The Year in Poetry by Allen Hoey
At the conclusion of "The Poet as Translator," the most intelligent and savvy essay on the topic, Kenneth Rexroth notes one reason why poets try translation:
Translation saves you from your contemporaries. You can never really model yourself on Tu Fu or Leopardi or Paulus the Silentiary, but if you try you can learn a great deal about yourself. It is all too easy to model yourself on T. S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams or W. H. Auden or Allen Ginsberg—fatally easy—thousands do it every day. But you will never learn anything about yourself.
Updating the list of contemporaries (Robert Bly, John Ashbery, and, probably still, Allen Ginsberg), this passage retains its common-sense appeal. Given that, if anything, the demand for "practically unrelieved intensity in poetry" has increased in the 36 years since Rexroth wrote this piece, we have even greater need not only for the forum in which to practice our art when our capacity for intensity fails but the need for the "nice class of people" we meet in this way.
Few living poets have translated as widely and prolifically as Rexroth (W. S. Merwin comes to mind), but many poets test their skills against the challenge, as a cursory glance at the Table of Contents of Dante's Inferno: Translations by 20 Contemporary Poets (Ecco, 1993) reveals. More recently, Stephen Berg's The Steel Cricket: Versions 1958–1997 (Copper Canyon) seems to rival Rexroth in terms of diversity and range. Like Rexroth, Berg is not conversant (or even literate) in most of the languages represented; he indicates in his "Preface," most of these pieces are "based on the English translations of scholars." However, much as Rexroth suggests, Berg's compulsion to work with these texts was born of a desire for self-discovery: the texts "touched me," he writes, "they offered fresh experience, unexpected imagery, strange logic. Often I heard a music that took over and led me to remake the texts." Hence, Berg calls these "versions" rather than translations, much as Lowell referred to his efforts as "imitations." The product of his forty years at this effort (with a few omissions, most notably his probing versions of Zen Master Ikkyu, Crow with No Mouth, recently reissued by Copper Canyon) is a mixed bag in more ways than one.
Berg's versions range from Buddha to Octavio Paz; from Aztec to Tlinget to Eskimo; from French, German, Spanish, and Italian to Hungarian and Japanese. The volume's scope rivals Pound's From Confucius to Cummings, except that Berg does not confine his attention to the anthologized elite. The forms and styles are equally eclectic. Versions from modern European or Latin American texts tend to be written in fairly conventional lineation and syntax, while the shapes he uses to present the more "primitive" texts or texts from non-Western languages reflect the difficulties inherent in such transposition. At their most extreme, Berg's versions almost force us to occupy a middle ground between the original and its English equivalent, a position he describes as part of his process in making some of these poems:
During the process of struggling for the English version of a poem you want to re-create and make exciting reading, there is no language exactly, only broken webs, shadow accuracies, error enraged and impatient—you become anonymous and then leap out into a new attempt.
This sounds very much like the kind of "sympathy" Rexroth felt necessary to successful translation: "the identification of another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one's own utterance."
Individual readers will need to judge how successfully Berg...
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"advocates" (to use Rexroth's term) for these originals. My own familiarity with many of the Japanese texts makes me a little impatient with his efforts; I would rather he had brought the ideas a little closer to English, but then I'm struck by the recognition that Berg probably has brought these as close to his own experience as he can. His own impulse in these pieces is expressed in a line from Paz's "Altar of the Sun": "I come to life in someone else." Further, the raw power of the originals often shines through because of his minimal intrusion, as in this Aztec song:
only we come to make songs on earth to know each other in the place of drums you are a friend! nothing is so far away and nothing breaks
At times, however, one is uncertain where the original stops and Berg begins. His version of Leopardi's "To the Moon" exceeds the original five times over in length and incorporates elements of biography nowhere present in Leopardi's lyric. On the other hand, he has rendered Leopardi's famous "L'Infinito" as a powerful contemporary statement:
That hill out there—I've always loved it!— and this hedge, cutting in front of me, blocking the horizon, the last step to infinity Sitting here, stunned by a dream of space beyond all hills and hedges, I hear silence erasing man's possibilities. A calm starts inside me and stays for a while. Wind roughing the trees, weighed against silence, is eternity. This is the season of the mind— the dizzying gulf of sky, the abyss of self— one distant, visible; one close as my own skin— each impossible to know or to touch, this is the time when consciousness and thought and I are nameless, nothing, not here. I love it— the one true freedom: letting my mind sink like a ship in midocean whose keel is smashed by some invisible fist and goes down with the sweet ease of a rock.
The idiom floats somewhere between Leopardi's Romanticism and our own post-modern, self-conscious variation on Romanticism. For readers interested in the shape and range of poetry and poetic expression, this volume is a must.
Very much more scholarly, Leopardi: Selected Poems (Princeton UP), translated by Irish poet Eamon Grennan, provides a representative sampling of this poet whose contribution to the contemplative lyric is too little appreciated. Grennan, in addition to his considerable talent as a poet, also brings his undergraduate study of Italian to bear on these versions, and the produces a volume of highly readable poetry to introduce readers to or expand their understanding of Leopardi's work. Both the introduction by John C. Barnes and Grennan's own introduction provide valuable insight into the milieu in and from which Leopardi wrote and the process of bringing these poems into English. Here is Grennan's translation of "L'Infinito":
I've always loved this lonesome hill And this hedge that hides The entire horizon, almost, from sight. But sitting here in a daydream, I picture The boundless spaces away out there, silences Deeper than human silence, an unfathomable hush In which my heart is hardly a beat From fear. And hearing the wind Rush rustling through these bushes, I pit its speech against infinite silence— And a notion of eternity floats to mind, And the dead seasons, and the season Beating here and now, and the sound of it. So, In this immensity my thoughts all drown; And it's easeful to be wrecked in seas like these.
