interest in the quick little creatures outside their window:
Some of them I can't identify
for sure, I guess they're females, the Latin words
I just skip over. Bet you'd never guess.
the sparrows I've got here, House Sparrows you wrote,
but I have Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows,
Pine woods and Tree and Chipping and White Throat
and White Crowned Sparrows, I have six Cardinals,
three pairs, they come at early morning and night …
By the end of the poem there is very little information about physical debility, the note of self-pity is gone, and there are long reports on the birds. My favorite line comes from a report on Mother. "Has a scale she thinks is going to turn to a wart." The detail is potentially gruesome, the story potentially sentimental, but there is something in the implied attitude of the daughter—her clear eye, amusement, repugnance, fidelity—that complicates the whole poem and brings it alive, and it gets at an area of human experience that literature—outside of Samuel Beckett—has hardly touched.
Two of the poems are remarkable. In "Photographs" the daughter is going through boxes of them that the parents want to get rid of. The occasion permits Van Duyn to lift a whole world into view in a matter of five pages. It is the ordinariness of it, the frontal banality hewed to so closely, that fascinates. Here is a portrait of the father:
Small eyes that never saw another's pain
or point of view ("Your mother's always com plaining.
I've fed and clothed her all her life. What more
does she want?") Full lips that laid down the law for us.
Big feeder before his heart attack his Santa.
belly swells in the gas station uniform.
"You'll have to feed him good," his mother told
his bride. "If dinner's late just hurry and set
the table. He'll think the food is almost ready."
"The Stream" I won't attempt to represent by quotation. It deals with the mother's dwindled disoriented life in a nursing home after the father's death, and then with her death. It is in this poem that the daughter, the poet, comes to terms with her parents. The end of the poem is very affecting, but what is riveting is Van Duyn's description of a confused old woman dressing up, on the wrong day, for a lunch she is looking forward to. The whole sequence is very strong work, it is very close to the grain, and there is a kind of ferocity in its plainness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
SOURCE: "A Common Sadness," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 88, March 13, 1983, p. 6.
[In the following review, Rosenthal provides a laudatory assessment of Letters from A Father, and Other Poems.]
Mona Van Duyn seems a naturally ebullient sort, a humorous love-welcomer who sturdily overbears disgust, resentment and the tears of things. Her style is anecdotal and expansive….
Mona Van Duyn is such an engaging spirit a reader almost forgets the dark awareness with which she copes. Her title poem, "Letters From a Father," starts her book off with an epistolary tale that has a happy ending—that is, for the time being. It consists of six successive "letters" from a small-town, country-bred, octogenarian father to his poet daughter. These highly colloquial letters, compressed and adapted to a loose line of five or six stresses and a pattern of alternating rhymes and half-rhymes, are handled masterfully. They begin as pure complaint, calculated to drive a daughter to distraction, with such details as: Ulcerated tooth keeps me awake, there is such pain, would have to go to the hospital to have it pulled or would bleed to death from the blood thinners, but can't leave Mother, she falls and forgets her salve and her tranquilizers, her ankles swell so and her bowels are so bad, she almost had a stoppage and sometimes what she passes is green as grass …
But they end with joy, brought on by a bird feeder the inspired daughter has given her parents. At first scorning the idea of spending "good money on grain" for the birds, the parents forget their ailments as they become absorbed in the birds' (and squirrels') doings around the feeder: "you would die laughing / to see Redbellied, he hangs on with his head / flat on the board." The poet allows herself but one line in her own voice—the last line: "So the world woos its children back for a final kiss."
The poem is so endearing, and so unusual in its plain humanity, that one is tempted to take it at sentimental face-value and ignore the death-obsession with which it begins and ends. In the sequence of seven poems (called "Last") led off by "Letters From a Father," the comic spirit gains a brief ascendancy, especially in the second piece, "Lives of the Poets." Here the poet tells how her mother once "commissioned" her to write a poem about the activities ("we bake cute cookies" and "make stuffed animals / to give poor Texas kids at Xmas") of her social club—"to be sung to the tune / of Silent Night Holy Night."
In the rest of this family-centered sequence, most of which has to do with her parents' last years, Miss Van Duyn's tone grows grimmer and what emerges is a struggle to forgive their earlier cruelties to her because "they are nobody's children now, or mine perhaps." The climax of the sequence comes in "The Stream," a long account of a visit to her mother's nursing home in which, amid all the scarifyingly funny indignities and pain of such occasions, the daughter receives the endlessly deferred avowal of love she has been seeking all her life-all this not many days before the mother's death. The final poem of "Last" ("The Case of The") is a drastic effort at distancing and encompassment. Here the blows of history, the fated character formation of families, and private suffering are focused within the same impersonal perspective, made vivid in the reported words of a murderer before execution: "The sun done it, coming up every damn morning like it does!"
In a sense, Miss Van Duyn's work parallels Robert Lowell's; she takes the same confessional risks of humiliation and has a similar instinct for projecting hilarious discomfiture, as in the impossibly gross, thoroughly winning poem of married love called "A Winter's Tale, by a Wife." But the extreme egocentrism within which Lowell's genius discovered itself is absent from her work. She can write poems of pure joy, such as the gloriously alive "Moose in the Morning, Northern Maine," and the sweetly amused, femininely sympathetic "The Ballad of Blossom." The former has a genial virtuosity as it mixes pastoral evocation of a morning scene (engulfed in "an immense cow-pie of mist") with a whimsical dismissal of the esthetic view of life, then shifts to the sudden appearance of a moose, "a ton of monarch," at the center of its bucolically delighted meditation. The latter, about a cow in heat, is, as it were, a long-distance companion to A. J. M. Smith's "Ballade un peu banale" and the opening of Basil Bunting's "Briggflatts." Together, these poems would make a charming trilogy of bovine erotica.
But apart from her freedom to be joyful, which is greater than Lowell's, she is also closer than he was to the most telling kind of compassion, detached from self-aggrandizement or self-laceration. See, for instance, her piercing poems "The Hermit of Hudson Pond," "Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey" and "Goya's 'Two Old People Eating Soup.'" Her book holds a world of volatility in fine equilibrium.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396
SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 210-11.
[In the following excerpt, Lattimore offers praise for Letters from a Father, and Other Poems.]
In her sixth book, [Letters from a Father, and Other Poems,] Mona Van Duyn writes mostly blank verse more on the order of Frost than Stevens or Aiken, but the language is a lot racier. Or it may be couplets, rhymed stanzas, even a sonnet—but whatever it is, she dishes it out with practiced casual skill. The heart of this collection is a cluster of poems from family history, about photographs, with letters and memories, with the handsome father and mother (and daughter) losing their looks and strength until "They are no longer parents. Their child is old." "Lives of the Poet" describes how our poet, newly married and in her first year of college teaching, received a letter from her mother:
I was fortunate enough to have
a mother who on one occasion
encouraged me by commissioning
a poem. Newly married, I
was tackling my first teaching job
when a letter came which said, in part:
"As writing is so easy for you
I want you to write a poem about
the San Benito Ladies Auxiliary
that I belong to. Our club has twenty
members and we bake cute cookies
and serve them with coffee and do our sewing
at the meeting. We make stuffed animals
to give poor Texas kids at Xmas.
Tell all that in the poem."
And so on. She says she wrote the poem. There are other themes. "A Reading of Rex Stout" plays back and forth between the unappetizing murder exhibits investigated by Nero and his minions and the lovely gourmet fare they refresh themselves with in the intervals. Mona Van Duyn is easy to take and gives you something to bite on. You may sometimes want to spit it out, as when, for instance, there is, on the lake "an immense cow-pie of mist"; but there is no lack of vigor and sharp edge. "Farm dogs explode from porches"; "deer-mice with Disney ears"; or, in a scene from liberated Madrid:
Like bears on hind legs sharpening their claws,
men and women stand by the walls
and scratch with their fingernails
at the campaign posters they disagree with,
ripping tiny strips from the print.
A good poet to be writing, these days.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1110
SOURCE: A review of Near Changes, in Poetry, Vol. CLVII, No. 1, October, 1990, pp. 47-50.
[In the following review, Corn offers a possitive assesment of Near Changes.]
You can't doubt she means it when, in a poem called "Glad Heart at the Supermarket," Mona Van Duyn says, "Dear friends, dear aging hearts that are stressed by young / surges and shocks of feeling, dear minds aquiver, / their stiffening vessels bulged with the rush of fresh / insights, jokes, dreams, may you live forever!" There is in this book a generous sense of community, the recognition that friendship is one of the principal lights along the path, especially toward the end. The sense of pathos is all the more piercing, then, in poems like the elegy mentioned earlier, "For David Kalstone," and the villanelle "Condemned Site," a lament for the death of five friends, one of its repeated lines, "In Love's old boardinghouse, the shades of five rooms are drawn." Life is like that: we watch as others walk the plank; and know that we are in the line to follow after them. Many of those who could have assisted us most, were they still here, have gone on ahead and cannot help. Near Changes is shot through with the pain of loss, and yet it isn't a sad book. The author really is capable of having "a glad heart at the supermarket," and we want to know why for more than esthetic reasons alone. Reading her books over the years, I've often been struck by Mona Van Duyn's special genius for the Good Life. The pleasures of the senses are readily hers; she is generous; has a habit of finding the amusing side to things, of enjoying life's absurdities without falling into scorn; and Lady Luck has given her—she knows the case is rare—a lifelong love with whom she need not put up a false show of perfect competence or unshakable serenity. "Late Loving" must be the most moving (and honest) poem ever written about marriage approaching the golden anniversary.
If in my mind I marry you every year
it is to calm an extravagance of love
with dousing custom, for it flames up fierce
and wild whenever I forget that we live
in double rooms whose temperature's controlled
by matrimony's turned-down thermostat.
I need the mnemonics, now that we are old,
of oath and law in re-memorizing that.
