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Letters


One Art


Letters by Elizabeth Bishop
Selected and Edited by Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35.00

by Bonnie Costello

Why do we read poets' letters? For the insights they give us into the poems? Into the life and sensibility that made them? Because they offer more of the fresh perceptions and scintillant phrases we have come to love in the work? All of these desires are satisfied in One Art. And judging by the around-the-block waiting line for a recent reading of Bishop's poems and letters, the audience moved by these desires is large beyond any poet's dream of renown. Anyone interested in the genesis of art will delight in Bishop's first recording of experiences and perceptions later transfigured into poetry. Those who love "The Bight" as a comic description of a Key West bay, but also read it as a personal, psychic landscape, will find their impression confirmed in a letter to Robert Lowell:
The water looks like blue gas -- the harbor is always a mess, here, junky little boats all piled up, some hung with sponges and always a few half sunk or splintered up from the most recent hurricane. It reminds me a little of my desk.
The alligator calls in "Florida" -- "friendliness, love, mating, war and a warning" -- are expansively recounted in a letter to Marianne Moore, as is the bus trip from Nova Scotia that became, 30 years later, "The Moose":
I came by bus -- a dreadful trip, but it seemed most convenient at the time --we hailed it with a flashlight and a lantern as it went by the farm late at night. Early the next morning, just as it was getting light, the driver had to stop suddenly for a big cow moose who was wandering down the road. She walked away very slowly into the woods, looking at us over her shoulder. The driver said that one foggy night he had to stop while a huge bull moose came right up and smelled the engine. "Very curious beasts," he said.
The impersonal, symbolist character of Bishop's early poetry, misunderstood as a repression of the personal, can now be seen as an effort to give shape and meaning to suffering, as in "Quai d'Orleans," an abstract meditation on the fluidity of nature against the stoniness of memory. Dedicated to her roommate in Paris, Margaret Miller, the poem was written after a car accident in which Miller, a painter, lost her right arm. We learn, too, about many poems started and left unfinished or unpublished -- "The Labors of Hannibal," "Homesickness," and an untitled meditation on the lives of poets, modeled on Fitzgerald's "The Crack-up." The letters reveal the painstaking process, the extraordinary aesthetic standards, that yielded the sheaf of poems we do have.

Bishop often lamented what she saw as her meager output, but her letters certainly enrich our store of literary pleasures. The poet's eye for "the surrealism of everyday life" is active throughout her correspondence, as in this passage to Robert Lowell in 1960:
Yesterday morning at 6:30 a.m. we were awakened by a very noisy old truck full of twenty-two very noisy men, standing up -- ten monks and the rest laity. Lota rushed out saying that this was private property and what was the idea, etc. -- and then in the midst of her outrage she remembered she'd promised one Franciscan he could bring the gang here for a hike sometime, so she piped down quickly. You must imagine this in the full red light of late sunrise, the mountains hung with red wisps of cloud, the birds shrieking, and Lota in a pasha-like huge paisley dressing gown, with red fringes, shrieking too, while the poor brown brothers cowered in their trunk. So they started off -- some of the monks carried briefcases, poor dears, and they waded off through the long wet grass holding their skirts up. They came back about six last night and I went out to talk to them. They had their hoods up and some actually had bottles of beer -- it was like a bad painting.
Bishop readers will recall that she made more than one great poem from a bad painting.

Wary of pretention in any form, Bishop did not regularly engage in discourse on poetics. Robert Giroux has chosen not to include the comprehensive answers Bishop wrote to her first major critic, Anne Stevenson, in which she expounds on her principles of taste and judgement. Perhaps the editor felt these artifically occasioned letters were out of place in a collection featuring the poet's enchantment with life. Yet Bishop's letters to her mentor, Marianne Moore, record her growing sense not only of her own voice, but of her distinct theory of poetry. When Moore proposed suggestions, and even retyped, Bishop's war poem, "Roosters," editing out what she heard as vulgar terms and crude rhythms, she was adhering to her belief that the language of poetry must be decorous even when its subject is not, that art must be a transfiguration of the world. Bishop, as early as 1940, was developing a poetry that responded to the world as she found it:
"Esthetically you are quite right, but I can't bring myself to sacrifice what (I think) is a very important `violence' of tone.") And devoted as she was to her friend Robert Lowell, she did not hesitate to differ with him about poetic propriety. Praising Lowell's The Dolphin as "magnificent poetry," she went on to "one tremendous and awful BUT." Quoting Hardy for support, she objects to Lowell's confessional style in which there is a "mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions":
I'm sure my point is only too plain. Lizzie is not dead, etc. -- but there is a "mixture of fact & fiction," and you have changed her letters. That
is "infinite mischief," I think. . . . One can use one's life as material -- one does, anyway -- but these letters -- aren't you violating a trust? . . . art just isn't worth that much. I keep remembering Hopkins's marvelous letter to Bridges about the idea of a "gentleman" being the highest thing ever conceived -- higher than a "Christian," even, certainly than a poet. It is not being "gentle" to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way -- it's cruel.
Lowell must not have been surprised by this response; she complained to him in an earlier letter about Williams's use, in Paterson, of the letters of Marcia Nardi.