Line for line, this is certainly a closer equivalent than Berg's rendition. The best sense of the original may be gleaned from comparing the two and extrapolating one's own sympathetic "take" on Leopardi's mood. (For further comparison, see Rexroth's translation in his Collected Shorter Poems.)
A measure of cultural difference can be gleaned by comparing Leopardi's work with that of his Japanese contemporary, Kobayashi Issa. In The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku (Shambhala) Sam Hamill offers a wholly satisfying selection of Issa's work, including the only easily available version of his best-known haibun, Oraga haru, a diary-like collection of observations and anthology of other poets' haiku. The most familiar example of the form is Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior. Issa's gathering is much different, much more apparently a vade mecum than Basho's carefully wrought spiritual allegory. In fact, Issa tends to be much more genuinely popular than Basho, in general; his concerns are the concerns of the common man, his eye more concentrated on the mundane minutia without deliberate regard for its artistic potential. The inherent problem in Issa's way is the frequent lapses into sentimentality and mere trivia. At heart, however, he is committed to the Buddhist way, and that devotion shines through his work. In the twelfth section, after considering his "bad karma," he continues:
In the midst of my confession, moonlight falls over the gate like a cool breath. A group of dancing children suddenly begins to sing. My daughter drops her bowl and crawls out on the porch and joins her voice to the others, lifting her hands to the moon. Watching, I forget my advancing age and worldly ways. I daydream about a time when she'll be old enough for long waves of hair, when we encourage her to dance. Surely she could outshine the music of two dozen heavenly maidens. Day in, day out, her legs never rest. By nightfall, she's exhausted and sleeps deeply until the sun is high. While she sleeps, her mother cooks and cleans. Only then can her mother find a moment's rest before she awakens again with a cry. Her mother carries her out to the yard to pee, then nurses her. Our daughter sucks with a smile, poking the breast happily. Her mother then forgets the weariness and pain of having carried her in the womb, she forgets the dirty diapers she washes every day, lost in the supreme joy of having such a child, more precious than jewels.
Nursing, mother counts the fleabites on her daughter's small white body.
A measure of Issa's artistry and design of the volume is that within a few months the child will be dead. We glimpse this reprieve from contemplation of karma, then we see with heart-breaking clarity the price of cherishing.
In his versions, Hamill seeks to capture the wide-eyed simplicity of Issa's deep and complicated vision. Overall, his accomplishment is more evident in his rendering of Basho's haibun, a task that shows off his skill as a translator in more apparent ways; the very understatement of Issa's poems might cause Western readers to dismiss Hamill's felicity. His versions are fuller and more realized than those of other translators who have sought to duplicate in stripped-down English the literal effect of the Japanese verse. That is not, however, the way that native readers of Issa would experience the poems. If Hamill's commitment to retaining the syllabic armature of the Japanese form occasionally leads him astray, his devotion to the work more than compensates in providing this marvelous example of a master artist.
Very different in tone are David R. Slavitt's translations of John Owen's Latin epigrams, which comprise the first half of Epic and Epigram: Two Elizabethan Entertainments (LSU). If, as Rexroth has elsewhere suggested, "L'Infinito" serves as a kind of stepping stone between Romanticism and the kind of poetic reverie typical of contemporary poetry, the epigram, with its laconic, balanced incisiveness, is a far remove from what we expect from a poem. Slavitt admits as much in his introduction and provides a further insight into the "elitist" esthetic involved particularly in Owen's epigrams: an Elizabethan headmaster, he deliberately wrote in Latin at a time when some of the masterworks of modern English were being produced. The form Slavitt chooses for his translations speaks volumes about the distance we have come from Owen's sensibility; in place of the carefully balanced Latin elegiac distichs, Slavitt often opts for longer stanzas, frequently irregular in shape though always metrically sound. As in the following example, "Contemptus Mundi," the losses in Slavitt's strategy sometimes outweigh the gains:
Felicem vitam vis vivere? spernito vitam: Vivit enim misere, cui sua vita placet. Ya want to be happy as Mr. Clam? Then you've got to learn how not to give a damn. The fellow who frets and worries all night is the one who is hanging on too tight, counting his blessings, his children, his wife, his nice house and his lovely life … He knows he is going to kick the bucket. He's got to learn how to shrug and say, "Fuck it."
To appreciate that Slavitt's "translation" may be a more trenchant comment on our lives is not to diminish the distance between his piece and the original. At other times, happily, Slavitt has reproduced both the bite and the balance, as in "To Germanicus, January 1, 1600":
Vel munus donato mihi, vel reddito versus: Quos hac donavi condicione tibi. Send me the damned gift, you incompetent hack. Otherwise, send me my New Year's poem back.
Unfortunately, the "Entertainment," variations on Spenser featuring a cast of characters that includes the contemporary royal family, partakes more of the first translation than the second.