And she has friends. I enjoyed the peek into behind-the-scenes daily life in the midwestern Athens of Washington University, whose citizens, distinguished writers and their spouses, are decipherably nicknamed here and portrayed from an unaccustomed angle. In this scheme there are an appealing "Peggy" and "Howie," and another freefloating character known only as "the Insight Lady," subject to blinding intuitions with an absurd tinge to them. It is a world inhabited by an enlightened middle class, and Mona Van Duyn is one of the poets helping a portion of the reading public that went against its natural grain for several decades find its way back to familiar perspectives and virtues. Gone are the hash pipe, the Harley Davidson, and the crushed velvet gipsy dress. Well, we gave it a try, they can say, apparently without retrospective condemnation of self or others. The daily round between household, supermarket, library, and bed isn't, in any case, an entirely placid business, as Van Duyn well knows. The unconscious mind remains anarchic, especially for the artist who depends on its oracular powers. Van Duyn's startling metaphor for the unanticipated invasion of the irrational is worked out brilliantly in "Falling in Love at Sixty-Five," where the poet, drifting toward sleep in the wild by the light of a Coleman lamp, is assaulted by swarms of nocturnal insects:
the bared part of me becoming a plan
for plates of an insect book whose specimens
rearranged themselves fiercely over and over again.
For as long as the lantern lasted they would have kept coming,
as if the great darkness had smiled at that tiny dawn
and had hurled them in fistfuls straight at the speaking light
in answer to what was being insisted on.
Van Duyn will never be entirely satisfied, though, with the vatic, if only for the reason that it doesn't sound good in verse.
Who gives up the world for words
gives creation a bad black eye
in uncoupling sense and sound.
Detective Time takes his voiceprint,
which ends up behind bars. Nature's ear
knows it was little to lose.
A wonderful poem titled "The Ferris Wheel" casts the debate between mystery and realism in spatial terms. "The Ferris Wheel" gains by being read in tandem with "First Flight," a poem written nearly twenty years ago. In both poems Van Duyn meditates on the pleasures and dangers of being off the ground, suspended at a superior vantage point above Mother Earth. With "The Ferris Wheel" of course each ascent is followed by a corresponding descent, though the narrator's swing sometimes pauses a while at the top before sinking down again. This is a rich metaphor for the cyclical activity of the imagination, first yearning toward transcendence and then yielding to the realism of terra firma. Yet the metaphor is qualified by several factors: the narrator has her spouse with her, as well as the bag of groceries (including root vegetables) she intends to cook for dinner. These go up with her and provide an anchor even at the pinnacle of the ascending cycle; moreover she finds herself looking down at the fair rather than up at the stars. Meditations on the rise as well as during the plunge downward are given resonance by allusions to Chaucer, Wordsworth, Yeats, and Graham Greene. And when she is at last deposited on the ground, a glow of transcendence follows her; it hasn't all been merely the brief salvo of a Roman candle.
The exit platform.
She lifts her sack to leave and in the doorglass
by some great mirroring gift of the lights,
stronger than love, stranger than love,
she sees for life upon her own shoulders and neckstem
an image which replaces her own wherever she seeks it:
another's "tired, pleasure-hoping" face.
To be older, tired, and still "pleasure-hoping"; to be realistic and also subject to transcendent intuitions; to weigh the claims of love along with the claims of poetry: this is the vision informing Near Changes. During the past several decades Mona Van Duyn has assembled, in a language at once beautiful and exact, one of the most convincing bodies of work in our poetry, a poetry that explores, as Stevens put it, "… the metaphysical changes that occur, / Merely in living as and where we live."
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SOURCE: "Violent Desires," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 95, November 18, 1990, p. 24.
[In the following excerpt, Hirsh commends Van Duyn's "pathos and wit" in Near Changes.]
Mona Van Duyn has a gift for making the ordinary appear strange and for turning a common situation into a metaphysical exploration. She is, as she says, a poet of "serious play"—extravagant, large-spirited, querulous—a John Donne of the postwar American suburbs who combines a breezy colloquial formalism with an underlying violence of feeling. Her most characteristic poems move on the wings of extended figuration, worrying metaphors into conceits and crackling with odd, humorous rhymes ("The world's perverse, / but it could be worse," she writes in "Sonnet for Minimalists") that belie their darker emotional depths. Inventiveness is both sword and shield; wit is her weapon and protection. She is a poet of "merciful disguises."
Near Changes, Ms. Van Duyn's seventh book, is a major addition to the corpus of her work. As in her previous collection Letters from a Father (1982), she explores the metaphorical possibilities and implications that inhere in daily life. For example, in "Glad Heart at the Supermarket" (a reversal of "A Sad Heart at the Supermarket" by Randall Jarrell) a regular jaunt to market becomes an investigation into questions of familiarity, abundance, exoticism and otherness. "First Trip Through the Automatic Carwash" provides the opportunity for a speculative meditation about immersion and strangeness, clarity and selfhood. The world condenses and blurs, but "at the last moment it lifts toward design": The heart makes its presence known, disheveled but whole, by jogging in place, lithely, at light's surprise. A hoot from behind makes her shift to self-control, and the muddle of everywhere falls on her clearing eyes.
In Near Changes Ms. Van Duyn is pre-eminently a poet of "married love," in her words, of wild feelings "doused" by custom, of outer calm and inner turmoil, of solitude and reconnection. "'Love' is finding the familiar dear," she declares in "Late Loving": and "'In love' is to be taken by surprise." She speaks of assessments and reassessments, of possibly using up "the whole human supply of warmth on you / before I could think of others and digress," of chafing from proximity by day but all night long lying "like crescents of Velcro, / turning together till we re-adhere." In poems such as "Falling in Love at Sixty-Five," "Late Loving" and "The Block"—virtually an entire novel condensed into 62 lines—she writes with poignant vibrancy about the aging of a childless couple. These poems place her new work in the emotional vicinity of Jarrell's "Lost World."
For Ms. Van Duyn poetry is "death's antonym," the means of transport from the inner to the outer realms, a bridge to the other. As she puts it in "Memoir": "Art fixes the world I-to-eye." In Near Changes she has "fixed" her world with pathos and wit.
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SOURCE: "Methods of Transport," in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1991, pp. 377-89.
[In the following excerpt, Hunting faults some elements of style and tone, but offers a generally favorable review of Near Changes.]
Tietjens, Monroe, Bullis, Bollingen, Loines, Shelley, Crane, Lilly—what a long train of prizes and awards for the engine of poetry to pull! During a distinguished career, Mona Van Duyn has won them all. As well, she is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Then there are the fellowships and the honorary degrees…. A very long train indeed, traveling a steady track through a reliable landscape. For thirty years we have been privileged to watch its progress….
"Domestic" is an adjective frequently found in both positive and negative criticism of Mona Van Duyn's poetry. Her subjects are often grounded in the social occasions and preoccupations of the American middle class, a field of action by now considerably eroded. Such representative enterprises as cocktail parties, christenings, gardening, reading, and marriage have to an extent lost or mislaid meaning. (Death remains germane.) Over this shrinking but still recognizable terrain, Van Duyn flings a net of mythical, biblical, and classical allusion, interwoven with historical, philosophical, literary, and psychological references, the whole construct laden with metaphor and image and suggesting a vital complexity of human existence in time. The cumulative effect of such richness is uniformly impressive; the danger to the individual poem is that its unique impulse and integrity may be threatened by the weight of willed significance.
The apparatus demands long lines and long poems. (A brief poem in Van Duyn's oeuvre is rare, a welcome sport.) To guard against unwieldiness, Van Duyn marshals her materials into stanzas of varied accentual-syllabic meters in received or inventively combinative forms—quatrains, couplets, semi-disguised blank verse, villanelles, near-sonnets—replete when appropriate with assonance and rhyme displaying Browningesque assurance and aplomb.
Yet for all of her admirable technique, her poetry can sometimes fail to fully engage the reader's emotional attention. It is almost as though a check on too much spontaneity of feeling has been applied very early, perhaps before memory, a brake put on too much trust in her own sensibility, and a transference made of that trust to words. As a result, Van Duyn can tend to press words too hard, to use too many in an effort to justify the transference. The tendency has been evident from the beginning of her published work. A few lines from the long poem "Toward a Definition of Marriage" in her first collection, Valentines to the Wide World (1959), may serve as illustration: "… think of it as a duel of amateurs. / … / Now, too close together for the length of the foils, / wet with fear, they dodge, stumble, strike, / and if either thinks he would rather be touched / than touch, he still must listen to the clang and tick / of his own compulsive parrying." Any discomfort afforded by this representative passage derives less from its proliferation of images and its incessant onomatopoeic clatter than from its unremitting rain of words. The effect is less of poetry than of prose, less of prose than of talkiness.
The reader may resist engagement in part because of the qualities exhibited in the poem itself, but also from memory of the quite different qualities of the very first phrase of the title poem which opens this first collection: "The child disturbs our view." No arrangement of words could be simpler: subject, verb, object. The statement is voiced calmly, with the certainty of factual knowledge, and each of its elements is easily retained in the mind. Each is definite, yet resonates with connotations. Thus the statement is both satisfying and stimulating at once, to the senses by its sounds and the spaces between them, to the intelligence by the clarity of its communication and the reverberations of its content. The reader instinctively responds—and remembers. Ever after in Van Duyn's work he will seek a like experience of words that are felt on the pulse as language. Sometimes he will find it.
Near Changes appears after an eight year hiatus in Van Duyn's publish ing career, a long while in the American timetable of letters. The new book represents a consolidation and an advance of her talent. The voice is not altered, is indeed instantly recognizable, but is charged with a new energy whose source perhaps lies in her earned certainty of her powers. Her subjects, not surprisingly, are familiar—marriage (probably her great theme), love, friends, aging, nature, myth; but rather than pouncing on and worrying them, she holds them lightly, looks, ponders, and releases them, allowing their essential properties to retain independence. Thus, with few exceptions, these poems move with confidence and authority through their spaces and paces, their matter and ornament in equable adjustment.
