The poetry of John Haines prompts a peculiar but compelling question: What do the varnished floors, white walls, and glass cases of art museums and galleries have in common with the frozen landscape of the Alaskan tundra? When one reads through The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer, surprising connections between them emerge, much as insights float to consciousness in meditation. The collection itself is a kind of museum in that the poems exhibit Haines’s experience of homesteading and trapping in the Alaskan wilderness and also living in cities and studying the great art traditions as Western civilization has preserved them. Simultaneously, one is made acutely aware that poems cannot substitute for the experiences themselves; instead, they signify their absence. In fact, the austerity of these poems is inescapable. Even with what Peter Wild and Richard Tillinghast have referred to as a “deep image” sensibility (in the style of Robert Bly), they claw and tear at themselves to reveal only what is most essential and visceral in the experience they are representing. The earlier, shorter poems are especially minimal and austere, emerging from a proselike, report-mg style of observation, so that the key images shine in a startling way, appropriately enough like sun on snow.
In the preface to The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer Haines writes that in reading through his own collection he is aware of a “prevailing somberness, of a tone that might be called elegiac.” There is no “might” about it. The title poem is openly so in the austere manner that belies or holds in check the richness of the image evoked by its title. In fact, by only looking at the title, one might expect a completely different poem, one more blatant with stock, archetypal, “deep-image” surprise. Yet in the context of the poem, we discover that the “owl in the mask of the dreamer” is literally “one of the stone animals asleep,” lost along with “the craft of an old affection” that which could have shaped it. The poem makes both present only through negation. It begins by asserting that “nothing bestial or human remains” in the “welding” of human history, signified by the alloyed metals one associates with the beginnings of civilization. Right away the poem tricks the reader by veering away from easy opposition, placing “bestial” and “human” in the same category of things that are gone and aligning them with the “hand-warmed stone made flesh,” perhaps one of the poem’s hardest leaps to make in terms of image logic. For Haines, there is a natural consciousness lost, a knowing as a culture that is rememberable only on a plane of dreams, sleep, or burial that has no direct traffic with current civilization. “The black dust of the grinding wheels” is the only thing left to speak for that knowing of ourselves that is as primal as rock. The only generosity in this poem is the invitation, the petition against exile from the natural state of knowing, asking the manufactured dust to try to speak for “these people of drawn wire” who “will never be closer” to one another or to their own primal nature without something that “verges on prayer” (as Lawrence Rungren wrote in a 1991 Small Press review) to help.
“The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer” is a terse amalgam of many veins that run through this collection. The image of the “people of drawn wire/ striding toward each other/ over a swept square of bronze” quietly alludes to the poems about art and museums (such as “In the Museum Garden,” “Days of Edward Hopper,” and “Michelangelo’s Question”), all of which suggest, as in “A Guide to the Asian Museums,”
That the least of these fired images,
these flawed souvenirs—items
of rescue, of luck
obedience and grace—outlast us.
That a single gray elephant,
the size of your thumb,
holds up the earth
with its forests and acres of stone.
Art, then, is valuable in that it measures human mortality, gives more exact awareness of how ephemeral we are. It is an understated yet generous image. A small stone shaped in the image of a huge, exotic animal associated with prosperity and longevity, yet made no bigger than the size of a human thumb, is all that is required for awareness of truths that...
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