Finally, Stephen Mitchell has published what is to my ear the single best selection of Pablo Neruda's poetry in English. The most significant complaint I have with Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon (HarperCollins) concerns the selection itself rather than the translation. Not surprisingly for someone who has rendered some of the best translations of Rilke and arguably the best version of The Duino Elegies, Mitchell has an astute ear for both idiom and music. The American English of his versions is not marred by lapses in diction or awkward constructions; he finds an appropriate balance between the Latinate and Anglo-Saxon. As importantly, one never senses that any of his rearrangement of lines to make the poems successful in English alter the emphasis or focus of the originals. Most of the selections are long, skinny odes, which makes excerpting difficult. This brief poem from late in the book, however, should give some sense of Mitchell's accomplishment; titled "Nace," he translates it as "It Is Born":
Here, I came to the boundaries where nothing needs to be said, everything is learned with weather and ocean, and the moon returned with its lines silvered and each time the shadow was broken by the crash of a wave and each day on the balcony of the sea wings open, fire is born and everything continues blue as the morning.
Readers acquainted with Mitchell's long-time interest in Eastern religions will sense the appeal of this for the translator.
In his Forword, Mitchell notes that he "made no effort to be representative"; instead, he "just took what [he] loved most." What he loved most, it turns out, are poems from a scant eight years of Neruda's fifty-year career, poems beginning with his first collection of Odas Elementales (1954) through until Plenos poderes (1962). And even these eight years are not fully represented, since during this period he published at least four collections which Mitchell has entirely ignored: Navegaciones y regresos (1959), Las piedras de Chili (1960), Cantos ceremoniales (1961), and the almost completely neglected Canción de gesta, Neruda's book that details the subjection and revolutionary action in Latin America that culminated in Castro's overthrow of Batista's regime. Since Mitchell's interest seems far removed from the political, his eschewing of this volume is hardly surprising, and the circumscribed criteria for inclusion do not detract from his achievement; primarily I would like to register my small general complaint against the short shrift given Canciòn de gesta and my more specific complaint about not having a more widely representative selection of Neruda's poetry in Mitchell's translation.
After completing the beginning of this review, I began reading Jane Hirshfield's collection of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins), which includes the piece "The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation." That Hirshfield, herself an accomplished translator, shares the gist of Rexroth's attitude toward the art and craft is signaled by her epigraph, taken from the Preface to the King James Bible: "Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel." For Hirshfield, translation "play[s] an essential role in the innumerable conversations between familiar and strange, native and import, past and future, by which history and culture are made." Echoing the impulse that draws Berg to translation, she writes, "A great poem creates in its readers the desire to know it more thoroughly, to live with it in intimacy, to join its speaking to their own as fully as possible." For the translator, the process is one of mutual seduction: something in the poem seduces the reader to want to engage it fully; then, the reader attempts to seduce the poem into his or her native tongue.
Given the erotic (in the fullest sense) nature of the act, the poet/translator bears considerable responsibility, not the least of which is "to convey each poem's particular strength." This challenge increases proportionate to the poem's distance across culture or time:
An older poem's increasing strangeness of language is part of its beauty, in the same way that the cracks and darkening of an old painting become part of its luminosity in the viewer's mind: they enter not only the physical painting, but our vision of it as well. This is why seeing an old painting suddenly "restored" can be unnerving—we recognize a tampering with its relationship to time, miss the scented smoke of the centuries' passage.
The second half of the essay details the ways in which her own process in bringing the works of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu (The Ink Dark Moon, with Mariko Aratani) reveal the challenges and rewards of this labor. The passionate, caring, and careful sensibility demonstrated is similarly at work in the other eight essays gathered in the volume.
Concurrently, Hirshfield published her fifth collection of poems, The Lives of the Heart (HarperCollins). The poems in this volume show maturation of craft from her previous book, The October Palace, but the specificity and delicacy of focus, particularly on the natural world, are consistent. If these poems display a little less erudition than those in The October Palace, the gain is an intensified presence and increased acuity of metaphor. A practicing Zen Buddhist, Hirshfield shares that discipline's perception that the sacred and the profane, the worldly and the spiritual are not separable realms. Among the finest examples of this insistence on "not one, not two" gathered here is "If the Rise of the Fish":
If for a moment the leaves fell upward, if it seemed a small flock of brown-orange birds circled over the trees, if they circled then scattered each in its own direction for the lost seed they had spotted in tall, gold-checkered grass. If the bloom of flies on the window in morning sun, if their singing insistence on grief and desire. If the fish. If the rise of the fish. If the blue morning held in the glass of the window, if my fingers, my palms. If my thighs. If your hands, if my thighs. If the seeds, among all the lost gold of the grass. If your hands on my thighs, if your tongue. If the leaves. If the singing fell upward. If grief. For a moment if singing and grief. If the blue of the body fell upward, out of our hands. If the morning held it like leaves.
From these few, relatively simple elements, Hirshfield creates a complex music of variation, complete in its insistent lack of completion.
For all their gorgeousness, Hirshfield's poems too often leave out the shared quotidian, the hallmark of Issa's haiku. As with a still life painter who includes fruit and flowers—not necessarily rare beauties; day lilies and asters will do—the sense of the disarray of human use is often lost. She articulates an awareness of this in "Letter to Hugo from Later," a form appropriate to her recognition:
I envy the way you managed to pack so many parts of the world in such a little space, the way you'd go from pouring a glass of beer to something American and huge. I don't write much about America, or even people. For you, people were what there was: you talked with and about them and stayed up late to love those high-lobbed lives. I'd often enough rather talk to horses.
Interestingly, in using the shape of Hugo's letter poems, she imitates as well the too-often dull prosody, the lapse into prose energized, when at all, by sentiment rather than emotion. The danger for Hirshfield if, as this poem suggests, she hopes to find a way to incorporate more of that world within her poems, is to get the force of contingency without the slackening of acuity.