Predictably, such modulations of stance and approach bring new perspectives to bear on the work. A typical example in Near Changes is found in the title poem, which treats of a favorite Van Duyn subject, Leda of the myth, but from a refractive angle. In To See, To Take, her 1971 National Book Award volume, Van Duyn twice examines the story, each time focusing on the Leda figure. The first version, formal in structure, consists of four quatrains, mainly pentameter, in a b a c pattern. The poem is an answer to its epigraph, Yeats' closing question in his "Leda and the Swan," "Did she put on his knowledge with his power …?" Van Duyn's opening phrase is an emphatic negative: "Not even for a moment." The rest of the poem develops the evidence for her reply, the first stanza positing Zeus as supreme male egotist ("When he saw the swan in her eyes he could let her drop"), the others characterizing Leda as ultimately too unimaginative a female to comprehend a possible conferred immortality:
She tried for a while to understand what it was
that had happened, and then decided to let it drop,
She married a smaller man with a beaky nose,
and melted away in the storm of everyday life.
The tone is not so much dismissive as wry, with its colloquial echoes of Yeats's intense diction, and seems to question the unassailability of myth even as it suggests that ordinary existence is challenge enough for human enterprise.
"Leda Reconsidered" presents a more complex version of the affair; moving on breath rather than meter, it thus tells in more intimate accents and at closer range of the advance of "the other," from the moment of his stepping "out of water / that paled from the loss of his whiteness" to the penultimate motion of her hand "into the dense plumes / on his breast to touch / the utter stranger." Although the actual verb tense is past indefinite, the sense of its state is progressive. Leda is at once subject (of the poem) and object (of its intruder), but at no time is she subject to him. She is not, as in Van Duyn's first version, passive, not simply "the consequence of his juice," but the instigator of the conjunction. Far from being unimaginative, she is fully aware of what is happening, and sufficiently curious to try to see herself through the swan-Zeus's eyes even as her gaze on him remains unwavering. This doubling of awareness increases the tensile strength of the poem's vision, so that although the narrative is given in the third person historical it seems to be in first-person immediate. And as Leda's gaze on the disguised god is unwavering, so is the poet's on her, to the extent that Van Duyn becomes, not Leda, but her gaze.
In "Near Changes," Van Duyn pulls back, amused but also thoughtful, from the myth per se, as she considers a trivia item concerning a Seattle man costumed as a mallard duck for a radio promotion who is attacked on a downtown street by a "'husky, 6-foot-tall / bearded stranger.'… Prescient as Leda." The poem is in three sections, the first transcribing, as it were, the news item in lines whose breaks suggest the syntactical patterns of informational prose, the second moving into commentary on how "the gods used to do it … be bull or swan," the third meditating on the infinite possibilities of "the human imagination, / which transforms past belief." As Van Duyn turns her attention from the bewilderment of the Zeus figure ("'I didn't flap my wings / or do anything like that.'") to the agitation of the Leda figure ("he sensed the presence / which to others was not apparent, / and was only protecting his nest") and goes on to discuss the position of myth in contemporary culture, the diction and tone gradually shift from the semi-comic to the wholly serious. While Van Duyn believes in the reality of myth and in its enduring autonomy, she regrets its debasement by the false myths of material and mechanical advancement, which use its putative marvels to discredit and to dissipate rather than to reveal and to reaffirm the true, coherent wonders of "the soundless spin of the globe." Beethoven now resides in the radio, the "nest" is "the brick and concrete of Sears and service stations," the swan has become a duck and Leda a bearded man—and "What's the difference?" the eternal question. Whereas in Van Duyn's initial treatment Leda avoids her mythic destiny and in the second reaches out to meet it, in "Near Changes" the only recourse of blunted, dwindled, and uniformed instinct is to assault the unwitting symbol of the threatening unknown. Yet instinct goes precisely to the intruder's most obvious badges of identification: "The perpetrator spun him around by one wing, / tore off his duck bill, / hit him over the head with it" before running away, presumably in fear and confusion. With her evolving perspective on the themes and subjects which she has chosen to cultivate, Van Duyn sees that myth, its surface powers diluted or subverted, for a while at least has gone underground; like Demeter, she searches for it even as she mourns its affective presence.
In her latest book, Van Duyn has not abandoned her earlier penchants or technical implementations; she still sometimes overloads her rifts, overdecorates the rooms of her stanzas, over-eggs the poetic pudding. Two examples might be "Late Loving," a rather labored reworking of her marriage theme, and "The Ferris Wheel," whose central metaphor carrying multiple referential freight—life, love marriage, sexual union—is clogged by so many allusions and images that its machinery is in danger of grinding to a halt. However, these lapses are proportionately less frequent in Near Changes than in her previous volumes, and poems such as "Double Sonnet for Minimalists" and its companion piece "Sonnet for Minimalists" show a nice sense of play in short, artfully simple lines whose precision reminds one of Bishop's or Clampitt's in this mode. And in spite of its tonally suburban title, "To a Friend Who Threw Away Hair Dyes" takes on in its brief eight lines of pentameter a Yeatsian authority and timelessness of expression in the sighting toward its close of "a beautiful, / brilliant head wearing its first cold crown." The reader, and the critic, can rest on and in the words.
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SOURCE: "The Collected Mona Van Duyn," in Chicago Tribune Books, April 11, 1993, pp. 6-7.
[In the following review, Rosenberg applauds Van Duyn's abilities as a poet, and praises If It Be Not I, but declares that Firefall "is not up to [Van Duyn's] own best standards."]
It's difficult to call "neglected" a poet who has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize and who is, currently, Poet Laureate of the United States. Yet for all that, Mona Van Duyn is perhaps more widely known than widely read, and that is a form of neglect that deprives us all. Nearly every poem in the generous collection If It Be Not I has at least one line of extraordinary beauty or of wisdom—often both—and what more dare one hope for from any one volume of poetry?
Van Duyn possesses both wit and passion, restraint and power, the art of composition and of marvelous storytelling. She can speak with genuine grandiloquence or in the earthy voice of an old farm woman, as in Bedtime Stories, an exceptional book of poems included in If It Be Not I. Her best work stands up to the best poets—there is a grandeur in it. Her "Garland for Christopher Smart," for example, is the same size as Smart himself, if a different flavor; but to reach an equal wildness and wit is no mean feat.
Van Duyn's best poems are peopled or landscaped; she sees clearly and affectionately a rich variety of people—from a lobsterman come "to fix our oilstove. I am dazzled by the man in boots. / It is as if a heron stood in my dining-room," to a hypochondriacal mother armed with medicines:
I still see the mother I wanted, that I called to come,
coming. From the dark she rushes to my bedroom,
switching the lamp on, armed with pills, oils, drops,
gargles, linaments; salves, syrups,
waterbag, icebag. Bending over me,
giant, ferocious, she drives my Enemy,
in steamy, hotpacked, camphorated nights,
from every sickening place where he hides and waits.
Do you think I don't know how love hallucinates?"
In grace and luminosity she often resembles the late Elizabeth Bishop and is, like Bishop, a past master at her craft. (See how deftly she works in rhymed couplets, above.) Her poems are composed. One can learn as much from her as from Robert Frost or Edna St. Vincent Millay, two other great formalists of our century. Her sense of narrative never wavers, and she is at home in metrical verse and in rhyme, "that linguistic sunbeam/ [that] says things are, and are not, the same …"
Most of all she does what she commands herself to do, "to pit love and art, which are compassionate." That is to say, love and art suffer together in her work. There is evidence of both the suffering and of hard-won wisdom—"To trust perception again is like learning to lean / on water. The water, moving over minnows, is haunted"—but always alongside great beauty of language and music: "The thunder rises like mist and the leaves like lovers enfold him / and time, rocks, rooks and roses grow from his body…."
Her poetry is delicate but never dainty. In the loveliness and lightness of her work, Van Duyn makes other poets seem dull and inept the way the late Audrey Hepburn used to outshine famous beauties. It comes from elegance of the highest order—of being other-worldly and grounded at once, above capricious self-centeredness.
All of which makes me even sorrier to say that her new book, Firefall, issued simultaneously with the collected poems, is not up to her own best standards. One can hardly imagine Van Duyn rushing into anything poetically, but Firefall feels hastily put together; it may be that it simply follows too closely on the heels of her Near Changes (1991).
In any event, her "minimalist sonnets," as she calls them here—14-line rhymed poems with fewer feet per line than the norm—literally and figuratively fall short. The humor is frequently brittle, while her "translations" of other poets' great poems (Yeats, Eliot et al.) are particularly unsatisfying. Irony is Van Duyn's least becoming attire, and she wears it too often here, though there are a few mighty poems in this new collection, especially those that stand on the dark side of "goodbye," especially two dedicated to her friend, the late poet Howard Nemerov.
If It Be Not I includes all of Van Duyn's books of poems up to, but not including, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Near Changes. This is, on one hand, a shame, for readers will want to see the accomplishments of that award-winning book, but a blessing in disguise if it promises a second, future collected poems. In the meantime, we have a substantial number of poems worth revisiting from a poet of wonderful substance and spirit:
I held up the poem's side first, and life's side second,
for I believe in art's process of working through otherness to recognition
and in its power that comes from acceptance, and not imposition—
for people, that is; and if life is not a poem, and this is clear,
one can still imply that one sometimes wishes it were.
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SOURCE: "Housekeeping," in The Village Voice, Vol. 38, No. 22, July 1, 1993, pp. 60-1.
[In the following review, Selman applauds Van Duyn's body of work, and offers favorable assessments of If It Be Not I and Firefall.]
