R(ussell) G. Vliet Jascha Kessler - Essay

Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, seized now from the unpredictably returning past; plain dramas from many lives that seldom offer themselves through him in the usual cliches of "significance." Instead, through him we enter moments of pity and terror, told out of the poet's penetrating ruminations, moments suddenly revealing the transcendent, the poetry of existence itself made conscious at last, seeing itself and accepting….

Vliet's is a first-rate sensibility and craft; by evoking the past clearly and by contemplating the present carefully, he gives access to the dimensions we truly live in. By narrating what was seen and said in the past, he can reconcile us to the terrible burdens of each "moment in this house." The clue to his whole book is contained in its longest poem, "Water and Stone," a Noh play, or ghost drama. The protagonist, Lee Benbow, a suicide, recalls the accidental drowning of his kid brother in the presence of two picnicking couples who failed to help in the rescue. Their later lives were blighted in consequence, as each person sees it now from the other side of life. The poem is beautifully done, spare and poignant, and would, I believe, act well, like Yeats' poetic plays. It hints at other tragic stories immanent in most of the poems of this collection, a rich and fine achievement.

Joscha Kessler, "A Powerful Voice Singing in the Wilderness," in Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1980, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), November 9, 1980, p. 6.