In The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence (LSU), Alison Hawthorne Deming displays a similar clarity of focus when regarding the natural world. Rather than viewing nature through a spiritual lens, however, Deming more often studies the workings of nature, process, and intelligence through a lens ground from a compound of literary naturalism and science. This is perhaps not surprising for a poet whose first collection bore the title Science and Other Poems. Science for Deming is not the test-tube remove of the laboratory chemist but the expanse of the ethnobiologist, and, if the canny intelligence of the monarch butterflies lends a through-line to the sequence, she spends more time noting the peculiarities of human intelligence and emotions. Running at a glancing parallel to the recurrent motif of the monarchs are moments from the life of a rather typical end-of-the-century woman, including the broken or failed relations, the efforts at justifying love, and the essays at making intelligence, emotion, and other manifestations of art and nature cohere. Throughout, Deming displays a range of styles, from slender lyrics to longer lined poems to prose poems. Section 44 provides an example of her compression:
Night. A woman betrayed. Insects gather on the cabin window so that all she can see is a plague of gray moths. She's sick of the body's dumb song, the frenzy of insects for light. Why does a moth do that if it's nocturnal? If it woke up in the daytime, it could simply have what it wants.
The juxtaposition of "the body's / dumb song, the frenzy / of insects for light" provides the basis for a metaphor that extends far beyond the surface of the poem; if we read it fully, we extrapolate a world of wondering. Just how far can this analogy be stretched? What exactly is it about our "body's / dumb song" that so resembles "the frenzy / of insects"? What might our equivalent be to simply waking in daylight to "have what [we] want …"? The balancing of "dumb song" and "the frenzy" in a single line demonstrates a mastery of the effects that an accomplished versifier can achieve in free verse.
Interspersed through the sixty poems of the sequence are seven "Essays on Intelligence" which draw together the threads of the varied discourse. These are usually the most "scientific" of the pieces. Deming's ability to modulate technical vocabulary into poetic lines is impressive; we can become so accustomed to the narrow semantic and syntactic lexicon of contemporary poetry that we forget the wealth of possibilities our language offers. Here is the opening of section 24, "Essay on Intelligence: Two":
Language has been the central event in human evolution. Simple emotional utterances evoked in sex, anger, and fear activate the primitive area near the corpus callosum, that ribbon tying together the hemispheres. No one knows how our ancestors got beyond the scream, grunt, and moan to string meaningless phonemes together until the sounds meant something in tandem they didn't mean alone.
In this volume Deming has succeeded at incorporating into poetry, with no loss of emotive power of linguistic music, a sensibility firmly rooted in the protocols of science. And nowhere does Deming seem tempted to applaud her achievement.
Rather more modest in scope, the poems in Sky and Island Light (LSU) nonetheless persuade that Brendan Galvin consistently keeps both eyes trained on the natural world while he allows his imagination to play. Anyone who has lived the country life, spent time in field and forest and on the water, will trust the accuracy of Galvin's perceptions and, hence, follow his fancy where it leads. "Wild Blackberries," one of the shorter lyrics, displays his skill:
There are places where things tie a knot between seasons— back of fern beds, for instance, against a steepness of trees, places you watch your step, risking ticks, snakes, maybe tentacles of something escaped or paroled from the mind as too difficult to manage. Here, for instance (I will not tell you where), you taste and look both ways, each bleb a sweet completion and tart finality, a trap for solstice light, a lamp down hollow, faint in early dark.
Small moments here that please include the nod toward the countryman's reticence to disclose his trove and the self-deprecating acknowledgment that even for the experienced outdoorsman the imagination projects the greatest dangers. If Galvin does not show leaps of improvement in craft or a wide range of either technical skill or subject, his work continues to please.
As usual, the year produced a bumper crop of selected poems. Since I've groused about this previously, I'll hold my grumbling to a minimum. Clearly, many presses, especially the university presses so necessary to poetry's survival, employ the selected edition for a plethora of purposes, which include preserving work that has otherwise gone out of print, consolidating the work of one of their stable under a single imprint, and promoting one of theirs as a candidate for the majors. Even considered from this last standard, however, some selectees seem less warranted than others. If one reads James Seay's Open Field, Understory (LSU) in this light, one might conclude that this was not the best pitch to make on Seay's behalf. The book's first disservice is its reverse chronological ordering; Seay's most recent work is strong and individual, an interesting voice and intelligence playing with strategies of narrative disclosure. The earliest work, drawn from his two Wesleyan University collections, is indistinguishable from the period style. On the other hand, the selection of new poems, the work excerpted from The Light as They Found It (1990), and the long sequence Said There Was Somebody Talking to Him Through the Air Conditioner (1985), drew me in. The language is more supple and the forms more responsive to his more complex undertakings. Seay's serpentine handling of narrative threads is suggested by the opening lines of the sequence:
There is always one fiction or another trying to trade for real skin and bone, just to turn around and drive that taken character back over the border into phenomena with the story everywhere around him alive. The charge is to claim whatever needs to be freed from fact: road, ruin, stretch of river known by heart, ring or pendant, torn flag, fist in the face, ticket stub, family plot, love and grief so riddled one with the other there isn't even a choice. The character he's become says he doesn't want to die, but he's got only one foot in the fiction, everlasting, the other in the grave of this life. And he needs us conscripted alongside him.