Yet for those interested in "the facts," in letters as a form of autobiography, this collection complements the more reticent poetry. Early on, her high school and college friend Frani Blough (Muser) became the audience to Bishop's ambitions and anxieties as a writer and as a young woman searching for her place in the world. And Bishop later found in her physician, Anny Baumann, an advisor and confidante who helped her through her darkest and weakest times -- her struggle with alcohol, her grief over Lota Soares's breakdown and suicide, her many troubled relationships. Bishop's refusal of despair will be seen more starkly against these agonized confessions.

Periods of calm, and even of joy, fill up many of these pages, especially the early pages of the Brazil section. Bishop's self-destructive drinking had reached such a depth in the fall of 1951 that she decided to take a "crazy trip" around the continent of South America as a way of saving herself. Her stop in Brazil, intended as a two-week stay, lasted 15 years. The first letter in the Brazil section of the volume, written to Baumann, begins "I have a long tale of woe to tell you" and recounts the saga of her allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew, but ends "although it is tempting Providence to say so, I suppose, [I feel] happier than I have felt in ten years." With her hostess in Brazil, Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop formed the first home she had ever known. The letters from the `50s abound in enthusiastic, if also at times satiric, descriptions of Brazil, its unruly landscape and culture, its intense political life. In these years Bishop occupies herself with projects for dwelling -- building a house in the mountains, a studio for writing, and translating the diary of a Brazilian girl, as if reconstructing childhood on this new ground. But by the early '60s Bishop's relationship with Lota had begun to erode, and this happy episode, already disrupted by Lota's nervous exhaustion, Bishop's drinking and infidelity, and periods of separation, came to a definitive end in 1967. After Lota's death, Bishop tried life in California briefly, then a short return to Brazil, but these efforts at home ended painfully as well. New England, where she was born, where she came to teach in 1970, where she completed many of the poems in Geography III, and where she died in 1979, offered a space for remembering rather than for dwelling.

The remarkable flux of addresses heading these letters -- New York, Key West, Paris, Maine, North Carolina, Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Nova Scotia, Boston, and on and on -- gives graphic force to her themes of exile. Her "questions of travel" answer themselves: "`Should we have stayed at home /wherever that may be?'" For Bishop, home would only be an interlude in a life of inevitable travel. Yet the vision of the correspondence is that of the poetry: "all the untidy activity continues /awful but cheerful."


Poetry



Collected Poems

Thom Gunn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35.00

by Tom Sleigh

Eighteen years ago, on a spring night in Baltimore, I heard Thom Gunn read to an edgy auditorium: most were enthralled, though some expressed skepticism about "the talking dog," Gunn's animal alter-ego in his poem "Yoko." The intelligent sweetness and rigor of that poem -- that anyone could so forthrightly speak from a dog's viewpoint about the world's richness of smells, excrement an opportunity for nose and brain to speculate on "how what is rich and fierce when excreted/becomes weathered and mild/but always interesting" -- offended several of my acquaintance with its unabashed sophistication: formal precision in diction was not how a dog ought to speak. I confess that I too was bewildered by Gunn's poems -- they displayed singular nerve, but also had the aplomb of traditional formal achievement: his motorcyclists were as much courtiers as motorcyclists, secular reincarnations of Fulke Greville, adepts of philosophical speculation and metaphysics: "My human will cannot submit/To nature, though brought out of it." Yet in a poem like "The Goddess" Gunn understood the sexual desire of a soldier looking for a pick-up -- although the soldier's hunger for "a woman, any woman/her dress tight across her ass/as bark in moonlight" was only another instance of Proserpina's springtime imperative to the earth to bud and bloom.

