The Walls of Thebes

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The poetry of David Slavitt has always been characterized by a dazzling combination or erudition and technical skill. He has carried his learning more effortlessly than any other poet of recent years; his detailed knowledge of classical history, for example, has given him occasions for anecdotal poems which delight and inform without arousing the irritation the reader sometimes has in the presence of poems displaying knowledge not previously possessed. The poet does not require that these things be known beforehand; he supplies what is needed, assuming only that his reader has some acquaintance with Western culture. So a poem about the peculiar habits of an obscure Roman emperor will have the same easy conversational tone as a poem about planting bulbs in the backyard. He reminds one that there is pleasure in knowledge for its own sake; sometimes there is a lesson in it, but sometimes it is merely an interesting item, an odd episode or phrasing one is glad to have just for itself.

The Walls of Thebes, in which more time is spent on the ugly side of things than is spent in Slavitt’s earlier books, opens with a poem that may remind one of transient pleasures. “Visions” is about those gifts from the world that catch one up and hold one momentarily, like “those half dozen hot-air balloons in flotilla,/ a progress of dowager queens across the sky.” They turn out to be hard to remember, sometimes; they fade and cannot be saved up. “But it isn’t such hoarded visions that can redeem us/ so much as the hope that their like may happen again.” Despite the violence, and the close questioning of justice and belief that occur in the poems that follow, this hope of redeeming visions does not diminish as the book proceeds—and therein lies its triumph: It is easy to give up and to justify doing so; it is much harder to provide reasons for giving up and then convincingly to show how and why not to do so.

The Walls of Thebes has two central sources of power. One is “Bloody Murder,” about the murder of the poet’s mother, who was bludgeoned to death by a burglar whom she surprised in her house; the other is the poem called “Amphion’s Lyre,” a 555-line retelling of the Greek legend of the musician whose lyre caused the walls of Thebes to rise up of their own accord. On the one hand, these poems say, here is the terrible way things often are; on the other, here is what is sometimes made of what we do. Many of the other poems in the book take their place somewhere along the spectrum between these two points of view.

“Bloody Murder” is direct and honest; if it were only that, it would be among the most powerful examples of a kind of poetry that used to be called “confessional.” Much confessional poetry of the 1960’s relied too heavily on the power of the subject matter alone, however, and not enough on the power of language to transform experience. Slavitt makes connections, both linguistic and conceptual, which give the poem complex resonances and which enable him to open it with a nearly abstract proposition:

Beauty and truth may dally together,but when it comes time to pop the question,it’s ugliness that settles into take the vows with truth for the longhaul, the enduring and faithful companion.The difficult lesson we all must studyis how to be children of such a marriageand honor what we cannot love.

It is passages such as this which have led some readers to call Slavitt’s poetry cynical. The calmly mastered blend of conversational and formal phrasings, the use of slang in connection with traditionally solemn concepts sometimes gives his writing a misleading tone of brittle brightness. In addition, what he says here seems pessimistic enough. The stanza will put some readers off, perhaps, but others will be propelled toward the next:

After the burglar bludgeoned my motherto death with a bathroom scale and a largebottle of Listerine, the policerecommended Ronny Reliable’sCleaning Service—one of a growingnumber of firms that make it their businessto clean up after messy murders,suicides, and other disasters.

Because this is the second stanza rather than the first, its flat exposition strikes precisely the...

(The entire section is 1951 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

America. CLV, August 30, 1986, p. 102.

Booklist. LXXXIII, October 15, 1986, p. 322.

Choice. XXIV, October, 1986, p. 310.

Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide. XX, Fall, 1986, p. 35.