Tread the Dark

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

These poems follow, in method and theme, the directions David Ignatow set in his previous volume Facing the Tree (1977) and in his earlier Rescue the Dead. Concerns and ideas for specific poems recur in Ignatow’s prose work, The Notebooks of David Ignatow; the notebook entries begin in 1934 and end in 1971. Tread the Dark is another important book by one of the most important mature poets alive in America. The amount of work Ignatow has accomplished since publication in 1970 of his Poems 1934-1969 is unequalled by anyone but Robert Penn Warren.

From the start, David Ignatow has been a poet of the people. His work tends to capture the concerns of the workaday world, but to transcend those concerns and to give them the dignity of generality. Robert Blye recognized, in an essay in American Poetry Review, that Ignatow qualifies as a poet of community, not a poet of network. Blye’s distinction was between writers who speak for and to a constituency and those who write to other poets and to editors.

The first poem in Tread the Dark (“Brightness as a Poignant Light”) introduces the book’s central conflict. The question the poet asks is as old as the species and as timely as the day’s weather report: “How can I be happy,” Ignatow asks, “to have been born only to return . . . to the dark . . . and die?” The first three sections of Tread the Dark expand that question. Individual poems question the meaning of existence, the meaning of nothingness, and the relationship of past to present. Fantasies and fears sometimes assume world-apocalyptic terms; other times, they remain personal and individual, but in the final section of the book, the poet attempts to provide an answer.

If David Ignatow’s question is not new and if his answer fails to comfort, let the reader note that the poet has persisted—over a long career—in asking difficult questions. Ignatow’s subjects regularly have to do with matters of life and death, and rarely, if ever, does this poet retreat into formal, merely literary, poses.

Not all readers will be prepared to deal with the questions Ignatow raises at age sixty-four. He looks for answers to the apparent futility of life, and his answer is as old as his question: devote yourself to others; consecrate your work to Love.

Actually, Ignatow does not advise anyone else what to do—his poems simply describe what he himself does. Though the poems shift from first-person to third-person, the reader is likely to find that Tread the Dark carries a message for him. The “I” of these poems broods over the meaning of life, at one point recognizing the self as a vase (Poem 54)—“nothing/but an enclosure upon emptiness.” Elsewhere, the poet contemplates, or recalls, suicide (Poems 21, 30, and 34, for instance).

More typically, however, the poet recognizes (Poem 62) that his death “must count for something.” The final line amounts to an argument for life: “I live to find out.” In some poems, the poet cannot distinguish himself from the rest of nature, and, in others, he recognizes that he is as self-centered as the physical creation. In others (Poem 73, for instance), he realizes that when he dies “the world will go broke,”

for in me will have been poured its treasure,and, desolated, the sun will standas empty as the wind.

Not the self but the sun is “desolated” by the death of a person. The process may seem slow, but it is inexorable. Ignatow is establishing the validity of the individual human, the single life—which is his, yours, mine. Without us, the world goes broke.

Born to die, the poet seeks to make the most of what time he has left; he spends his time caring for poems—not making them, but caring for them. As early as Facing the Tree, Ignatow’s poems took on lives of their own. The poems seem to have an identity outside the poet’s; they are capable of speech and need to be heard, as in “I’m a Depressed Poem.” They are like animals found “in the bush” but capable of speech.

Moreover, as in Poem 82, the poem seems to provide the poet a passport to safety, enabling him to “walk out of the room in safety” despite the fear that outside “nothing exists.” Robert Frost regarded the poem as a “stay against confusion,” and Wallace Stevens (“Anecdote of the Jar”) thought that the manmade object placed on a hill in Tennessee could give order to the slovenly wilderness. In Poem 82, Ignatow demands more of the poem. He tacks it on the wall, and “The emptiness gathers round it and begins to read.” Art informs the void.

Nonexistence and emptiness take on meaning from the poem. Section IV of Tread the Dark contains but ten poems; they bring the book to its resolution, suggesting how poems give meaning to life and to death. In Poem 86, the poem addresses the reader: “I’ve made you thoughtful and sad and now there are two of us. I think it’s fun.” Appropriately, the poem is called “I’m a Depressed Poem,” and the poem—not the poet—speaks.

Section IV opens with “A Prayer in Part,” in which Ignatow relinquishes order, design, and precision “to seek comfort in release.” The movement of “A Prayer in Part” is toward “somewhere that is not calling us, that is not in us, for which we have no earthly use.”

In their very different ways, Poems 88 and 89 express Ignatow’s ars poetica. A note at the beginning of Poem 88 observes: “A prominent poet receives a national award for the perfect form of his poems.” Satirical in tone, Ignatow’s poem makes clear his feelings about “pure form,” and, by extension, his reverence for life and people. Ignatow addresses the drug addict, the Mafia, the schizoid person, the raped girl, the napalmed man, the incinerated Jew. He asks each if they can “become a poem of perfect form.” Summing up the attitude of art for art’s sake, he says...

(The entire section is 2512 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

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

Library Journal. CIII, July, 1978, p. 1415.

New York Times Book Review. July 30, 1978, p. 14.