I had never heard poetry like this before: intellect conceded nothing to emotion, and because of that resistance, both seemed stronger. The nascent poets of my own generation were squeamish about the place of intellect in poetry. In part this was defensive, the beginner's anxiety about not knowing enough, of having nothing to lean on -- not even talent, merely the promise of talent. But it was also a muzzy kind of aesthetic class warfare: intuiting our shortcomings but unable to stare them full in the face, most of my fellow poets viewed "The Tradition" with prickly animus, since it was clearly built on formal premises that demanded a virtuosity none of us possessed, or could imagine possessing. But Gunn's virtuosity was as much due to "The Tradition" as to his openness to "other" traditions sanctioned by poets we'd barely heard of or were just getting to know: early Williams, Pound, Bunting; Creeley, Duncan, the Ginsberg of "Howl," "Wales Visitation," "Kaddish"; Mina Loy as opposed to H.D.

It's a commonplace to call Gunn a hybrid, but not so easy to identify the oppositions which mark his poems: post-war London wariness/late '60s San Franciscan tolerance; rhymed verse/intractable subject matter; free verse/scrupulously cool autobiography; the realm of the senses and sexual adventure/understatement and casual reserve. But there are other, more fundamental paradoxes: Samuel Johnson cautioning Boswell that he needn't experience evil in order to know, and therefore shun it, is counsel that Gunn would agree with in theory. Yet Boswell surely has the last word in Gunn's romance with experience, which elevates the idea of risk to a central moral quandary: in "In Time of Plague" the poet considers whether or not to share a needle with two "fiercely attractive men," asking himself, "am I a fool/and they direct and right, properly/testing themselves against risk,/as a human must and does,/or are they the fools, their alert faces/mere death's heads lighted glamorously?" Risk is also synonymous with eros in "New York," in which the poet likens lovemaking to his partner's dangerous, but exhilarating, occupation as a high-rise construction worker; in "The Idea of Trust" it becomes the marker by which trust is measured, since it implies a willingness to chance betrayal. And in "The Man with Night Sweats," risk and trust counter-balance one another: "I grew as I explored/The body I could trust/Even while I adored/The risk that made robust . . . ."

But antinomies eventually frustrate -- the greatness of Gunn's poems inheres in how his moral intelligence constantly dramatizes to itself the rests and holds of its discoveries: the processes of his mind in motion achieve a hallucinatory vividness so intensely personal that Gunn seems a far more intimate writer than poets more forthrightly autobiographical. A loose analogue is the effect of St. Augustine's Confessions which insists that self-revelation discipline itself to transcendent forms. Gunn is clearly not a Christian so the forms he intuits and serves are more like what Eve discovers after she eats the apple in Milton's Paradise Lost: knowledge, then experience. And I would add to these, in addition to risk and trust, change, friendship (sexual and Platonic), limits of judgement and of personal identity.

When I survey my list of Gunn's abiding themes, I'm a little surprised to note that friendship has taken the place of love. And yet Gunn's sense of eros (especially in his last four books, Moly, Jack Straw's Castle, The Passages of Joy, and The Man with Night Sweats), has little to do with exclusive possession of his partners, evincing more the qualities one expects from friendship: empathy with scrupulous limits; a wary delight in what your friend can and cannot give; a tolerance for other people's claims on your friend's attentions.

This detached attachment finds expression in a poem like "Sweet Things" in The Passages of Joy. Humorous, unburdened by possessiveness, the poem portrays its speaker's anticipation of a chance sexual encounter by celebrating his prospective partner: "How handsome he is in/his lust and energy, in his/fine display of impulse." These lines typify a bohemian ethic of pleasure which reflects how deeply and seriously Gunn took the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and which has become central to his work since he wrote this passage in "Touch": ". . . the place . . . seeps/from our touch in/continuous creation, dark/enclosing cocoon round/ourselves alone, dark/wide realm where we/walk with everyone." The possibility of orgiastic union is wonderfully unsettling in a writer whose poetic roots are in part so traditional. Heterosexual mores, and the tropes they often generate, are frequently so conditioned by monogamy that poems like "Sweet Things" or "Touch" come to seem like quiet, but radical, revisions of love poetry in English.

