R(ussell) G. Vliet Essay - Critical Essays

Vliet, R(ussell) G.


R(ussell) G. Vliet 1929–

American novelist and poet.

Vliet's focus on alienation in a southwestern setting reveals a distinctive existentialism. His poetry is lyrical and elegiac and critics have especially praised his ballad "Clem Maverick."

The Virginia Quarterly Review

This first book of poems [Events & Celebrations] by a young man from Texas is in every respect a mature and accomplished performance. The poem with which the collection opens asserts that "Poetry (if it must come)/must come never kept,/but unkempt and dragging weed/up from the seas…." Vliet's poems often achieve the immediate yet primordial quality that precept demands, but they are never "unkempt," except by design. Masculine and muscular they are, but never careless. The most striking work in the book is "Clem Maverick," a poem in twenty sections which recounts the short, dissonant career of a country music star. "Clem Maverick" is a triumph and if Events & Celebrations contained nothing else, it would still be one of the biggest books of poetry of the year.

"Notes on Current Books: 'Events & Celebrations'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1966, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 42, No. 3 (Summer, 1966), p. cxli.

Dan Jaffe

[Events & Celebrations is] remarkable for its skill, resonance, and diversity. Section II contains a sequence of twenty "Clem Maverick" poems. Vliet brings to life a hillbilly balladeer who

              At thirteen
              stuck his flattop in a towsack
              and turnt pro.

Vliet captures moments in Maverick's life, altering the structure and tone of the poems to fit the moments and the varying means of perception. Satirical and sorrowful, these poems provide one with a sense of the way in which the public world infringes on the private life of an unsophisticated man, and how he in turn affects others. Our view is from the outside, but always there is a sense of inner tragedy.

In addition to the Maverick poems, Events & Celebrations contains twenty-four lyrics and two long Biblical prose poems…. There is throughout the lyrics a feeling of underneath, a feeling unleashed by vivid catalogues of the topside.

Vliet at times echoes other poets, but echo is not imitation. Here is a poet stretching out, one who gives the reader the sense of a big, sensitive guy bucking a resistant world that he loves. Events & Celebrations is cause for celebration. (p. 29)

Dan Jaffe, "An All-American Muse," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIX, No. 42, October 15, 1966, p. 29.∗

Phoebe-Lou Adams

[In Rockspring] a platinum-blonde girl of fourteen (the fair princess) is kidnapped by two Mexican bandits and one Indian (the wicked ogre) and ultimately rescued by the youngest bandit (Prince Charming in disguise). There is an unsuitable amount of sexual brutality in this fairy tale and it has an unthinkable ending, but fairy tale it is, regardless, because the heroine, supposedly a farmer's illiterate daughter somewhere on the Texas frontier, is 90 percent wax doll dream.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Short Reviews: 'Rockspring'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 233, No. 6, June, 1974, p. 115.

Peter Glassman

R. G. Vliet happily is one of our most civilized writers, and … [Solitudes is] his most accomplished and promising work. Set in Texas in the early 1880's, Solitudes concerns what Vliet calls "wildness," a quality of spontaneity and animal abandon which seems to this poet who writes novels sexually arousing, closely related to both sanity and pathology, and, if profoundly dangerous, morally compelling. The novel's hero, Claiborne (or Claib) Sanderlin, is the book's most wild creature. Inarticulately intelligent, barely verbal, superbly responsive to the designs of the world, the word, and his own personality, Claib proposes himself as a more or less sublime Clint Eastwood. In Eastwood's classically American way Claib reduces himself to the sum of his appetites and functions. Lust, hunger, fatigue, satiety shape the curve of his experience and expectations. Like Eastwood's persona he understands that "the thing is to keep movin'." Move Claib does: Solitudes is built about the long and lyric series of its hero's grazing migrations. A land animal gifted with catholic expertise, Claib traverses whole tracts of space which he does not expropriate but rather fills with his own thought and severely efficient use. As he moves, this exquisitely self-aware high plains drifter organizes a stunning meditation upon the nation's nature, a bold and lovely, semantically cinematic discourse upon the character of our country's countryside,...