When married couples came to my parents' home for card-playing afternoons, the husbands and wives parted at the front door like two rivers. The gulf between them seemed unnavigable—their card games were as different as their drinks, laughs, and speech levels. Women whose identities were usually defined by the consistency of their noodle puddings, were, until dinnertime, free. Literally: I remember my Aunt Ida rising up from the canasta table and, in an outrageous act of independence, lifting her dress and stripping off her girdle. My delight in Aunt Ida's act—her equivalent of a man rolling up his sleeves to deal the hand—has lasted over 20 years.
Women alone together can be wholly their own stories. Personas are lifted, girdles are shed, makeup isn't as thick. As a child, I found this kitchen-realism was infinitely more interesting than my father's universe of hollered business deals and Delta 88's. Though the women I knew in the suburbs were not educated in the traditional sense, their lives were full of accomplishment. One had been a Ziegfeld Girl, one ran a lingerie store in Grand Central, one bested the mob in a candy business, and one put her son through college on the change she collected from her husband's pockets and later invested. Though they remained powerless in the world, their intelligence was abundant and their knowledge could have filled reams.
Mona Van Duyn is their poet. Her lines are born out of that disappearing mid-century klatsch. Though her language and forms are flawless and her references ornately classical, the meanings of her poems translate readily into a universal suburbanese. It is the sound not of tongue in cheek, but of a woman biting the inside of her cheek to keep from bursting with what she knows. Van Duyn is the poet of the buzz beneath the fine, trimmed lawns; she's the poet of washing machines who writes superbly of being a woman in alt its disguises, of marriage and daughterhood and all their masks; she inhabits the mind behind the mind that stirs the soup.
Van Duyn has rolled up her sleeves for over 40 years in a suburb of St. Louis. There she is surrounded not by opulent homes or famous people, but by women and their children and their husbands.
She is a poet among the ordinary. And just as one could be fooled daily by the seemingly obedient women on my street, Van Duyn's poetry is meant to surprise you. Surprise is her métier, as in these lines from "Marriage, With Beasts": "Bringing our love to the zoo to see what species / it is, I carry my head under my arm, / you cradle yours; we will hold them up to cages / or set them back on perch at the proper moments … / for what happens here is as informal / as disease, and we, like lust, are serious / about making sense of a strange, entire surface." Scanning this nugget, my eyes are drawn to the words cages, cradle, and perch, all apt synonyms for suburbs or zoos. The major trope of Van Duyn's work is the recurring plainness she presents again and again, so often that it becomes elaborate and larger than life. The seemingly ordinary women of St. Louis are mistresses of surface, adept at obedience, childlike innocence, and complicity, but in Van Duyn's poems they are brilliantly secretive. They hide their intelligence under cosmetic touches of seductiveness and eccentrism, elusive and elaborate disguises. When I read Van Duyn's poetry I experience the same exhilaration I found as a child watching Aunt Ida strip off her girdle—the joy of uncovering the skin beneath the painted, glossy foundation:
I have given you paper faces
and they have grown lifelike,
and you have stuck on my lips in
this sheep's smile.
If I could get free of you I would
change, and I would choke
this stooge to death and be proud
and violent for a while.
As long as the moon hides half her
face we are friends of the moon.
As long as sight reaches through
space we are fond of the stars.
But there is no space and what
light is yours and what is mine
is impossible to tell in this
where each pock is plain.
Looking at Van Duyn's collected poems, If It Be Not I, which includes selections from each of her out-of-print books from 1959 to 1982, I am struck by the fact that some of her best work remains poems such as "Leda Reconsidered," revisions of women's roles in classical myths—myths she upends. What Anne Sexton did for fairy-tale femmes Cinderella and Gretel, Van Duyn does for Leda and Danae. The poems included here from her third volume, To See To Take, concentrate on the ordinary housewife's encounters with Zeus, who is not only king of the gods, but king of the hearth. In this cycle of poems, the domestic muse achieves her true station. Here are Zeus, Leda, Danae, and Eros gossiping over the back fence with Van Duyn's St. Louis kitchen goddess, the newly imagined Leda.
Van Duyn's "Leda" takes off with an epigraph from Yeats's "Leda and the Swan": "Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?" Yeats answers yes, Van Duyn definitely no: "Not even for a moment. He knew for one thing, what he was. / When he saw the swan in her eyes he could let her drop. / In the first look of love men find their great disguise, / and collecting these rare pictures of himself was his life." By examining layer after layer of the god's mask, Leda is able to see both the god and herself more clearly. Dropped by the god, she awakens a suburban housewife:
Later, with the children in
school, she opened her eyes
and saw her own openness, and
In men's stories her life ended
with his loss.
She stiffened under the storm of
his wings to a glassy shape,
stricken and mysterious and
immortal. But the fact is,
she was not, for such an ending,
She tried for a while to
understand what it was
that had happened, and then
decided to let it drop.
She married a smaller man with a
and melted away in the storm of
With "Leda Reconsidered," Van Duyn juxtaposes gods and humans, great expectations and limited resources. Aprons, laundry, flaws, and all, the courageous lowlife of humans wins. Her Leda puts on a power that Yeats's Leda did not consider: In the companion poem, "Outlandish Agon," she asks, "And now, how much would she try / to see, to take, / of what was not hers, of what / was not to be offered?"
Very little in the way of understanding or shared knowledge and power was offered to Van Duyn by critics of her early poetry. In 1965, shortly after the appearance of Van Duyn's second book, A Time of Bees, James Dickey wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "Mona Van Duyn is one of the best woman poets around. She is all woman, dealing very largely with the day-to-day domestic scene, both overemphasized in current poetry and yet hardly touched in depth at all." Believe it or not, this quick study, in which Dickey proposes that men write about what is significant (wars, travels, philosophic themes of great importance, god), while women are condemned to write about their own little lives, was seen as a rave—good enough to be used on Van Duyn's dust jacket. But to my mind, Van Duyn long ago took Dickey's comment and ran with it, becoming a full-blown domestic goddess. Those accustomed to a more literary language might prefer her own description of herself from the poem "Homework": "a sweating Proust of the pantry shelves." Still, a rose is a rose, and no matter how you say it, Van Duyn is one of the pioneers of a poetry that gives voice to the inner life of suburban women. Though what that inner life comprises is precisely what has eluded so many of her (male) readers. The delicious irony is that Van Duyn now has James Dickey's old job as Poet Laureate of the United States.
Even her loyal women readers may have something of a difficult time with Van Duyn. In numerous interviews over the years she has kept a distance, refusing to define herself as a feminist, which may have reduced her popularity among my contemporaries. To this day, she calls herself Mrs. Jarvis Thurston in author bios. "People blush for me in political discussion," she writes in "Elementary Attitudes," and she's right. Maybe she loves her disguises too well. Just as Marilyn Monroe's naïveté seemed natural rather than performed, Van Duyn's disguises are too good; they disguise the disguises. To take Van Duyn at her word, accept her simply as the sweating Proust of the pantry shelves, is to miss the point of her work. The mask of the suburban woman enables her to explore perfection, reality, and the mediation between the two. An apron-wearing Daniel, she gains access to the master's den. One of the best woman poets, indeed.
The poems in Letters from a Father and Near Changes and now Fire/all, her latest work, depart from the use of myth and disguises and move into more open, contemporary-sounding discussions of aging: her parents' illness, her 50-year marriage. To these she brings linguistic density and ease with form, wresting poems out of what is given to her—whether it's time's effects on the lover's body or actual letters from her father—and creating humorous, instructive, empathic work. Like Eavan Boland's poems about her Irish home front, Van Duyn's poems contain the intelligence of the besieged, but these women toss the unfamiliarity of the familiar instead of Molotov cocktails. Which makes Van Duyn's poems political acts (whether she sees them that way or not).
Firefall contains some especially delightful shorter pieces. But overall, its strength lies in the way that the new poems reinforce themes already familiar to readers of her work; it will also do well as an introduction of Van Duyn to new readers. The opening poem, "A Dog Lover's Confession," an ars poetica in the form of a semisonnet, brings us back to Van Duyn's omnipresent concern, that place between the ideal and the realized, which is nothing more or less than the suburb of life's great mysteries where we all live and work, amid the pocks.
Perfect love I have known,
whose animal eyes
disregard all disguise,
go beyond flesh and bone,
and unshaken forever,
heart's white purity
any angel would envy.
But I slightly prefer
pain and peace in one thing,
the love that comes wearing,
fall, fire, freeze or spring.
black and white polka dots.
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SOURCE: "Serious Poets," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 98, July 18, 1993, p. 18.
[In the following excerpt, Hadas reviews If It Be Not I and Firefall, and surveys Van Duyn's career.]
Mona Van Duyn is a Midwesterner, and her poetry speaks expansively; her lines are loaded like a cornucopia with the things of this world. A wonderful early poem, "Three Valentines to the Wide World" (1959) posits a distrust of unwieldy generalities: I have never enjoyed those roadside overlooks from which you can see the mountains of two states. The view keeps generating a kind of pure, meaningless exaltation that I can't find a use for … a statement so abstract that it's tiresome.
Simply to see and say is never enough. However rich, Ms. Van Duyn's voice is never bland; particularity inflects her love of the world. Firefall, her new collection, varies the pace of the work with skinny "minimalist sonnets" that capture large themes (love, aging) with aphoristic slimness. But in her best and most ambitious poems, Ms. Van Duyn allows her capacious vision the space it needs to sweep the scene, taking in every detail until some kind of epiphany deepens the tone and moves the poem beyond the mundane. "The Stream" is one example; another is "The Delivery," the final piece in Firefall. In familiar smells and muddle of voices, mashed potatoes, dimming light, hamburger, thick creamed corn, the milk-white chill, a self is being born. And is swept away….
The last four words signal the entrance to a figurative world of murkier feelings, deeper waters: to tributary, to river, deep and slow, whose sob-like surges quietly lift her and carry her unjudged freight clear to the mourning sea. And there they are, all of the heavy others (even Mother and Father), the floundering, floating or sinking human herd….