But it's a little dreary to frame Gunn's work in terms so abruptly abstract, a too-calculating and narrow assessment: how to speak about poems which have gained such a central place in imagination that they are often like the voices of one's own most private and valued reveries?

The Man with Night Sweats is so rooted in particulars that it seems almost patronizing to refer to it as a book about AIDS. The great elegies in the concluding section record individual lives and deaths, each sufferer achieving an irreducible identity. In these poems Gunn's style -- spare, lucid, unfussily formal -- is marvelously equipped to render details of lives; make character judgements; intuit the emotional complexity of personalities corroding under ferocious onslaughts of physical debility and change. But Gunn never intrudes on these lives by pushing himself into the foreground -- he never appropriates his subjects' sufferings for stylistic bravura.

The poet's compassionate restraint in portraying the processes of dying and grief accounts for the coolness of tone characteristic of these elegies. Empathy, Gunn implies, is severely bounded by the limits of personal identity and can take us only
so far in understanding other peoples' emotions. And yet his choice to honor these limits and downplay his subjects gives
the reader greater access to such highly charged material.

This paradox informs "Lament," in which Gunn so skillfully dramatizes the story of a friend's hospitalization and death that the intimacy we feel toward this young man almost equals the poet's own. Nevertheless, Gunn's formality in diction and technique (he uses run-on couplets) puts the reader on official notice that certain traditional standards of decorum will be maintained. Once the first few couplets have established this understanding between reader and writer, the balance between decorum and intimacy helps make the poem a place of communion -- though only if we stretch ourselves through the discipline of contemplating the young man's hope, the final workings of his pain.

Perhaps it's time to repatriate the notion of love, friendship being too partial a term to express the magnitude of selflessness that Gunn's Collected Poems communicates to a reader. Yet how reticent Gunn is in casting his persona as a lover, his overt love poems developing such highly specified contexts that they resist the critic's interest in flashy generalization. Not surprisingly, "The Hug," "The Differences," "Philemon and Baucis," and "Odysseus to Hermes" (all from The Man with Night Sweats) mainly focus on the actions of others: the speaker becomes so absorbed in the significance of those actions that sometimes the poems seem on the verge of bypassing the speaker entirely.

And yet the speaker's self-abnegation has its rewards, though to perceive these depends on giving oneself over to experience as opposed to trying to master it. In "The Differences" Gunn remembers a time ". . . When casually distinct we shared the most/And lay upon a bed of clarity/In luminous half-sleep where the will was
lost." The lovers "share the most" by maintaining their separate identities, not by merging; and yet their simultaneous separateness and communion aren't accomplished by acts of will, but by the grace conferred on them by clarity.

In keeping with this unwilled, unsettled selflessness is Gunn's notion of love as constant process, "invented in the continual revelation." The content of that revelation is expressed in "Odysseus to Hermes" as the ability "to find again that knack/of opening my settled features,/ creased on themselves,/to the astonishing kiss and gift/of the wily god to the wily man." To keep open to the spontaneous visitations and seductions of the cunning Hermes -- inventor of the lyre, god of crossroads, of thieves, luck, wealth, and fertility, conductor of souls to Hades -- requires what Gunn's poems show him peculiarly fit for: the ability to give up the self to change in others, to change in oneself and in the world. In that sense, for all Gunn's reticence in putting himself forward as a lover, his devotedly impersonal attachments make him one of the great love poets in English.


A History of Small Life on a Windy Planet

Martha Collins
University of Georgia Press,
$20.00 (cloth) $9.95 (paper)