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When R. G. Vliet's first novel, Rockspring, was published … it received limited but enthusiastic attention. The few reviewers who wrote about it … all called attention to Vliet's "poetic prose," though all backed away from defining that toothy phrase. Rockspring was an eccentric book. Though set in Texas and Mexico of the 1880's and peopled with outlaws, cowboys, and a vibrant heroine, the book certainly wasn't a Western in any conventional sense. While the writing embraced the physical realities of the period in almost numbing detail, it did not create an anachronistic, museum-piece world, as the novels of Frederick Manfred do. Rockspring was flawed in part by its melodramatic plotting, but the language was stunning, vital in its rendering of feeling and event. Vliet suddenly established himself as the poet of South Texas, a landscape of plentitude against which men's actions emerged with striking moral clarity.

Vliet's new novel, Solitudes, is even richer, more carefully textured, and more coherent than his first. Aside from its well-built narrative, it offers us again an eccentric and valuable poetic style. One of the conventional strengths of prose fiction is to be found in its leisureliness, the way it relaxes into fictive reality. We associate the novel with amplitude, sprawl, just as we (wrongfully and unfortunately) associate contemporary poetry with leanness and attenuation of experience. Even our best fiction is largely descriptive, a gloss on perceptions rather than an act of perceiving. What distinguishes Vliet's prose style and places him in poetic kinship with novelists like William Gass and John Hawkes is his ability to animate reality, to enact rather than merely portray physical reality, and to do so with such urgency that the words on the page seem about to dissolve and be transformed into the things they signify—a kind of cabala of the imagination. It is this, rather than any ordinary "prettiness" of language, that makes Vliet's style poetic. And I would be tempted to call his style mere magic were it not for the radical questions his story raises about human solitude and its relationship to the huge and abundant out-thereness of the physical world….


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Jerome Mazzaro

R. G. Vliet's Water and Stone draws its statements out of the simple polarity of life and death. "Passage" defines the dialectic in ten segments that show the insinuation of death beginning almost imperceptibly in infancy and growing stronger until, "after surgeons' knives," a reversal occurs and life battles for victory. Vliet takes to heart Ruskin's description of the soul's need "to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way" as "poetry, prophecy, and religion—all in one." He keeps his language spare, using metaphor to enliven perception and, as in the Noh drama which gives the book its title, weds recurrence to a form of repetition-compulsion. What man cannot face—and thus what he seeks...

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Jascha Kessler

Vliet is an elegiac poet, celebrating and grieving over human life in a nature he evokes [in Water and Stone.] Quietly he speaks of past and present in eloquent, passionate meditation, reminding me of Robert Penn Warren most of all: Like that splendid writer, Vliet offers much variety of form, rich in verbal and imagistic texture and built on a tendency to prose statement and narration. Seldom given to self-absorbed display, or wit for brilliancy's sake, he yet shows his mastery of all the techniques American poetry has offered during the past 30 years….

Summation is the elegist's triumph: Vliet most often gives the essentials of a scene and its story: something witnessed of others' pain,...

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Hayden Carruth

[As the poems in Water and Stone demonstrate, R. G. Vliet] can "do" the lyrical elegy as well as anyone…. The language is put together with obvious care. And Vliet's scope is not limited to this: he has ballads, long poems, and sequences, even comic touches here and there. What he does not have is what one keeps waiting for, as one turns the pages. Something. Call it a tongue of fire peeking through. One does not find it, but only this pre-Raphaelitish verbal prudence, poems carved meticulously, one after another, often lovely to read, but very seldom moving.

Hayden Carruth, "A Time for Giants," in Harper's (copyright © 1980 by Harper's Magazine; all...

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