Had LSU issued a volume that consisted of only new poems and Said There Was Somebody (issued only in limited edition), Seay would have delivered a collection to claim attention on the basis of growth.
While Margaret Gibson's case is less cautionary than Seay's, one still wonders why the volume was entirely necessary given the strength of the newest poems collected in Earth Elegy: New and Selected Poems. Perhaps LSU, which holds the rights to all of Gibson's work, hoped to capitalize on the attention The Vigil garnered as 1993 National Book Award finalist. As near as I can determine, three of her five previous volumes remain in print, including the two book-length sequences, The Vigil and Memories of the Future: the Daybooks of Tina Modotti. This is particularly good since the former, especially, is not well represented in this collection; in general, long poems or sequences are not easily digested into selected volumes. In Gibson's case, The Vigil represents, more than any other of her collections, the scope and variety of which she is capable. The four speakers in the sequence are each presented in different forms and distinctive voices to delineate character. It shows maturation in this regard from the earlier sequence which presented only one character, Tina Modotti, and that representation at times, even in the samples included in this volume, seems generic, wooden, although the verse itself is generally supple and well-crafted.
In fact, what strikes the reader most about Gibson's work is less the dramatic improvement or evolution of form and style but, like Brendan Galvin's, the consistent consolidation of craft and sensibility across her career. Her concerns remain constant; her sense of language and line, although refining from volume to volume, similarly demonstrates consistency throughout her career. This is not to condemn or criticize either Gibson's art or craft; her accomplishment is evidenced in the complex, lengthy syntax and verbal and aural play in these opening lines of "At the Ravine":
Within the interpreted world of stone walls and a bougainvillea trained to bloom into the body and beak of a bird, exotic plumage kept to hand and rooted, you have pointed out the prickets of epiphytic bromeliad kindled by early sun in the spreading tree across the ravine—candlelabra, you say, smiling to recall how your mother, new to the language, said candle bras—and so the conversation rambles into a thicket of resemblances, nothing singular but ourselves, and we hide our light.
Many poets consolidate rather than display radical shifting of style and concern. As an observation, however, it leads me to wonder what about Gibson's career, sure and steady as it may have been, warrants the valediction of a selected poems. In many ways her most notable achievements—the two book-length sequences—have been truncated such that we cannot measure that accomplishment. Instead, we are left with evidence of one more journeyman poet among many, which is not slighting praise but not convincing rationale for a selected poems, either.
The rationale for Brenda Marie Osbey's All Saints: New and Selected Poems (LSU), her fourth collection, seems stronger. Her previous collections have passed with little notice and are available, if at all, from small presses. Still, the label is a bit misleading; the volume seems of a piece, with no apparatus—no indication anywhere, in fact, which poems are old and which new. These twenty poems, many lengthy narratives, are organized such that they resemble the selection a poet makes to assemble a collection rather than a retrospection. The poems are spoken by a variety of personae, male and female, spanning from youth to age. All of them, however, are steeped in the redolence of New Orleans: the mythology of jazz, the folklore and faith of New World African religions, and the living history of slave culture. The mix is compelling. Characters speak, articulating the lives behind their lives, the foundation of the dead who remain vital ingredients of the present. The overlapping realms are evoked in the incantatory opening of "Peculiar Fascination with the Dead":
light candles to honor the dead. set flowers on the altars of the dead which must be raised in your home. wear the memory of the dead plainly so anyone looking will see how the decent do not forget. speak of the dead as though you thought they might hear from the adjoining room. keep mourning portraits always about your home. marry memory to the dead.
Osbey uses the sinewy, largely unpunctuated line well; I particularly admire the specificity of the turn into the line, "as though they might hear / from the adjoining room." The dead are not merely a presence; they are that absolutely present. This collection should achieve wider recognition for Osbey's considerable talent.
Finally, although only a selection of poems written since his 1992 Collected Poems gathered into a single volume, James Laughlin's The Secret Room (New Directions) serves as a fitting testament to his career. Few have devoted their lives to the service of poetry as Laughlin did over his 83 years. New Directions brought into and kept in print a greater number of masterworks of the twentieth century than any other single publisher. The works of Pound, Williams, H. D., Rexroth, Duncan, and Levertov, to cite only the cream, have been shepherded through numerous editions; the re-edited volumes of Williams' complete poems, including the tireless restoration of Paterson, alone would be worth tribute. Beyond that, although never of the first rank, Laughlin has served considerable yeoman duty in his own verse. The poems gathered in this volume represent a variety of forms: the "typewriter metric" whose shape is lost in set type, syllabics, a three-stress line modeled after Rexroth, and the variably metered "pentastich" are only a few of the shapes Laughlin employs to explore his musings and reminiscences. The voice is that of the poetic elder, unabashedly personal in reference but also modest in its claims. For this, Laughlin is best served by his shorter, more epigrammatic lyrics:
SOME PEOPLE THINK that poetry should be a- dorned or complicated I'm not so sure I think I'll take the simple statement in plain speech compress- ed to brevity I think that will do all I want to do.
Such wit and modesty will be missed.