A master of metaphor, Ms. Van Duyn is skilled at transforming the homely to the transcendent, defamiliarizing the utensils of our lives. A battered pasta bowl clasps a marriage ("Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat in the Kitchen"); food machines at a turnpike rest stop become hospital denizens ("Emergency Room"). "Letters From a Father," an epistolary novella in verse, details an elderly couple's weaning from self-pity to rapt interest in the birds that flock to their feeder. "Letters" concludes with a single line (from the letters' recipient) whose celebratory valediction and valedictory celebration make it an apt summary of much of Ms. Van Duyn's best work: "So the world woos its children back for an evening kiss."
Utterly unsentimental love for the world turns up everywhere in Mona Van Duyn's work. Auden didn't include wisdom among his criteria, but if to be a major poet is to be wise and sustaining, then … Ms. Van Duyn [meets] this condition, too….
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SOURCE: "Masters of Transience," in Poetry, Vol. CLXIII, No. 3, December, 1993, pp. 158-70.
[In the following review, Howard offers praise for Firefall.]
Over the course of her long career Mona Van Duyn has maintained two quite different allegiances. A celebrant of the world as well as the spirit, she has trafficked freely between privileged moments and domestic routines, the glories of changeless art and the pile of soiled laundry. "Forever the spirit wants to be embodied," she reminds us; but for Van Duyn the spirit's embodiments are, as often as not, ungainly and unseemly—the "spraddled fern of celery top," the "bloodclot of an over-ripe tomato." Likewise the sources of art, which give rise to beauty and pleasure, are themselves unpleasant and unbeautiful. "What fertilizes but muck?" she asks in "Rascasse," a hymn of praise for the hogfish, "the ugliest fish in the world," whose prized "essence" is the indispensable ingredient for "first-class bouillabaisse." "[W]hat gives comfort, what creates, but ugliness?" Inhaling the "stench" of "some boggy burning," she kneels at the "unpraised heart of being, of essence."
Firefall is Van Duyn's tenth collection of poems. In forms, themes, and tonal values it is of a piece with her earlier work, although more than half of the forty-four poems have been cast in what the poet calls the "minimalist sonnet," by which she means a sonnet with lines much shorter than pentameter. Playful or rueful, witty or grave, Van Duyn's sonnets, elegies, and detailed descriptive poems entertain subjects as diverse as love, marriage, births, deaths, art, the creative process, and the "full splendor" of "the flowering self." Apart from its minimalist experiments the present collection breaks no new ground, but like the poet's earlier work it bespeaks a humane, forgiving spirit, rich in warmth and moral wisdom.
Those qualities enliven Van Duyn's poems on love and marriage, which balance elements of passion and pragmatism, realism and romance. In "Eruption" she warns that "trapped love can't stop," that it "will swell to a mountain / till time blows its top / and it scalds everyone." But in "The Beginning," a minimalist sonnet, she looks with cool precision on passion and its changes:
of such dear
The heart's core,
The soul's door
on its hinges.
"For love to be real," the poet declares, "it must first be imaginary." But in a witty variation on a traditional motif, she envisions Cupid's good fortune in hitting a "mind" rather than a heart ("He had never known // so rich a rest, / an aim so blest"); and in a poem about dog-loving, she expresses her preference for an imperfect love, a "love that comes wearing … black and white polka dots." A poem about her marriage takes a similar stance, portraying the poet and her husband as "Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat in the Kitchen" and contrasting his "ration / of compulsive precisions" with her own approximations, her "searchings" and "revisions." On a more solemn note (in "The Marriage Sculptor"), she depicts a troubled marriage as a wrecked sculpture, which the artist will remake into something "more brilliant and powerful, // a larger work." "Beauty / learns from beauty,'" the sculptor explains, "'the first costly form // lies coiled in the last.'"
The rhythms of death and birth, destruction and construction, prevail in Firefall, lending shape to particular poems and balance to the collection as a whole. "Sondra" commemorates the early death of a "young scholar, young artist, / young lover of people." "Fallen Angel," a lyrical elegy, laments the loss of seven friends in a six-month period:
Not from rebellion does the angel fall.
The muscles of its pinions are huge from the stress
of storms that beat against its blessedness,
its migrations to need, whose distances are
Yet, in "For Julia Li Qiu," Van Duyn celebrates the birth of "a beautiful black-haired daughter," and in "Addendum to 'The Block,'" she welcomes the arrival of three babies in a single week, their advent announced by "pink or blue balloons and bold-faced signs."
Van Duyn brings a similar sense of balance to her reflections on art and the creative process. In an elegy for May Swenson she extols "the pride and peace of poems, their elegant play," and in a poem prompted by reading Richard Wilbur, she praises the "bodiless words" of poetry, its "perfect lightness" and "transparent form." Yet in the latter poem she acknowledges that no writer may "aspire" to "the sill where such poems tower," poets being frail and miserable creatures, whose messy lives resemble "paint pots," "open for using." And in "Endings," she contrasts the shapelessness and messiness of life with the closures and meaningful forms of art. "For what is story if not relief from the pain / of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?"
Cast in rhymed pentameters, "Endings" represents the kind of poem at which Van Duyn excels—the relaxed colloquial monologue, in which a gift for thoughtful reflection and a love of quotidian realities find their fullest expression. At their best, her "minimalist sonnets" sparkle and sing, but their very economy seems at odds with the poet's penchant for gritty particulars and her proclivity for extended rumination. "Life and more life I want!" she declares in "Falls": "Not one crop / but thousands in their unimaginable / abundance, shape, size, color, kind…." To that end, as to her exploration of "the helpless sorrow / of being wise," her expansive reflections—mindful of heaven but grounded in flesh and soil—remain her trademark and her most enabling mode.
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SOURCE: "Strangers May Run: The Nation's First Woman Poet Laureate," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 141-46.
[In the following essay, Hall comments on Van Duyn's stature as the first woman ever named poet laureate in the United States and discusses critical opinions of Van Duyn's works.]
When the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress was elevated, by an act of Congress, to the more classic-or anglo-or botanical-sounding poet laureate, the U.S. Congress (or was it simply the government's library staff?) could not agree to elevate, with the office, the incumbent Gwendolyn Brooks. The consensus was no; the debate unpublicized, and who was surprised? When Robert Penn Warren's name emerged, it may have had—in those days, soon described as long ago, the late '80s—a ring more historic or laudatory, at least fugitive, white, various, and questing. "But go on," he said, "that's how men survive."
Six years later, Americans, in our love of variety and evanescence, have welcomed and discarded as many laureates. Finally, in June, 1992, for some reason, the nation could accept a woman laureate: Mona Van Duyn. Why a woman? "I heard that Merwin wouldn't do it." One historian would listen, satisfied, and leave to write it down.
Others argue on: Why a woman? No one would expect a volunteer. After all, it was a job and salaried; the figure, $35,000, was defined by one official as "about half a salary" for poets. Money, so precisely introduced, will yield saliva. And when our government announces, however indirectly, that poets should receive about $70,000, I swallow. I gasp. I pour domestic champagne and compose something almost patriotic about Toast-R-Ovens and iced tea and the enduring consolations of amber waving grain.
And yet, the official sounds apologetic. The library will offer only half—half of what the poet may deserve. To work for half? Any man would hesitate today, after the salary was publicized, half-cocked. Or having done it, however briefly, he would turn from Washington, D.C., concluding that the "job" was "ill-paid, ill-defined, and ultimately ill-executed." Why a woman? Why now? To work for half … "Oh, yes, I see." Other historians would listen, unsatisfied, and leave. I see them walking to another institute, where they lean together, unobserved, and argue other reasons, more capricious or meritorious; why a woman poet laureate arrived.
But why Van Duyn? Perhaps that is easier to reckon than the timing of our first woman poet laureate. Before she was chosen, Van Duyn's books had won a Pulitzer, a Bollingen, and a National Book Award; such garlands, won together, were once considered the Triple Crown. Think of the poet strewn, at least as lavishly as Secretariat, with pink confetti and money and more domestic champagne. All this assurance, then, of merit, so consoling to American readers, may now prepare us for the poems. The poems?
Two volumes in 1993 heralded our first woman poet laureate: Firefall, new poems, and If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982. These, along with Near Changes (1990), constitute a reminder of all that she has given us and justify her laureateship. Each of these three books includes "praise for Mona Van Duyn"; a curious redundancy; the same hoorays selected for each book. I linger for a minute on these accolades, composed by younger players, and consider their use, as praise is always used, for advertisement.
Her poetry is "beautiful and exact," "accessible and profound," with several noting how long she has been working: for "several decades"; "since 1959." The woman works, you see, and has "ambition … intelligence," attributes that still might disconcert those who want a poet to be natural; so rushing in behind to ease the nervous reader, the blurbette soothes with "humor … ease … original without eccentricity."
Advertisements are designed to soothe the reader, long enough to buy the book, and yet I am puzzled, then concerned, to see how such reviews of Van Duyn's work, and then a murmuring opinion in the field, resemble these bland remarks. "However rich, [her voice] is never bland," hails the New York Times, with earnest vacuity, and goes so far as to announce, cheerfully, her "utter unsentimental love for the world."
Beautiful, accessible, unsentimental: a woman's triple crown? Thank God, no "eccentricity" confirmed in Janson type on all three books. Now the poems are safe for public consumption, composed, in fact, by the somehow more consoling Mrs. Jarvis Thurston. Think of Mrs. Browning, the first woman mentioned for England's poet laureate. Mrs. Thurston; Mrs. Browning; safe. And yet, if I were seeking a woman's poetry that was "beautiful, accessible, unsentimental," I might choose Anne, Countess of Winchelsea, or even (must there be another quarrel?) Edna St. Vincent Millay, our "unofficial feminine laureate," as Louise Bogan wrote impatiently.
