Whisper to the Earth

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

David Ignatow’s new poems do not let the reader forget that he—the reader as well as the poet—is growing old. Some poems—“A Requiem,” “Above Everything,” “Hairs,” “This Body,” and “Elegy for Youth”—confront the issue more directly than others, but intimations of mortality pervade Ignatow’s eleventh book of poetry. Whisper to the Earth is Ignatow’s third book of new poems since 1977, making him one of America’s most prolific mature poets. His poems, like those of his near-contemporary Robert Penn Warren, express wisdom gained with years.

Unlike Warren, whose life has been spent chiefly in pursuit of literary goals, Ignatow spent much of his life working in his father’s Brooklyn book-bindery. His relationship with his father, particularly the son’s “need to be free,” emerges in his poem “Requiem.” There he speaks of himself as “sixty-six, going on sixty-seven” and of his father as “forever seventy-two.” Liquidation of his father’s business in 1962 and belated recognition of Ignatow’s literary importance freed him to devote the greater part of his energy to poetry—and the outpouring has been rich. Nevertheless, until recently, Ignatow depended upon such jobs as a weekend auto messenger for Western Union and as a weekend admitting clerk in a Brooklyn hospital, activities which at least kept his work fresh by keeping him in touch with people.

The opening poem (“Brightness as a Poignant Light”) in Tread the Dark (1978) asked the age-old question, “How can I be happy to have been born only to return . . . to the dark . . . and die?” Whisper to the Earth picks up the question and provides some new answers. Those new answers follow from directions Ignatow explored earlier, but poems like his opening poem (“My Own House”) demonstrate both a growth of wisdom and a refinement of craft. In a prose paragraph, the poet imagines a dialogue with a leaf. Beginning with the basics of chlorophyll and blood, leaf and poet would discover inexhaustible topics, and eventually, from their communion would come such familiarity with the “thought of being buried in the ground” that the poet’s walk “among the trees after completing this poem would be like entering my own house.”

Ignatow increasingly writes straightforward prose paragraphs. His subjects, often personal but never confessional in the manner of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath, for example, achieve heightened generality in the precise language of exposition. It is almost as though his prose seeks the same distance, the impersonality that Ignatow himself seeks in his relationship to life, to the body, and to poetry. As early as Face the Tree (1975), Ignatow’s poems were assuming a life of their own, speaking and behaving apart from him. In Tread the Dark, poems were like animals “found in the bush,” needing Ignatow to care for them—not create them.

The initial line of “My Own House” returns to the desire to see and hear, to know, the thing itself—not a mental projection of the thing. To this extent, then, Ignatow’s purpose is philosophical, for he deals with epistemology, the question of how one knows and how one can validate one’s knowledge. Ignatow’s language is severely denotative: “As I view the leaf,” he writes, “my theme is not the shades of meaning that the mind conveys of it but my desire to make the leaf speak to tell me Chlorophyll, chlorophyll breathlessly.” The literalism of breathlessly underlines the paradox.

Ignatow knows the difference between using an object for poetic meditation and trying to know the thing as itself. Meditating on an object means bringing to bear upon it all the learned and imagined ideas with which it is associated. Bringing expectations and assumptions to nature, the observer will see what he is programmed to see. The Romantics regarded nature as half-perceived, half-created, and Ignatow attempts to correct matters by returning to the creation its otherness, its impersonal identity.

Two later poems in the first section of Whisper to the Earth make this idea explicit. “Autumn Leaves” denies the usual metaphor of falling leaves. “This time I can’t grieve/ over their deaths in yellow and wine red,” Ignatow writes. He concludes the descriptive details of the poem, “They do a dance on the air/ as they fall.” Human associations notwithstanding, the leaves do not grieve to fall, nor is their falling cause for grief. “To Oneself” makes the point even more clearly. It enjoins the poet to admit that the sky “carries no threatening message,” and though it says that birds give “disturbance and pleasure” and the grass gives gentleness, the earth selflessness, it also declares, “You are encouraged on all sides by the impersonal.”

A more complex prose poem, “A Cloud Creates,” demonstrates human dependence upon the impersonal elements and suggests that from dependence upon nature—in this case, weather—human beings can achieve a similar impersonality. A man sees a face made by clouds, and he recognizes it as his own. The wind gives the face wings, and the man imagines himself flying. Then, the face disappears. All the supposed “signs of nature,” Ignatow identifies as existing only for humans. “The clouds darken, as they will,” he writes, and later they are “white, brilliantly lit, and so for him full of hope.” This man who has seen his face in the clouds does not need to order his thoughts, “not while the sun rises and sets and weather prevails.” Such a man, Ignatow’s poem suggests, has assumed some of nature’s impersonality: “It is from weather that he derives, and so he has no faults. He is without fault, he is of the weather.” If nature—Ignatow seems to insist—exists wholly outside the person, if it is thus wholly nature, man may merge with nature without the terrible self-indulgence of narcissism.

The first selection of Whisper to the Earth establishes the preeminence of the tree and the leaf as images, and it introduces also (in three poems) the image of the rock or stone and—associated with the stone—the hammer used to break it. The pattern of the book seems to move toward human identification with the tree (as, for example, in “Behind His Eyes,” in which a man tied to a tree straightens “to let new growth emerge more easily from his head and sides”), but the stone is something separate “that does not bother that it exists” (“Tomorrow”). In “For Yaedi,” the poet’s enjoyment of “feeling absolutely useless,” of living without working at it, confirms for him his difference “from a stone/ or a sledgehammer.” They are both mindless and useful.

Section 2 of Whisper to the...

(The entire section is 2793 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Commonweal. CX, March 11, 1983, p. 157.

Library Journal. CVI, September 1, 1981, p. 1635.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, February 14, 1982, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, August 28, 1981, p. 382.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LVIII, Summer, 1982, p. 93.

World Literature Today. LVI, Spring, 1982, p. 341.