Richard Tillinghast William Doreski - Essay

William Doreski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title poem [of Richard Tillinghast's The Knife and Other Poems] evokes the knife as a passive symbol, like Whitman's broad-axe or Dickey's helmet: a hard, masculine image of potential violence, and yet, in this poem as in Whitman's and more obliquely in Dickey's, an image quite literally of brotherhood…. The knife itself is rich in ambiguity: it is a weapon as well as tool, it cuts open a fish and yet becomes the object by which brotherly love is demonstrated.

"The Knife" suggests that the tie between men is also a tie between men and the real world of objects; suggests that the proper use of these objects is to enrichen their lives, not to kill or destroy or misuse the earth. "The unstoppable live water" in which the brother dives is the stark cold reality of aging and the passage of time, as in "time is the stream I go afishing in." The knife is "saved from time" when the brother brings it to the surface, since symbols, understood, do not age. People do, but the lesson of the poem is that "the look on my son's face," at the moment of birth, is "older than anything that dies can be."

This then is a poem about the knowledge gained in the imaginative reading of a symbolic world—as to some extent, perhaps all poems are. In tone and choice of subject matter, its evocation of the essential love of brother, father, and son, it is decidedly Whitmanesque. The sensitive free verse also reminds the reader of Whitman, particularly in that Tillinghast makes no attempt, unlike so many postmodern poets, to disguise natural speech rhythms with abrupt or apparently random end-stops or deliberately rough cadences…. Tillinghast invokes the symbolic possibilities of the "real" world of Emerson. Like [Louise] Glück, though, Tillinghast infuses the lyric poem with a narrative that is an allegory of the mind realizing knowledge. This is the poem of self-recognition, the genre of Coleridge's Kubla Khan, and it seems to be the definitive post-modern genre. (pp. 161-63)

William Doreski, "The Mind Afoot" (© 1981 by Ploughshares, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in Ploughshares, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1981, pp. 157-63.∗