Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

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The tribunals of the title are conducted by powers of the imagination, although Duncan places them in various locations—in the imagination, in the genetic structure, in the dawn of civilization. “For they go about everywhere over the earth,” he writes in “Before the Judgment,” “attendants, daimons not only of men but of earth’s plenitudes,/ ancestral spirits of whatever good we know,” and these spirits, he continues, know the heart’s secrets, inhabit memory, enter conscience, and attend every judgment. He quotes from Hesiod, who says that “they are calledtruly full of awe holy unstaind [sic] by bloodshed/spirits of earth.” Ever the syncretist, Duncan juxtaposes Judaism and pre-Socratic Greek thought: “So there was a covenant made with Good and into its orders I was born.” Duncan is seeking authority, in a historical period when consensus is unattainable, for his condemnation of the proliferating ills, if not evils, to which America is subject. As the corruption reaches into the courts of law and the Congress, into the heart of the presidency, and throughout the community at large, and as greed and exploitation threaten the very survival of the earth itself, there can seem to be no place from which to judge these events, no uncorrupt remove, no viewpoint that is not merely personal and hence trivial. In such a time, how lovely to believe the old stories that Hesiod tells in his Works and Days: that of the young maiden called Justice, daughter of Zeus, who reports all attempted violations upon her person to her father, who straightaway exacts divine retribution—or that of the thirty thousand immortal spirits who keep watch for Zeus over all humanity’s deeds. It is crucial to an understanding of Tribunals, however, and “Before the Judgment” particularly, to realize that for Duncan these are not simply pretty stories one would like to believe, but actualities, given in the species and fostered by culture, of which Hesiod’s texts are at once evidence and inculcators. It is not merely a matter of language: These actualities preceded language and thus guarantee its power. Whether in the mind, in nature, or in the heavens, here they are; people know them, or may recognize and acknowledge them, freely electing so to do, each in his or her own due time. In a shifting reality, they are to humans as fixed stars are to mariners.

There is a spirit of community in Tribunals on whose behalf the poet’s sense of outrage operates. This community is historical—that is, part of the past—but it is also very much a part of the present, since it is made up of the counterculture that opposed the policies of the federal government and attempted to create another society based on trust and justice and love. At times, in these poems as in others written before and after, Duncan appears to be cautioning members of this community against their own excesses; there may be something of this in Passages 31, “The Concert,” in which he writes of those who “shout, leaping upon the tables, outpouring vitalities, stammering,” and adds, “the isolated satyr each man is,/ severd [sic] distinct thing”—as though to modify the high, unreal hopes of the enthusiasts. Yet another way of reading this is that he sees no one as more or less privileged than these people, who at least are doing something to express the spirit within. They all contribute to the concert.

It is as a concert, too, that Duncan views the various modernisms he celebrates (or conjures to dismiss) in Passages 33. “Everywhere in life, death is at work”: The Greek tag of the title is extended in this poem to the fate of artworks, which alter as humanity alters, having their initial conception outdated by the march of events, taking on other meanings as they enter the museums, the entire process sometimes seeming no more than an unending exercise of tastes—until one realizes the primacy of the present, where even the past must come to be heard, and where the seizure that is meaning is absolute. Only by inhabiting the present fully can one stop the passage of time in its movement toward death, and one cannot do so until one accepts the presence of death everywhere. Duncan sees the mystery of eternity in time, with which art deals in its tense struggle with art history and art appreciation, as akin to the individual life within the diachronic and synchronous whole.

Duncan’s yearning to find some belief worthy of himself is everywhere at work within these poems. One wonders whether the poet needs to believe or simply makes use of the structures of belief as so many compositional materials with which to tell stories. It is a skeptic’s question, but then, as the poet himself writes in Passages 32, he is the “Child of a century more skeptic than/ unbelieving, adrift/ between two contrary educations,// that of the Revolution, which disowns/ everything,/ and that of the Reaction,/ which pretends to bring back the ensemble/ of Christian beliefs.” Clearly, Duncan was interested in returning to humanity many more belief systems than that of Christianity. As he concludes this poem, it is difficult not to feel that the answer to the skeptic’s question must be yes:

will I find myself traind [sic] to believe   everything as our fathers, the scientists, have   traind to deny?