by Fred Marchant

In A History of Small Life on a Windy Planet Martha Collins lets the run-on sentence run nearly wild. Throughout the book she fuses and splices together strings of clauses, grammar be-damned, as her meanings exfoliate and her associations tumble across and down the page. In her last book, The Arrangement of Space, Collins presented an aesthetic of composure: a spare, elliptical line, with finely-etched feelings and perceptions. In History, Collins seems to have relinquished that composure and unleashed some quick-moving, Aeolian energies. Here the boundaries of consciousness and selfhood have become wonderfully porous, allowing the world -- in all its raucous, distracting, surprising transformations -- to come rushing in. The book begins emblematically with a border-crossing: Hasta luego and over you go and it's not
serapes, the big sombreros, not even coyotes,
rivers and hills, though that's more like it, towers
with guards, Stop! or we shoot and they do but you don't
need a border for that, a fence will do, a black
boy stuck to its wire like a leaf, a happy gun
in the thick pink hand that wags from the sleeve, even
a street, the other side, a door, a skin, give
me a hand, and she gives him a hand, she gives him both
her hands, the bones of her back are cracking, the string
has snapped, she's falling, she's pleated paper, paper
is spreading, and there you are again, over
the edge, you open your hands and what have you got. . .
("The Border") This is a vesuvial opening, and the effort seems to be to induce in the reader some associative whiplash as we move through a literal border-crossing to a city scene involving a black boy and what might be a white cop and a gun in between them, then onto what perhaps is a love-scene, a woman giving a man a hand, then both, and perhaps those bones are cracking because of a straining birth (another border-crossing?). Then a slipping over the edge, a string snapping, a free-fall, but into what? The writing here is both breathless and breathtaking. Why this vertiginous style, though? One initially suspects that the intent of these run-ons is a "wind-blown" feel, the structure of grammar deformed under the pressure of gales in personal life and public history. But I don't think Collins sees the run-on sentence in an essentialistic way. Instead, she uses them relationally, in comparison to other poems in the book, poems where the grammar is perfect and yet meaning is either absent or abominable. "Testimony," a five-stanza poem, each line of which is a nicely ordered little world, opens with: There was no paper.
I don't remember seeing the paper.
The paper I saw I don't remember.

Destroying paper is something I do.
There are good reasons for doing it.
One of the reasons is not forgetting.

Of course I assumed he'd given the orders.
The orders he signed I didn't see.
I don't remember the orders I saw. This could be Ollie North speaking before Congress. It could even be a transcript. But in the context of this book, it is also the poet's mocking of the language of the stonewall. These are duplicitous sentences, neat and trim and violent, and this the banal voice of our kind of evil. Or rather, one of those voices. Another is the infantile babble of war-mongering. "Little Boy" is not only the name of one of the first atomic bombs, but it is also Collins's image of the generals who "speak//of wargasm, everything going off/at once, and what do we say to that?" Such a general, says the poet, is like a little boy with popgun under his pillow drifting to sleep after shooting everything in sight, and ready to wake up in the morning, confident he can start all over again.

Another set of poems in this book crackle with energy clustering around violence and sexuality. In "Her Mother Said," Collins begins with a trial account of a brutal rape, one in which the rapist ripped his victim's entrails out with his hands. At the end of the poem the speaker associates to "a hand in a chicken, my mother's hand, reddish brown and yellow stuff." Collins is horrified not only at the violence, but at the knowledge that only the thinnest of membranes separates us from the monstrous. "Slug," another poem about sexual violence, moves in a numbed-out associative realm. It begins with a dead garden slug whose phallic shape leads the speaker to "stories told/by the wife of the doctor who thrust/his tongue in the young girl's mouth. . . ." The poem ends with that young girl's trauma: the softness between her small legs gone ashy, dust
of being dead, brain-dead, dead-drunk
at a quarter a mug, slick-gray metal
without a face, sliding into the slot. You can see how the associations have spun out to include not only the feeling of being dead, but the feeling of becoming later in life some sort of sexual vending machine, with the counterfeit slugs -- without a face -- being what the traumatized person opens up to.
The wind-blown on this planet are not always violent with one another. In "Field," human love is imagined as a field "with particles stirred/into being where we touch." The title poem of the collection is a little more puzzled about love, how we are blown from one to another, how we pass among each other like notes among school-children, how we long to be anchored and cannot bear to be so. The most tender poem in this book is "Wrapped," an elegy for the poet's father. The speaker imagines that the shedding of the human is a long process of unwrapping the flesh, the self, and all the spiritual residues deeper in.

Dear flesh that held me, arms, lips, This
could be a better world, dear words, thoughts,

senses gone, ashes boxed beneath a tree,
but his arm rose as he laid him down, back

he swam, cell by cell, fingers, toes,
limp buds gone, a better world, head

knot, tail, two cells, one a single world,
unwrapped of flesh, splitting, thought, wrapped

in flames, wrapped in God, dear shoulder,
father, ashes in the warming, swaddling ground. This is writing of the highest order. The syntax has been stretched into a prayer which cups the significance of one of the small pieces of life on our planet. Does any aesthetic strategy, does any sentence structure ever serve a more humane function? Questions of grammatical correctness or rational coherence are less important than what is achieved by the poem's expressionism. And what is true of this poem is typical of the book as a whole. In the midst of the whirlwind, in the midst of sentences crowded with competing and heart-rending pressures, one comes away from this book with the sense that here is a voice that has managed to make temporary but expansive shelters of meaning. A History of Small Life on a Windy Planet is a place to turn to in the storm. 