"A great many of my poems have been misread by mostly male critics—I mean, most of the critics are male." said Mona Van Duyn (Mrs. Jarvis Thurston) in an interview, apparently her fifty-eighth, as the first woman poet laureate. She was seventy-one. "I use domestic imagery and extend that imagery through the whole poem, but I'm not writing about that. It's simply used as a metaphor. There's nothing insulting about that. I do write some domestic poems. So do the male poets. But it is a limiting term when it's used over and over for a poet who, aside from the few domestic poems she and they do write, uses domestic metaphor to describe ideas…."
Her tone is almost palpable fatigue, or is it anger? It is exasperating to defend the same ground fifty-eight times or dodge a well-meaning review that waters down a woman's work until it drifts away. Or accept a phantom surrogate, the blurb, when in it, one woman's verse resembles any other. Anne Bradstreet's, for example: "Tis the Work of a Woman, honoured and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious courteous disposition, the exact diligence in her place, and discreet mannaging of her family occasions."
The praise, "exact" and "mannaging" her family, in 1650, becomes in 1993 "exact" and "accessible"; "the searching intelligence of … the well-educated wife, good friend, and daughter." Van Duyn does indeed offer her American reader a persona in the guise of wife, friend, or daughter. She is complicit, to that extent, with social expectations; with the heterosexual reader in suburbia, who is comfortable and almost smug in middle-life, or later; who takes a little wit with bourbon after work.
This reader likes Van Duyn when she is decorous, self-mocking—poses she brings to "Notes From a Suburban Heart": "I love you, in my dim-witted way." Her poems may end on this girlishly ironic note or with apology or certainty, but these are strategies intended to distract with consolation from the jeopardy she knows. Van Duyn offers her reader half of what he seeks: the compensations of suburbia; but offered with this "helpless" expectation is her own perspective:
Peony stalks come up like red asparagus,
I said; my friend said they look like dogs' penises.
It was something misplaced I noticed, the color of a wound,
but she's right, it has something to do with love too in my mind.
This is quintessential Van Duyn—narrative draped around a rumination; accentual stanzaic pattern with end rhymes, slanted and supported by internal assonance. Suburbia; a friend; a garden, but with dogs' penises in it and wounds.
Van Duyn is a poet of relationships recollected in tranquillity. Although most of our poetry is set in solitude, she hedges hers with others, usually one other figure at a time. Or when, in "Three Valentines to the Wide World," the poem ends with a young woman witnessing her own "untended power," the experience is distilled in social terms; a parable in moonlight. And the rage and violation described are amplified by their mutation and the disturbing inevitability of her rhymed octaves:
And if, in the middle of her life, some beauty falls on
a girl, who turns under its swarm to astonished woman,
them, into that miraculous buzzing, stung
in the lips and eyes without mercy, strangers may run.
An untended power—I pity her and them.
It is late, late; haste! says the falling moon,
as blinded they stand and smart till the fever's done
and blindly she moves, wearing her furious weapon.
Beauty is merciless and intemperate.
Who, turning this way and that, by day, by night,
still stands in the heart-felt storm of its benefit,
will plead in vain for mercy, or cry, "Put out
the lovely eyes of the world, whose rise and set
move us to death!" And never will temper it,
but against that rage slowly may learn to pit
love and art, which are compassionate.
Van Duyn's best work uses linguistic clarity as a response to long acquaintance with the irrational, the bereft, and the chronically beleaguered. In this way, only, her poetry resembles that of Elizabeth Bishop. This tension underneath Van Duyn's "accessibility" makes the stated goals for poetry—compassion, empathy (thus moral; Horatian)—more tenuous and provisional and moving.
One of her finest poems, "Remedies, Maladies, Reasons," recollects the persona's relationship with her mother; the bond, defined by medical emergency, is chthonic and ecstatic:
… She "hawks up big gobs
of stuff" that is almost orange. All of her tubes
are blocked. Her face turned purple. Lettuce she ate
was "passed" whole, "green as grass" in the toilet.
She "came within an inch" of a "stoppage," but mineral oil
saved her from all but "a running-off of the bowel."
Sniffing her mucus or sweat or urine, she marvels
anew at how "rotten" or "rank" or "sour" it smells.
There's never been any other interesting news.
Homer of her own heroic course, she rows
through the long disease of living, and celebrates
the "blood-red" throat, the yellow pus that "squirts"
from a swelling, the taste, always "bitter as gall,"
that's "belched up," the bumps that get "sore as a boil,"
the gas that makes her "blow up tight as a drum,"
the "racing heart," the "new kind of bug," the "same
old sinus," the "god-awful cold"—all things that make
her "sick as a dog" or "just a nervous wreck."
The poem wrestles this battering, recreating it (fifty-eight rhymed couplets altogether), and then resolves the presence of this other maker. With humor (Freud's aggressive wit) and the accumulating energy of drama, the persona makes her way towards catharsis:
I still see the mother I wanted, that I called to come,
coming. From the dark she rushes to my bedroom,
switching the lamp on, armed with pills, oils, drops,
gargles, liniments, flannels, salves, syrups,
waterbag, icebag. Bending over me,
giant, ferocious, she drives my Enemy,
in steamy, hot-packed, camphorated nights,
from every sickening place where he hides and waits.
Do you think I don't know how love hallucinates?
No other poet has described so well the horror and adoration that a child feels for the parent's body. She continues this in "The Stream," an elegy for her mother, and in her epistolary novella-in-verse, "Letters from a Father." The daughter, then, like Van Duyn's appearance as a wife or friend, is a guise, a metaphor, a remedy she fingers, swallows, revealing to the reader not transcendence but empathy—that more difficult release from solitude.
And yet, compassion is not yet understood as a species of authority. The poet even doubts it. She doubles back; apologizes ("Women don't usually wrestle, except for a comic or grotesque effect"). She "eases" over her own authority, her own "slow, entranced emergence / of things out of the ashes of their usefulness." A poet of relationships will be of use, willing to strain and wrap her art for a "Christmas Present for a Poet," "To My Godson, On His Christening," and "Lines Written in a Guest Book."
A charm, a generosity diminishes when rooted from its source, its passion. But who notices, within the smoky institutes and professional fraternities? "The Insight Lady" will arrive, bringing wit they understand; she sips the warm hors d'oeuvres with men. She's in; a woman made it in, but only half—not the half that is
… a monstrous face;
as broad as his chest, as long as he is
from the top of his head to his heart. All her
feeling and fleshiness is there.
("The Pietà, Rhenish, 14th C., The Cloisters")
That is the part her critics call "bizarre." Send that half—domestic champagne; the hiss of it like bees; a time of bees. That's how women survive.
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SOURCE: A review of If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1994, p. 135.
[In the following review, Earnshaw praises If It Be Not I, noting a few "shortcomings," but declaring the collected poems "rich, wise, and beautiful."]
It is of course fascinating to hear the voice of an American woman poet, born in the same decade (1920s) as Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov, who avoids politics altogether, including the politics of feminism and of the Vietnam War. Mona Van Duyn is a heartland poet, born in Waterloo, Iowa, and living in St. Louis, whereas Rich was raised and educated in sophisticated East Coast surroundings and Levertov was raised and educated in England by her Welsh mother and Russian-Jewish/Christian father. After decades of university teaching while publishing single poems and several collections with modest circulation, Van Duyn gained a wider audience when she received the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Near Changes. In 1992 she was appointed by the Librarian of Congress as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Responding to the wide interest in her work, Knopf has now issued in one volume her six previously published books of poems: Valentines to the Wide World (1959), A Time of Bees (1964), To See, To Take (1970), Bedtime Stories (1972), Poems (1965–1973) (1973), and Letters from a Father and Other Poems (1982).
What was she writing about all those decades, if not the rousing public affairs of postwar America? Certain themes recur: thrift is valued, waste deplored; beauty is merciless, love and art are compassionate; the human animal owes much to other animals and likewise to flowers and fruit; the visceral and real outshines the abstract; surface and texture hold truth. She catches a moment with lyric and narrative intensity: "The Voyeur" places us with a woman undressing in an isolated cabin; she feels a large animal gazing at her; she finishes undressing slowly and contemplates seeking him in the woods for mating. Levertov's gift for metaphor is often stunning; the reader becomes breathless with the wide-stretching connections of her imagery. But her [Levertov's] style is marked by extremes: delicious humor countered by obtuse and clotted abstraction, brilliant showers of metaphor and a low-key talky tone that disguises her mastery of rhythm and rhyme. She can write a poem on canning pears that delights you, all the more as you realize by the last line that you have read a perfect sonnet.
Like Rich and Levertov (and Marianne Moore among others), Van Duyn has several memorable poems on marriage. However, in her case the poems are written from within the marriage bond—she has that rare experience for a poet, a single lifetime marriage. "Toward a Definition of Marriage" imagines five analogies: marriage is a landfill like a World's Fair island; an artlessly digressing poem; amateur duelists (my favorite!); a circus whose animals parade reluctantly, never completely trained; and windy oratory, because marriage is the politics of love. The poem wanders aimlessly, like the marriage she describes, but endears itself to the willing reader.
Bedtime Stories takes us via a grandmother's talk into American rural folklore in dialect, recalling James Whitcomb Riley, but darker. We hear the accents of old German settlers telling of strange events and common hardships. Speaking of hardships, there are enough poems about illness and hospitals to make the reader understand that Van Duyn has fought her own tigers. Unlike Sexton and Plath, she has no mother-child poems, but the struggle for coherence of a highly gifted poet in an antipoet, toxic society must have had similarities. In one line she observes, "There is too much roughage."
Kenneth Burke has written in his introduction to Howard Nemerov's New and Selected Essays (1985) about what it is to be a "Nemerovian poet," and Mona Van Duyn belongs, I believe, to the category he describes. It concerns duplicity and the mix of three professions: teacher, scholar, poet. Some of the annoying, rather juvenile treatments of serious subjects seem better suited to classroom presentation to eighteen-year-olds, and the references to grants for travel, academic meetings, and her excessive borrowings betray the nonpoet roles of teacher and scholar. These shortcomings aside, most of the poetry here is rich, wise and beautiful. Van Duyn's "merciful disguises" reward the reader.