Casual readers who mistake Charles Wright for C. K. Williams and vice versa suffer an understandable confusion; their names are quite similar, they're roughly of an age, they've been publishing for about the same span of time, their works often turn up in the same magazines, and both are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Beyond that, similarities are few. True, both write rather extended, often non-linear meditative lyrics. Williams, however, retains at base a commitment to narrative disclosure, oblique and looping as it may be, as well as a concern for the human contingencies. In Black Zodiac, his tenth separate collection of poems, Charles Wright demonstrates a knack for the abstract realm of rumination that leaves one wondering whether the poet has a life beyond his wooded backyard; does he converse with anyone outside his recollection or imagination? Do the terms "form," "structure," and "measure" refer to anything more concrete than artistic templates? In "The Appalachian Book of the Dead" (a promising title), the poet invokes Pound's caution, then dismisses it:
Go in fear of abstractions … Well, possibly. Meanwhile, They are the strata our bodies rise through, the sere veins Our skins rub off on. For instance, whatever enlightenment there might be Housels compassion and affection, those two tributaries That river above our lives, Whose waters we sense the sense of late at night, and later still.
This passage may exemplify what Pound meant by logopoeia, "the dance of intellect among words," but it demonstrates the danger as well as the appeal, for, as Pound notes, "It is … perhaps [the] most tricky and undependable mode." This dance runs the risk of violating one of Pound's fundamental touchstones: "One 'moves' the reader only by clarity. In depicting the motions of the 'human heart' the durability of the writing depends on exactitude." However exactly Wright may delimit the condition of his own heart, once we get beyond his word-drunk momentum, what remains to clarify the state of our souls?
In The Vigil, his seventh collection, C. K. Williams at times seems as apt to lose us, but his poems reward the return reader with glimpses beyond the lap and swell of language across the page. Entering his sixth decade, he entertains an elegiac note more often than before, though his concerns are less to mourn the lost than to explore the complexities of time and memory. In fact, the four poems titled "Time," each marked with a specific year, are among the most engaging in the collection. "Time: 1976" provides the model. Walking "down the hallway towards the living room," the poet has a momentary flash forward in time that provokes "as violent and rending a regret as anything [he's] ever felt." From this, the poem leaps forward:
Ten years from now, or twenty; I'm walking down the same hallway, I hear the same music, the same sounds—Catherine's story, Jed's chirps of response—but I know with anxiety that most of this is only in my mind: the reality is that Catherine and Jed are no longer there, that I'm merely constructing this—what actually accompanies me down that corridor is memory: here, in this tentative but terribly convincing future I think to myself that it must be the music— the Bach surely is real. I can hear it—that drives me so poignantly, expectantly back to remember again that morning of innocent peace a lifetime ago when I came towards them; the sunny room, the music, the voices, each more distinct now:Voilà le château, voilà Babar …
That this occurs, occurs to all of us, only in our minds is no great relief; Williams evokes the helplessness we experience in the drift of our imaginations toward loss anticipated and, as well, the redemptive grounding we can find in the actual.
The actual does not provide the same measure of redemption for Marie Howe in her second collection, What the Living Do (Norton). As an incest survivor and sister of a young man dead of AIDS, she needs to find consolation, as slender as it may be, in the ephemeral threads of relationship—to the commonplace and those who share it with her. The dilemma, as for most of us, is how to extricate ourselves from cocoons of self-absorption, especially intellectual insulation, to get to that comfort. Howe presents a portrait of that fix in "Memorial," a poem about the aftermath of her brother's death. She inhabits her own grief-stricken egoism ruthlessly, laying it bare for us to see:
When James comes in from plowing for hours, stomping his big boots by the open door, he's beautiful, but I don't tell him that. I say: aren't you going to your music lesson? Thinking: why don't you make more money? When I tell him about post-modern brokenness in Caroline [sic] Forche's poems, that can't be repaired, he stirs the old fire with a stick, and reaches in with his hands and moves one log so it sits on top of the other. Then I think: James is stupid, he doesn't know that the personal narrative is obsolete. And I think about how Billy used to call me Angel Face— how after he died we found out that he called a lot of us that. I don't know the meaning of my own life anymore, is what I tell James, and he says, Yes you do. You've forgotten, but you'll remember again. And when I stare at him steadily, he rises from where he's crouching by the fire and leans over my chair, and opens and closes his eyes so his lashes brush my throat and lips and cheek I'm hungry, he says. What do you want to eat?
Although the dramatic unfolding is less masterful than Frost's handling of star-crossed grief in "Home Burial," Howe nonetheless frames the tension in drama, trusting the reader to understand the subtext that emerges from the scraps of conversation, how, despite the apparent denigration of James by the speaker, the poem presents James as the one able to derive and offer such solace as heat and food—the basic creature comforts—allow. Although not all the poems are this successful, this collection provides many such rewards.
The substance of Christopher Bursk's fifth full-length collection, The One True Religion (QRL), is precisely the sort of personal narrative lyric that Howe claims is obsolete. The dramatic interplay evident in the best of Howe's poems is not the staple of Bursk's book; rather, he relies on a good ear and skilled sense of how to balance the free verse line to frame some of the finest evocations of the imaginary realms of childhood I've encountered in a long time. In his "Afterword," Bursk reveals the autobiographical basis for the volume: the child's imagined empire, complete with histories, maps, treaties, and genealogies, that served as a refuge for two brothers whose mother suffered from madness and whose father was ill-equipped (as almost all are) to "deal with his wife's brilliant refusal to accept the world's injustices." On this foundation, the older brother created and elaborated the world of Brem; the younger, the poet, had the duty "to witness, remember, and believe." Part of the ritual was the periodic devastation of all they had created and its resurrection through the agency of the younger brother's mourning. One of the most moving poems in the collection describes the final destruction of Brem, an inevitable rite of passage the older brother requires sooner than the younger. They gather "everything to do with pretend" and burn it in the backyard. "It was time [he] learned the difference / between reality and make believe," the older brother said; the younger believed it merely another move in the game:
As he held the match to all our heaped-up riches, our secret documents, our years of labor, I refused to worry. The point of our games had always been ruin, to bring the empire to the edge of extinction. No one returned from the dead more often than my brother. Bored with one world, he'd invent another. The bonfire was just another stroke of genius.
