Spectral Emanations

by John Hollander

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Spectral Emanations

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1099

The decorum of Hollander as he approaches fifty calls for a “Selected Poems”—a display of the treasures of his memory in the museum of his verse. In a style which recalls the intricate prosody and elegant exhaustion of the Alexandrian poets, many of the selections pick over the past, whether impersonally in poems such as “Spectral Emanations” (which is about the recovery and symbology of the golden seven-branched candlestick of the Second Temple of Jerusalem) or personally in poems such as “From the Ramble” and “Movie Going” (which are about the poet’s youth in New York).

Largely a sedentary or indoors or at least leisurely poet, Hollander thinks forward and backward, brooding not only over the past but also over the meaning of his life as a poet and civilized man. The book’s structure reflects this movement, the more current poems first and the earliest last. This serves Hollander’s nostalgia as he draws us toward the sources of his present. Conversely, he begins the book with a prose account of a sunset in August, 1946, saying he wants “to recompose the prior light,” and ends the book by saying, again in prose, that he is conducting a “study of the failing light and what arises within it.” The past in the present, opposing movements, fascinate Hollander, and the syntax of his poems is full of modifying phrases and clauses which support this focus as they impose less a linear than a spiral movement on the reader’s attention.

Light and dark are everywhere in the book. Hollander often observes their patterns in the room he may be in and often looks out the window at the sunset and the arrival of night. In “Sunday Evenings” he recalls “blinds lowering over the windows that overlook/Darknesses of the Park, this room being all the light/In the world now,” and in “Glass Landscape” he presents “His eye, widening at the window, filling/The known world. . . .” Hollander looks at the mountain in “Mount Blank” through a window, and eyes, commonly related to windows in the book, can “like suns,/Dazzle as they face the dark—” (“Damoetas”). Many poems contain instruments of light, such as the seven-branched candlestick, the lightbulb “token of passage,” fireworks “flaring up into significance,” and the “mind’s flashbulb white.”

Light is often linked with another major feature of Hollander’s work: the paraphernalia of literature and art. In “Tales Told of the Fathers,” sunset is associated with a painting by Tiepolo and gets “raving reviews . . . in the . . . west-watching/Windows.” In “Being Alone in the Field” the poet has no “light by which” to “read the field.” “Sunday Evenings” announces “the . . . enlightening myths/Have sunk . . . and we are alone in the dark,” and in “Damoetas” “Brightness rises. . . . Only while the page is turned.”

In general Hollander sees his world as a literary construct. The seven-branched candlestick becomes the seven sections of his poem about it, with the cups verse and the branches prose. The narrator of the prose section of “Green” in “Spectral Emanations” summarizes chapter by chapter what he calls the “pastoral romance” of his situation. In “On the Calendar” the poet fears that the “one bad line too many” he may write will “erase all of him”; in “Being Alone in the Field” he is unhappy that phenomena resist his imagination, and in “The Ziz” he refers to the afterlife as “the/General Grand Collation,” and proposes “cool, textual/Hearsay” as our protection against a naked encounter with the real monster. The mountain in “Mount Blank” derives its reality from the distance imposed by imagination, which sees the mountain as a cardboard cut-out at one point. In all this Hollander wants poems to have the same status in life as nonliterary objects; he says “To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life” (“The Ninth of July”).

In keeping with his nostalgia and taste for the literary and scholarly, Hollander cannot resist antiques of one kind or another. They may be objects which he philosophizes on, such as the old piano in “Kranich and Bach,” or takes pride in, such as the “peacock and gold/Brocade” and the “many stringed/Archlute” in “Ad Musam.” They may be such Neoclassical notions as the primacy of the city over the country, which Hollander asserts in “New York” this way: “. . .if one’s sentenced to a daily view,/Nature will fail him in a day or two.” Or his antiques may be prosodic formats. Hollander may complain about the “Poem taking its shape in a horribly classical meter” (“West End Blues”) and command W. H. Auden to “get off my back” (“Upon Apthorp House”), but his taste is as traditional and his range as broad as that of any Alexandrian poet: “The Loss of Smyrna,” for example, is in Sapphics, “New York” in heroic couplets; “Upon Apthorp House” is in iambic tetrameter rhymed couplets, “Movie-Going” in hexameter couplets, often slant-rhymed; “Fireworks” is three Pindaric Odes in one, “From the Ramble” a variety of Horatian Ode; “Race Rock Light” uses a 12/12/7/8 syllabic stanza, and the last two lines of each stanza in “From the Ramble” use an off-rhyme based on assonance.

For all his prosodic finish, decorum, and brooding, Hollander has a playful and even sleazy side which occasionally comes to light. “Adam’s Task,” for instance, plays with words as Adam, naming the things around him, blurts out, “Thou, verdle; thou, McFleery’s pomma;/Thou; thou; thou—three types of grawl. . . .” “The Lady’s Maid’s Song” submits its meter and rhyme to a humorous and straightforward account of how men take revenge on women for the loss of Adam’s rib to them. A one-legged whore (Hollander might be tempted to call her a “stumpet”) appears in “On the Calendar” and “The Head of the Bed,” and the scholar becomes the sexual plaything of the peasant girl in the epistle “Aristotle to Phyllis.”

Comedy and life-in-the-raw appeal to Hollander, and the latter moves him to be simple now and then, as in “Digging It Out,” where he says, “I hate having to own a car; I/Don’t want to dig it out of the senseless/Snow; I don’t want to have to die, snow/Or no snow.”

When the syntax is this straight and the concern this basic and everyday—with grander and more obtuse matters, with ennui and ambivalence and intellectual finesse all put aside for the moment—Hollander’s poetry includes among the elite it is usually addressed to the living if less dainty reader it ought to remember.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22

Booklist. LXXIV, July 1, 1978, p. 1658.

Choice. XV, October, 1978, p. 1049.

Hudson Review. XXXI, Autumn, 1978, p. 542.

Nation. CCXXVII, November 11, 1978, p. 517.

New Republic. CLXXIX, September 9, 1978, p. 42.

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