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SOURCE: A review of Firefall, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1994, p. 376.
[In the review below, Earnshaw provides a laudatory review of Firefall.]
Firefall refers to the nightly bonfire that park rangers used to push over the high cliff in California's Yosemite Park to entertain tourists in the valley below. Van Duyn saw the spectacle when, as a girl, she toured the West with her family. The poem which relates this experience, "Falls," contrasts the cascade of fire with the waterfalls at Niagara Falls, also seen on a family tour. She takes both fire and water as fertilizing elements in her poetic creativity. The poem is placed near the close of the collection, the poet's first since Near Changes, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In addition to poems on Van Duyn topics (wisdom about life drawn from suburban Midwestern dailiness), Firefall contains a series of seven poems in a form she calls the "minimalist" sonnet. The traditional line length has been shortened, but other conventions are kept, except for an occasional added quatrain for a poem she calls "the extended minimalist" sonnet. Each poem responds to a classic and often-studied poem of Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Frost, Hopkins, and Arnold.
Some of the "minimalist" sonnets are intended to comment on the host poem with an interrogation or analysis. Some are "translations" into a more concise language. In commenting on these famous poems, Van Duyn is sure-footed, and the poems take on the pungent flavor of medieval Provencal or Old French forms. Two poems of Yeats are "translated": "The Circus Animals' Desertion" and "A Prayer for My Daughter." The first restates the poem's thought in a straightforward manner, but the second extends the meaning metaphorically into another dimension not necessarily in the original, more a "comment" than a "translation." The exercise of matching the derived poem to the original exhilarates the mind. Van Duyn brings to the canon in English a game many would enjoy. The "comment" on Frost's "Mending Wall" poem, for example, takes eighteen lines from the forty-five-line original. Students from junior high school to university graduate seminars would be intrigued.
Many readers enjoy Van Duyn's lighthearted poems, such as, in this collection, "Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat in the Kitchen" or "We Are in Your Area" or "Words for the Dumb," about styles of cooking, suburban annoyances, and the love of pets. "Addendum to 'The Block'" continues the poem from Near Changes that encapsulates decades of suburban living. More serious are the poems on art—"Chagall's 'Les Plumes en Fleur'"—and the death of loved ones: "For May Swenson" and "Sondra." Her devotion to birds, known from other poems, surfaces in "Poets in Late Winter." Reimaginings of Shakespeare's Tempest appear in two poems, "Miranda Grows Up" and "Another Tempest." In the first she feels Miranda's need to forgive Prospero for taking her from the island to a northern climate where the cold would chill her innocence. The second, more extreme, keeps everyone on the island, gives Fernando the line "Oh brave new world," and reveals Miranda, "the greedy daughter," as Caliban. An essay on this transformation, and on the myth of Leda (another obsessive topic with Van Duyn), would be most interesting.
The final poem, "The Delivery," reaches a level of profound self-revelation. Its two parts demonstrate in one poem two modes of Van Duyn's poetry: realistic narrative and rich metaphor, the "merciful disguise." The opening narrative shows a childhood scene of domestic trauma: the girl's mother ridicules her daughter for feeling intensely a girlfriend's disgrace, saying "I wasn't scolding you. I was scolding Betty." The whole family picks up the joke and laughs as the daughter feels the birth of her "self" apart from the family. In the second part, this self, now carried underwater to "the mourning sea," meets the sinking people "(even Mother and Father)," whom she cannot rescue. She can go part way under into the "Omnipotent dark" that has seized them, but she cannot save them. She returns upward to the lighter water and then to the air. We feel the sadness that accompanies the experience of loneliness that follows illumination. The world "has too much roughage in it," she has said in another poem, but we feel in her poetry the joy of the lighted water and the air.
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SOURCE: "Life Work," in Shenandoah, Vol. 44, Spring, 1994, pp. 38-48.
[In the following review of If It Be Not I, Near Changes, and Firefall, Shaw surveys Van Duyn's career, declaring: "At the height of her powers, Mona Van Duyn continues to give fresh meaning to the fusty term 'a life work.'"]
Among the many talents of Mona Van Duyn a gift for self-promotion is not conspicuous. She has served as Poet Laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize, and yet it seems only recently that her reputation has begun to catch up with her achievement. Her innate modesty has been one obvious reason for this, but there are other more capricious ones as well. For one thing, the long intervals between some of her books have made her an elusive figure to a public with a short attention span. Happily, the three volumes reviewed here [If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982, Near Changes, and Firefall] offer a simple remedy by bringing all of her work at once into print. Beyond this, though, there remains the challenge of an audience's pet stereotypes, and it is here that Van Duyn's poems may even now make trouble for themselves by their refusal to flow into expected channels. She is an individualist both in her topics and her tone, always a good way to fend off easy celebrity.
Concerning topics: critics who are supple and acute in analyzing style can sound embarrassed, condescending, or simply at a loss when asked to consider content. I remember the nervous chuckles of some of my colleagues at Harvard in the '70's when Elizabeth Bishop proposed offering a course entitled "Subject Matter in Poetry." Poets are obliged to be practical in their thinking about this issue: they know they have to write about something, and the choice of material, for poets who are any good, is anything but random. It involves the discovery of subjects which will strike chords in the deep recesses of imagination as well as engaging the intellect's discursive powers. About such subjects the poet continually finds yet more to say, as Elizabeth Bishop did about travel and Marianne Moore did about animals. Gradually, by accretion and elaboration, it becomes clear that the fascination of such topics is not in themselves but in the underlying theme which emerges from the patterns and nuances of their repeated appearances. Any poem is "about" more than one thing, and its more vital meaning often is the less ostensible one.
Why can't readers remember this? Van Duyn's poems have in fact been sold short by those who have failed to see beyond their surfaces. Her "persona" in her writing seems to overlap largely with herself: an academic married to an academic, leading a comfortable upper-middle class life in Saint Louis. She has had the temerity to write poems about shopping, cooking, gardening, dogs, vacations. Practitioners of various brands of snobbery—social, political, intellectual—have shied away from subject matter presumed by them to have no depth. The dread word "domestic," once uttered, slams shut many reputedly tolerant minds. When W. H. Auden turned to deliberately mundane subjects in About the House and other later volumes, his willingness to venture into what were for him previously unexplored areas was viewed as a slackening of ambition. Richard Wilbur is another poet who has suffered from this kind of stock response. Like Auden, like Wilbur, Van Duyn in her best work demonstrates that any subject is as deep as the poet makes it.
Even if that were not so, it can be argued that domesticity has inherent if often unacknowledged profundities. It is, unsettlingly enough, what we all have in common, bohemian aspirations notwithstanding. Allen Ginsberg washes the dishes now and then, and for most of us such activities take up more time than we care to tabulate. Put domestic leisure together with domestic labor, and we have for our concern nothing less than what we often call daily life. It may seem at times less than stimulating, but it is not trivial, and one need not be an existentialist philosopher (or a novelist like Walker Percy) to apprehend rich possibilities mysteriously latent in everydayness. More than any other poet of her time Mona Van Duyn has made it her project to restore freshness to the familiar through close and caring attention to what most of us overlook.
She does this often with a welcome touch of civilized humor, but there is nothing apologetic in her tone, no self-consciousness like Cowper's mock-heroic "I sing the sofa." If we recall that Van Duyn's poems first appeared in quantity in the 1960's, we can see why her tone as well as her topics may have helped to marginalize her. Her writing must have seemed muted indeed compared with the piercing emotionalism of Sylvia Plath and other confessionalists, or the antiwar and subsequently anti-patriarchal anger of Adrienne Rich. It is not that Van Duyn never expresses negative feelings; rather, when she does so, she resists the starkness that results when such feelings are unreflectively allowed to dominate. Again, the parallel with Richard Wilbur is apt: until recently it was fairly common for critics to object that Wilbur didn't sound as if he had suffered enough. Having come to a historical juncture at which it is evident that there is more than enough suffering to go around, we may be readier than readers of the '60's were to appreciate poetry that can take the measure of grief and loss without being paralyzed by them, and can assign to ordinary goodness something closer to its true weight while pondering our experience on this planet.
How is it that Van Duyn establishes a scale of value in her poetry, showing the quotidian to be something other (and better) than the "malady" it was for Stevens? One of her strategies is to locate esthetic significance in unlikely contexts. In "Homework" she draws an emblem from preserving peaches:
Lest the fair cheeks begin their shrivelling
before a keeping eye has lit on their fairness,
I pluck from the stony world some that can't cling
to stone, for a homely, transparent form to bless.
So the poem begins, and it ends,
Oh I know, I know that, great or humble, the arts
in their helplessness can save but a few selves
by such disguises from Time's hideous bite,
and yet, a sweating Proust of the pantry shelves,
I cupboard these pickled peaches in Time's despite.
A later poem, "Caring for Surfaces," flaunts political incorrectness by celebrating housecleaning:
Dipped in detergent, dish and chandelier retrieve
their glister, sopped, kitchen floor reflowers, knife
rubbed with cork unrusts, colors of carpetweave
cuffed with shampooer and vacuum with reblush
The end of the poem, without belaboring the point, makes a distinction between gender roles:
Round rooms of surfaces I move, round board, books, bed.
Men carve, dig, break, plunge as I smooth, shine, spread.
For all its tart matter-of-factness, the last remark merely brings the main point of the poem into keener focus. Van Duyn is less interested in putting men down than she is in celebrating the constructive and esthetic qualities of what have traditionally been seen as women's tasks. Such receptiveness to unexpected beauty suddenly perceived is frequent as well in her outdoor scenes, as at the end of "Postcards from Cape Split," a view of the blueberry barrens in Maine:
Mile after mile, from road to the far mountains
of furzy wasteland, flat. You almost miss it.
Suddenly, under that empty space, you notice
the curious color of the ground. Blue mile, blue mile,
and then a little bent-over group of Indians
creeping down string-marked aisles. Blue mile, blue mile,
and then more Indians, pushing their forked dustpans.
