Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959
As in the case of “The Structure of Rime” series, Duncan would not permit these poems to be collected into one volume. Indeed, he was so vehement about their nonsequential structure that he stopped numbering them after “Passages 37” so that readers would not be tempted to see any kind of evolving progressive structure. They share certain common functions with “The Structure of Rime” sections but are almost purely poetry, and they can be viewed as a poetic counterpart enacting the poetic process that “The Structure of Rime” sections probe and discuss.
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Looking at their mutual relationship also reveals a counterpoint, in a musical sense, which intermittently creates common measures and scales that Duncan would also consider a kind of “rime.” One of the reasons for the expanding canvas of“Passages” is that Duncan no longer speaks through fictive voices and masks. It is his own highly musical, bardic voice speaking throughout; he has broken away from the kind of mythological personae that Pound and Olson used throughout their long poems.
The first thirty “Passages” poems appeared in Bending the Bow in 1968 and immediately established Duncan as a master of long formal structures. The next ten were published in Ground Work: Before the War, while the concluding thirteen are in Ground Work II: In the Dark. In all, fifty-three “Passages” poems appeared over a twenty-year period.
Part of the function of the first crucial “Passages” was a demonstration of Duncan’s consistent habit within these works of talking about a topic while simultaneously activating that subject’s archetypal reverberations and illustrating how a poem comes into being. “Passages 1” is titled “Tribal Memories” and becomes, in effect, an invocation to the muse of memory, Mnemosyne, and a depiction of how she enters Duncan’s afternoon nap with dreams of his individual poems, participating in the eternally recurring act of creation.
In “Passages 2: At the Loom,” Duncan further defines the poetic process in its relationship to his mind: “my mind a shuttle among/ set strings of the music/ lets a weft of dream grow in the day time,/ an increment of associations,/ luminous soft threads,/ the thrown glamor crossing and recrossing,/ the twisted sinews underlying the work.” Not only has he continued the proposal of the preceding “Passages,” but he has also instructed the reader how to read his poems by comparing his imagination to the activity of a loom.
“Passages 3” interweaves Christ with his prototype, Osiris, archetypal twins that Duncan uses throughout the collection. In the first thirty “Passages,” old topics are reintroduced, such as the Grail, alchemy, magic and puns on “spell,” language, and homosexual dedication and passion, while new French masters, such as Victor Hugo and Jean Genet, appear. Throughout “Passages” 13-30, Duncan rails against the American involvement in the Vietnam War. In “Passages 21: The Multiversity,” he bitterly condemns the military-industrial-university complex, identifying the chancellor of the University of California, Clark Kerr, with William Blake’s destructive “old Nobodaddy.”
Many of these poems are vehemently concerned with the political abuse of power by the rich and privileged, and Duncan explores in a deeply Freudian mode the connections between the etymological origins of “phallic” aggressiveness and the impulse toward “fascism” that the United States, to him, seemed to be demonstrating during those years in the 1960’s. He boldly compares President Lyndon Johnson with both German chancellor Adolf Hitler and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin.
In the later “Passages” that appeared in both Ground Work volumes, he moves away from the concerns of war and back to his search for origins. He moves comfortably from music and its source in utterance, vision, and dance, as subjects for the great “Tribunals Passages” to the more mundane concerns of “Passages 34: The Feast,” which is obviously a recipe for cooking lamb. By changing the spelling of the word “EWE,” he finds beneath it the name “EVE,” transforming a seemingly casual dinner into a re-enactment of the Fall into consciousness and knowledge.
The late “Passages” become extended meditations delving even more deeply into the “language beyond speech” and its ability to enter the pantheon of the spirits and the archetypal sea of words. Grief and ecstasy enter the work more intensely as his language brings him closer to the terror of the cosmological void in “Passages: Empedoklean Reveries”: “There is a field of random energies from which we come.” In the concluding “Passages” in Ground Work II, he finds himself a participant in the drama of wound literature in “In Blood’s Domaine”; in his case, the wound is invisible. Indeed, because of complications from high blood pressure, Duncan died after several years of serious illness, ironically a “victim” of his own blood.
One of Duncan’s last and most appropriate metaphors for his life was that of “a theme and variations,” an early musical form from which all subsequent musical forms, such as the sonata and the symphony, emerged. In the final dark “Passages,” he realizes that language does not come into the mind to be used by the poet. Rather, “Mind comes into this language as if into an Abyss.” His two valedictory “Passages” are homages to vital sources of his imaginal and physical life: “The Muses” and his own circulatory system, with his heart at the center.
His last “Passages” poem envisions the fluctuating dynamics of his entire creative mechanism, which he had earlier called the scales “of resemblance and disresemblance, and sees them still operating, but now with the “inflatus/deflatus” or the “blood/air pump” of his own weakening heart as it nourishes the “ex-change artist.” He had found in the title of one of psychologist James Hillman’s books a perfect amalgamation of all his late themes as he embodied them and they embodied him: The Thought of the Heart.