Shadowing the Ground

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Appearing after his 1988 memoirs, David Ignatow’s fourteenth poetry collection, SHADOWING THE GROUND, reveals a man continuing to struggle with the meaning of his life. The intensity of this struggle is condensed into sixty-five brief lyric and prose poems, all untitled, as if such definition would diffuse their questing spirit. The relationship between “questing” and “questioning” is demonstrated by Ignatow’s unremitting skepticism. Conventional pieties are discarded in favor of pantheistic meditations and, more often, defiance and gallows humor.

Death preoccupies the poet, from the loss of friends (the book is dedicated to the memory of the poet-critic Paul Zweig) and dismay at physical decay to mocking reference to waste products. His obsession even indulges in cliches: the self as leaf or fly, sex as obliteration of the awareness of death. Yet the poems also coolly examine ironies about dying: husband and wife alone in their separate bedrooms, united by the question “Who between us/ will die first?” and the anticipation of reunion with departed parents.

Aging for the poet means self-betrayal; he is forced into a standoff with the absurdity of existence. This absurdity is most evident in the Kafkaesque prose poems in the collection. One, slyly dedicated to Dan Rather, articulates a persona shooting down the rapids, “broadcasting to the world my sensations as/ I near my death.” Detachment offers a kind of salvation for the poet, making humor possible, and even transcendence: “I contemplate my/ position/ with an objectivity/ as though my mind/ lives on forever.” Writing provides a way to overcome loneliness, as well as an assurance of consciousness, which for this autobiographical poet is life. He imagines that at the moment of death his hand will be unable to hold the pen any longer, even as “my mind will record it all.”

Like an unrepentant Job, Ignatow argues with the cosmos about his fate. Yet no deity answers out of a whirlwind. The only other voice echoing in the poems is that of the poet’s own shadow—flat, self-mocking, unshakable.