It looks like a race at some country picnic, but lost
in that monstrous space, under that vacant sky.
Why am I dazzled? It is only another harvest.
The world blooms and we all bend and bring
from ground and sea and mind its handsome harvests.
One notices the stress here is on the harvesters as much as on the harvest. However highly developed her esthetic sense is, it is not for Van Duyn the final arbiter of worth. Her outlook is more broadly humanistic; nature and art are not valued in and of themselves but for what they contribute to the common life of humanity. Human affection has proved to be her most enduring subject—the one more often than not beneath the surface of her domestic vignettes. In this regard she has attempted over the course of her career to fill some gaps. Literature offers us plenty of avowals of romantic passion, but not many good poems about marriage. Likewise, when one considers how important it is for maintaining civilization and keeping us sane, it is surprising how few good poems there are about friendship. Van Duyn has written fine poems about these relationships, as well as less intimate but still valuable ties of community.
"Toward a Definition of Marriage," "Pot-au-Feu," "Marriage, With Beasts," "Late Loving," and many other pieces offer searching glimpses into the mystery of an enduring marriage—"love's dishevelment," she calls it in one poem, "a duel of amateurs" in another. The image at the end of "Late Loving," typically intimate and unforced, plays on the paradox of familiarity which seemingly against all odds renews itself rather than growing stale:
What you try to give me is more than I want to receive,
yet each month when you pick up scissors for our appointment
and my cut hair falls and covers your feet I believe
that the house is filled again with the odor of ointment.
No sentimentalist, Van Duyn includes in her depictions of marriage traces of resistance, tension, volatility, as if in recognition of the part these play in keeping a relationship vital. Her views of friendship are equally persuasive and unplatitudinous. "Open Letter, Personal" is a wry and funny mock complaint: "Surely the jig is up. We've pinned each other down. / … And very soon / your smallest children will tire of naming my couch pillows, / black, white, green, lavender and brown." The arraignment, however, works its way to this spirited reversal:
We know the quickest way to hurt each other, and
we have used that knowledge. See, it is here, in
the joined strands of our weaknesses, that we are
netted together and heave together strongly like
the great catch of mackerel that ends an Italian
movie. I feel your bodies smell and shove and
shine against me in the mess of the pitching boat.
we do not like each other any more. We love.
Other evocations of friendship include "The Gentle Snorer," "The Block," and elegies like "Sondra" and (an especially brilliant one) "The Creation." These, like the marriage pieces, emphasize the uncustomary nature of Van Duyn's stance. We are used to the Romantic notion inherited by Modernism of the poet as solitary, as the single contemplative figure in the landscape. Against this tendency Van Duyn affirms an insistent sociability. It sometimes seems that she uses her social world to define herself the way less gregarious poets use regional setting. Northern California, with little visible population, is the standard background for Robinson Jeffers; an equally underpopulated New England serves the purpose for Robert Frost. For Van Duyn it is not place but community that offers a milieu in which to situate herself. While the people concerned are most often those she knows well—her husband Jarvis Thurston and their circle of friends at Washington University—they may be in some cases totally anonymous, as in her praise of rest-room graffiti:
Nothing is banal or lowly that tells us how well
the world, whose highways proffer table and toilet
as signs and occasions of comfort for belly and bowel,
can comfort the heart too, somewhere in secret,
… I bless
all knowledge of love, all ways of publishing it.
("Open Letter from a Constant Reader")
Such lines reveal an imagination resolutely un-Manichean, and an outlook that is unhesitatingly humane. In one of her rather infrequent dramatic monologues she makes Lot's wife her heroine, vindicated by the human impulse that led her to challenge God's justice and look back at Sodom's destruction, for which she was turned to a pillar of salt:
I was not easily shocked, but that punishment
was blasphemous, impiety
to the world as it is, things as they are.
I turned to pure mourning, which ends the personal
life, then quietly comes to its own end.
Each time the clouds came and it rained,
salt tears flowed from my whole being,
and when that testimony was over
grass began to grow on the plain.
("The Cities of the Plain")
The poet's openness to human diversity and willingness to forgive weakness and folly make her occasional glances at evil all the more powerful. I do not expect to forget a poem from her most recent book, "'Have You Seen Me?'" subtitled "Lost Children Ads":
My face in your mail
is no longer me.
Stranger, don't fail
to look carefully,
hear the hopeless, mild
query each day,
"Where is the child
that was taken away?"
the world's being taught.
No one can see
what I saw or thought.
Someone wants me
to be where I'm not.
All this should corroborate Van Duyn's sincerity in speaking of "the only life worth living, the empathic life." Anyone who wishes to trace the record of a complex feeling developing and refining itself over a lifetime should consult the series of poems about her parents, spread over several books. Narrow, unimaginative, self-interested, the parents could have offered a different sort of poet—Lowell or Plath—much scope for destructive caricature. In Van Duyn's treatment they remain believable people with believable faults; they never metamorphose into those stylized monsters who abound in confessional literature. Van Duyn's poems about her father and mother are not designed principally to express grievance—though to some extent they do that—but more to register a painfully achieved understanding. They are instruments of reconciliation. In "Remedies, Maladies, Reasons" her dispassionate candor is breathtaking as she describes how her mother, a hypochondriac, kept her in valetudinarian bondage for much of her childhood:
laying a fever-seeking hand on my forehead
after school, incanting "Did your bowels move good?
Wrap up before you go out and don't play hard.
Are you sure you're not coming down with a cold? You
keeping me numb on the couch for so many weeks,
if somehow a wily cough, flu or pox
got through her guard, my legs world shake and tingle,
trying to find the blessed way back to school.
The chafe of confinement, the cause for resentment are vividly clear, and yet at the end of the poem the mother assumes an aspect in keeping with "a child's long-ago look," in which her obsessions are seen as rooted in love:
Bending over me,
giant, ferocious, she drives my Enemy,
in steamy, hot-packed, camphorated nights,
from every sickening place where he hides and waits.
Do you think I don't know how love hallucinates?
Some related, equally impressive poems are "Letters from a Father," "Photographs" and "The Stream," an elegy for her mother which concludes with this extended metaphor:
What is love? Truly I do not know.
Sometimes, perhaps, instead of a great sea,
it is a narrow stream running urgently
far below ground, held down by rocky layers,
the deeds of father and mother, helpless soothsayers
of how our life is to be, weighted by clay,
the dense pressure of thwarted needs, the replay
of old misreadings; by hundreds of feet of soil,
the gifts and wounds of the genes, the short or tall
shape of our possibilities, seeking
and seeking a way to the top, while above, running
and stumbling this way and that on the clueless ground,
another seeker clutches a dowsing-wand
which bends, then lifts, dips, then straightens, everywhere,
saying to the dowser, it is there, it is not there,
and the untaught dowser believes, does not believe,
and finally simply stands on the ground above,
till a sliver of stream finds a crack and makes its way,
slowly, too slowly, through rock and earth and clay.
Here at my feet I see, after sixty years,
the welling water—to which I add these tears.
As these lines indicate, Van Duyn is a master of what Frost called "the discreet handling of metaphor." Lengthy passages, and sometimes entire poems, are sustained comparisons like this one, almost like Metaphysical conceits although they are not so aggressively witty in manner. Van Duyn is equally adept in her use of rhyme, often employing both full and half rhyme in a single poem. This is a difficult thing to do successfully, but she more often than not brings it off—perhaps by virtue of the naturalness of her diction. In her two most recent books she has grown more venturesome as a craftsman, including a number of the short-lined poems she calls "minimalist sonnets." "'Have You Seen Me?'" quoted above, is an example. In these pieces, as in general, she has moved toward greater compactness. It might once have been possible to feel that some of her poems were longer than they needed to be; but this is rarely the case with her latest work.
She has also extended her range as a writer of personal narrative. The long poem "Falls" in her latest book begins casually enough as an account of sightseeing trips in her father's trailer during her childhood. But it shifts into a higher register in describing the falls of the title. There is first the firefall at Yosemite, a nighttime display in which a large bonfire was pushed off a cliff in a continuous stream of flame:
… What was the fire? Although it fell
from the soul's home and braided into its strands
of hue and heat that cool, unearthly white,
its glory poured from earth's burning body, red,
yellow, blue, orange, twining, twisting
to light, to stainless light.
And later there is Niagara:
No waterfall, it seemed, but earth's bringing together
of all its waters to make for that monstrous, open
mouth (one lip one country, one another),
out of a thousand long white quivering tongues
one tongue that brought from the depths of throat appalling,
thunderous boasts of its own fertility.
In the poem's dexterous mixture of narrative and meditation, both falls become symbols of poetic inspiration: the fire from the silent heaven, the water from the clamorous earth. Such elemental images, Van Duyn believes, leave impressions which last a lifetime:
May one who comes upon a final book
and hunts in husks for kernel hints of me
find Niagara's roar still sacred to dim ears,
firefall still blazing bright in memory.
Fortunately, there is no reason to suppose that Firefall is by any means "a final book." At the height of her powers, Mona Van Duyn continues to give fresh meaning to the fusty term "a life work." By conferring upon her own life the reverence of cleareyed attention, she has managed to enhance the life that all of us share.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141
Dickey, James. "Of Human Concern." New York Times Book Review 70 (21 November 1965): 74-5.
Praises A Time of Bees, and calls Van Duyn "one of the best woman-poets around."
Graumnan, Lawrence, Jr. Review of To See, To Take. The Antioch Review 30, No. 1 (Spring 1970): 134.
Brief review in which Grauman praises To See, To Take and declares that Van Duyn's poems "matter precisely because they transform, because they transcend the local domestic moment to speak to us as do myths."
Webster, Harvery Curtis. A review of A Time of Bees. The Kenyan Review 27, No. 2 (Spring 1965): 380-81.
A highly laudatory assessment of A Time of Bees.
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