The fourth section moves away from "The Life of the Imagination," as Bursk aptly titles one poem, into the world he experiences teaching in a local prison. The connection between the childhood realms of imaginative play as refuge and the sorts of refuge the inmates sought is not as clearly delineated as the relationships explored in the earlier sections. At times the clarity of perception and expression that crystallize the suffering of child and family blur ever so slightly, leading away from compassion, difficult enough to feel for oneself, into the sentimental. Still, this collection confirms Bursk as a poet worth reading and watching.
Brenda Hillman is another poet I have been watching for some time. Loose Sugar (Wesleyan UP), her fifth full-length collection, is the third of her volumes I've reviewed since I began this enterprise in 1991. Her two previous collections, Death Tractates (1992) and Bright Existence (1993), derive their foundations from Hillman's study of Gnosticism; in this book, she moves a step further into esoterica, building the poems around the metaphysics and psychology of alchemy. Readers familiar with the works of C. G. Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, and James Hillman will understand that the true prima materia of alchemists was the self, at least from a twentieth-century perspective, so the exploration of this realm as trope or correspondent art is not as extreme as it may seem. Still, however much the language of alchemy was grounded in the elemental (materials were not to be heated to a specific temperature measured in degrees but, for example, to the heat of fresh horse dung), the cumulative effect is—designedly—hermetic. Mystery religions and mysticism (the terms derive from words that recognize the closed and secretive nature of these enterprises) have always been for the elite; their knowledge is revealed and imparted only to those who need to know, those who have been initiated into the ranks. Twentieth-century psychoanalytic mysteries differ little from the Orphic or Eleusinian mysteries; the codices may be more widely published, but Tarot decks demonstrate how hermetic knowledge may be preserved by broadcast yet retain their privilege by withholding the key to the arcanum. Codices, as the name suggests, are written in code.
All of the preceding is especially germane to the attempt to penetrate this newest collection of Hillman's. Scattered throughout are relatively "normal" poems in terms of look and texture; occasionally, however, the volume is "interrupted" by brief passages, fragments apparently interjected by a "visitor" who had first appeared during the writer's "mediations on depression and alchemy … a figure with the eyes of an owl or a walnut half who could come inside a circle and withdraw." Not quite a muse, the figure, I infer, represents a manifestation of what some psychoanalysts call "anima," a feminine principle one of whose tasks is to initiate us into a deeper, imaginal understanding. As Hillman notes, the visitor "came when I asked her / but left at her own pleasure…." This notion is reinforced by the volume's final poem, "world/axis":
The visitor comes, not an invention but an axis of something already invented— (even memory is sometimes an invention as are dreams)
At the end, Hillman explicitly invites us to read her book—and I refer to the book as a composition entire rather than to the individual poems—in the ways we might approach dream analysis, alert to archetypes, to mysteries, to antinomy.
The problem with such a strategy is that many readers will be left to scratch their heads in confusion while others may scurry off into arcana, contemporary or archaic. Hillman recognizes some of the difficulty of the path she's chosen in the poem "The Mysteries":
Writing about the mysteries you can't quite say what they were. Sacrifices? fasting? walking below or sprinkling drops of water near the marriage bed where the celebrants lay briefly with the sacred one before the raising up of objects?
These represent signs only, symptoms of what have driven humans over the centuries to "suffer / over the mysteries" although they "learn / nothing new." The "emblem" is not what's sought; the ineffable is, and it is not disclosed through "research / among the transcripts of the institution," because all one finds is "the breath of another person …" The poem concludes:
Belief in the subterranean rooms has haunted you. Not finding them isn't it the same as if you had? We know you through your writings and your complaints. Of course she found you, though you believed she loved you less than she should have— your short smile, your long tears, your fingers exiting the page, the chords of your mysteries absolute and wild and brief—
The interrupted end is typical of Hillman's work, as if to indicate that whatever can be said remains inconclusive.
At the center of the book is "blue codices," "a cycle of poems on depression and alchemy," apparently the fruit of her meditations. The epigraph, an alchemical theorem, clearly signals the obscurity of the endeavor: "Explain the unknown by the more unknown." The very look of the poems on the page underscores their method; at the bottom of the page, three columns of "footnotes" appear, imaging the process: "Below the furnace, ash." The seventh of thirteen poems, hence the heart of the cycle, provides an example of the group. Occuring midway, it marks the turning point of the process, explicitly identified in the notes as correlate to the stages of alchemical transmutation:
below below In the corner of the heart reserved for action, a pig is eating the poppies of hell; it doesn't look up when I come in; it doesn't need a confirming ideal. If there are flowers there must be dirt below hell where power has no meaning but growth comes out of it. Now a door blows open and this sound starts coming in till enough of the candles are lit— stage 7—the thought red-breasted nuthatch— of sorrow not as an event the alchemist grew hopeful hello you wonderful! as the vapor rose (then, the federal deficit …)
If we hope to penetrate this (not unpack or untangle), we need to work within the parameters James Hillman suggests in Re-Visioning Psychology:
The alchemical psychologists worked with intense discipline, with ethical devotion to their work, careful formulae, and high purposes. Yet the entire alchemical operation was marked by freedom and diversity, with full place for the bizarre and heretical. Each alchemist worked with his images in his own way and none would think that repeatability and conformity of an operation was the main mark of its success. We learn from the alchemical psychologists to let the images work upon the experimenter; we learn to become the object of the work—even an object, or objectified image, of the imagination.
