(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

This extremely handsome book, produced with the taste and care which have come to characterize the publications of the University of Utah Press, brings together most of the work in Brewster Ghiselin’s four earlier collections, and adds to them twenty-four new poems. Specifically, it contains most of the poems, now carefully rearranged, from Against the Circle (1946) and The Nets (1955); all but a few poems (in Italian) from Country of the Minotaur (1970), and all of the poems printed in a handsome limited edition, Light (1978). The new poems, arranged in two groups, “Waters” and “Shapes, Vanishings,” reveal a finely honed sensibility not yet content with the dazzling successes of earlier work.

Over the past fifty years, American poetry seems to have become increasingly preoccupied with the personal, manifested as confession or subjective vision. What this means, or whether it is good or bad, is not pertinent here; it is noted because in such a context, Ghiselin’s poems are rather startling for the vastness of their scope, and for the reticence of those few poems which seem to arise from the poet’s close involvements with other people. Ghiselin’s subject is most often the place of man in nature—nature in the broadest sense, as when a particle physicist says, “In theory, quarks exist in nature.” Such an utterance takes readers some way from the Nature of British verse or landscape painting; and Ghiselin’s poems, too, are far from that world, encompassing the ocean, the western desert and mountains, the moon, stars, and comets, as well as man, that salesman of real estate, that installer of streetlamps.

Ghiselin’s explorations of seascape and desertscape often lead him to a kind of large statement rare in the poetry of today. It is earned, in these poems, by a close attention to observed details—the precise shape of a rock or a bird’s head, for example—and an attention to the sound of words which sometimes becomes excessively fastidious. Ghiselin has thought long and productively about the motions and sensations of the human vocal apparatus, and writes many lines and phrases consciously designed to produce specific movements of the tongue and throat which, the reader finds when he executes them, have often a surprising appropriateness to the moment of the poem in which they occur.

In his search for precision and memorable statement, however, Ghiselin does not forget that ceaseless change is integral to his subject; and so a certain fluidity is felt even in his most definitive-sounding lines. He produces nothing unfinished—far from it—but he manages to avoid giving the impression that he wants his words carved in stone. His poems are always on the move.

It is perhaps this quality of movement that enables Ghiselin to work with stories and characters from classical mythology. Such material has become unfashionable, mostly for sound reasons; Robert Bly’s statement, that a classical reference means instant death for the poem in which it occurs, is perhaps intemporate, but Bly has reason to be impatient: such material weighed heavily on most of the worst poetry of the 1950’s. Ghiselin invokes, however, only those myths which have life for him, and which he has the skill to make live; and so in his hands they still speak to our condition. As he says in the title poem of his third book, “Only because a man is here/This is the country of the minotaur.”

Most of the aforementioned qualities and tendencies are evident in the first poem in this book, “The Vision of Adam.” This, at about 150 lines, is by a hundred lines the longest poem in either of Ghiselin’s first two books; not until Country of the Minotaur would he again approach the long meditation. Adam—not literally the first man, but a man with the Namer’s name—at the edge of the ocean, ponders his place in the tension between wind and wave, land and sea, wondering how to satisfy his desire for something like truth. At last he enters the ocean, near sundown, and in the darkness, feels the power of life in the sea, and achieves a recognition of the kind of vision he has sought. It is curiously unvisionary:

“There is no need of image, for him who can hide himself perfectlyUnder the shield of darkness,” he thought, “and with naked handsTouch the live God, unbewildered by the mind’s light,Prismatic through concept, coloring the world.I need always in me the Power without shining or darknessFlowing from the fountains that nourishSerpent and bird, ocean, and sun and moon, and the strong earth.These babblings are truth and falsehood mingled.No man tells the truth.”

The conclusion of the poem acknowledges the human ability to possess secrets for which there is no language, but which are available to almost anyone with good eyesight: the sun, the sea, the loveliness of vultures in flight. The poem describes no hallucinatory vision, but the more difficult realization that may come with the hard-won recognition of things as they are. Most of the short poems that comprise the rest of Against the Circle and The Nets are devoted to achieving such recognition.

An interesting example of Ghiselin’s attention and precision is “Watercolor by Paul Nash: ’Folly Landscape, Creech, Dorset,’” which...

(The entire section is 2307 words.)