Later, he argues that the true work involved "the transmutation, within the alchemist himself, of the natural viewpoint into the imaginal viewpoint."
This leaves Brenda Hillman's reader with a clear choice: skim the volume, appreciating her craft with line and language, or plunge in, join the process, risking the transformation. This volume, like the closed alembic of the alchemists, is a "solemn and rare" space of the sort Albertus Magnus recommended for the work. It marks a further step in Hillman's development, one that will gather some readers further in but effectively closing the door to others.
Kenneth Rexroth's lifelong project was making sacred the profane, as the title of his new selection of love poems makes clear; in Sacramental Acts (Copper Canyon), editors Sam Hamill and Elaine Laura Kleiner gather from almost the entire range of Rexroth's work to bring together a superb volume of both the poet's original compositions and his translations. The only phase of Rexroth's long career given short shrift is his last, the final two volumes posthumously combined as Flower Wreath Hill. In a collection of Rexroth's love poems, the decision not to include any of his marvelous "Love Poems of Marichiko," the sequence by the fictitious contemporary Japanese woman poet in which Rexroth most fully realizes a totally human sense of the erotic, seems puzzling, not to mention the exclusion of many other fine poems that manifest a culminating synthesis of the erotic and the sublime. Ultimately, however, such cavils should not distract from the service the editors and publisher have done for both Rexroth and the poetry reading public.
Rexroth is one of our most under-appreciated major American poets. I suspect that his neglect owes as much to the little apparent work left to critics (or work of a nature and scope most academicians are prepared to undertake) as to his "antiestablishmentarianism," as the editors note in their Introduction. He was a self-styled renegade, both poetically and politically, and determinedly went his own way, sparing few feelings in his commitment to advocate the truth, at least so far as he saw it. And, as the editors note, this is truly sad, for one will look long and far before finding another poet as dedicated to humane causes and revolutionary ideals, both in politics and in poetry, for, ultimately, Rexroth saw such distinctions as distractions. His early and most trenchant masters were the great T'ang poets, especially Tu Fu and, although not as widely appreciated, Yuan Chen. This provided him with a poetics both synthetic and syncretic, a way of perceiving the world, and expressing that perception, that saw the personal, the political, the philosophical, and the poetic as—not so much intertwined—interfused. My only other small disappointment with this gathering is that many of the "political" poems which flow as clearly from Rexroth's encompassing erotic sensibility as the overt love poems have also been left out, for love is more than the romantic ideal. I recommend to interested readers especially his wonderful "Climbing Milestone Mountain, August 22, 1937," addressed to Bartolomeo Vanzetti on the tenth anniversary of his execution.
A hallmark of Rexroth's love poems is that, even in poems to women, he is as apt to write about filial or parental love as sexual or romantic. Sacramental Acts contains one of several poems Rexroth wrote to his mother and a generous sampling of poems written to and about his daughter Mary, including sections from "Mary and the Seasons" and the entire sequence "The Lights in the Sky Are Stars," in which this poem appears:
"A Maze of Sparks of Gold" Spring—the rain goes by, the stars Shine pale beside the Easter Moon. Scudding clouds, tossing leaves, Whirl overhead. Blossoms fall In the dark from the fragrant Madrone trees. You lie beside Me, luminous and still in sleep. Overhead bees sleep in their Tree. Beyond them the bees in The Beehive in the Crab drift Slowly past, a maze of points Of fire. I've had ten times your Years. Time holds us both fixed fast Under the bright wasting stars.
In addition to the clear expression of devotion, we see Rexroth's characteristic sense of correspondence, almost in the Scholastic sense: that which is below echoes that which is above. As Goethe wrote, "Alles Vergängliches ist nur ein Gleichnis": everything fleeting is but a metaphor.
For Rexroth, eros was as much elegiac as immediate. He continued to write passionate poems to Andrée, his first wife who died at an early age, throughout his career. In their evocation of their love, his tenderness extends beyond memory to a literal recalling of the past with all its emotional and sensual amplitude. Most often, these poems, as most of his erotic poems, are set in nature, where the distinctions between human emotion and the natural processes are blurred, of no consequence except to intensify the sensations:
ANDRÉE REXROTHdied October, 1940 Now once more grey mottled buckeye branches Explode their emerald stars, And alders smoulder in a rosy smoke Of innumerable buds. I know that spring again is splendid As ever, the hidden thrush As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital— But these are the forest trails we walked together, These paths, ten years together. We thought the years would last forever, They are all gone now, the days We thought would not come for us are here. Bright trout poised in the current— The raccoon's track at the water's edge— A bittern booming in the distance— Your ashes scattered on this mountain— Moving seaward on this stream.
As the Introduction points out, remembered love was often easier for Rexroth to celebrate; a difficult man drawn to strong-willed women, his marriages often ended disastrously. But the over-arching passion and compassion, even if only this available across distance and through his art, bleeds through the words. Once more, Copper Canyon has done wonderful service in preserving and presenting the work of an American master in an elegant, readable, and affordable edition. May it continue do so for many years, and may many new readers come to appreciate the work of Kenneth Rexroth.