Devolution of the Nude
Lynne McMahon
David R. Godine, $12.95

Crossroads
David R. Slavitt
Louisiana State University Press,
$15.95 (cloth) $8.95 (paper)

by Rachel Hadas

Lynne McMahon's Devolution of the Nude and David R. Slavitt's Crossroads both present worlds crowded with knowledge and apprehension. McMahon's spaces are memorably cluttered; reading her can be like picking one's way through an attic chock-full of arresting oddities. Slavitt's breadth and width of references, on the other hand, do not mitigate a certain bleakness. McMahon abhors a vacuum. One of
her characteristic ways of going to work is to take an object or idea -- a pacifier, the notion of the nude, hay fever, a song title -- and move out from there into a rich web of associations, following the threads of thought as far as they will go. The resulting mini-essays on a variety of topics are extravagant in the Emersonian sense, meandering through widely disparate images, layers of time, and tones of voice while -- at their best -- maintaining the charged atmosphere without which poetry goes flaccid.

McMahon is not afraid to pack her words tightly. Not for her the portentous bareness favored by so many contemporary lyric poets; she has a lot to say, some of it startling and beautiful. The tatterdemalion aggregate's slangy shorthand
cutting through to God or beauty was a kind of beauty,
a transcendental sloganeering that got the mind
out of the way of the body.
("Little Elegy for the Age") McMahon's voice is the matrix in which,
as this little elegy unfurls, Marianne Faithfull, Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and the front curb are all credibly, indeed compellingly, suspended. One disadvantage of McMahon's method is that it becomes a bit predictable. Poem after poem in this collection is a vessel brimming over with ideas, quotes, odd bits of information or quotation loosely strung together. Every poet has her or his own way of composing a work, however, and there's even a kind of pleasure in recognizing a characteristic turn of mind: oh, so this is how she is going to get from here to there. But predictability is less gratifying as subject matter than as method. Hopkins and Whitman, Odysseus and Nausicaa, Freud and Wordsworth and Napoleon are mesmerizing figures, and sometimes McMahon's language does them justice, placing them authoritatively in the poem and hence the reader's imagination, as in "Hopkins and Whitman," too long to quote, but itself a useful compendium of the two poets' own words. But elsewhere, her language goes flat:   Imagine California
as this second language, the one

  Odysseus learned as he was fetched
from the sea . . .
("California") Freud somewhere at some point must say
  something about it,
not this latex model of course but the idea
  of it . . .
("Artifact") A more troubling feature in many of these poems is a stylistic quirk best evoked by the phrase familiar from The New Yorker of yore: "Block that metaphor!" McMahon's language sometimes grows overly busy
and preening -- whether in an effort to entertain or as a tic of habit hardly matters. The resulting overkill is a distraction from the (usually interesting) argument of the poem itself. In "Safety," I tried to trace the trope of the train, which indeed recurs at the close of the poem, but was soon lost in figures whose very plenitude made them nonsensical. October approaches with its first boxcar
of winey air; the trees' red galaxies

crazing the squirrels
as summer uncouples and chuffs away.

Here, the suburbs begin their winter
soups and bread, kitchen smells

leaking out into the abandoned playgrounds
whose swift intrigues

and configurations of exclusion and grace
dissolve in the brothy call to home.
("Safety") The poem by this point has forfeited our curiosity with its triple axles of ornate self-consciousness. David Slavitt, who curbs his exuberance, has produced in Crossroads, his twelfth collection of poems, a book shot through with sardonic wit and gleams of tenderness, but still essentially a book full of dread. The malaise of an aging body and revulsion at the spirit of our time make themselves felt behind almost every poem, the more movingly for being often restrained or (as in "The Gig") dramatically imagined. When Slavitt addresses a beloved granddaughter, the ache of knowledge, elegy, and apprehension is all the more poignant in a tender context. A beautiful poem entitled "Cape Cod Snapshot" is big enough to accommodate both love and fear, moving as it does from a focus on the little girl to the omnipresence of danger to the writer's awareness of himself as only incidentally grandfather -- he is also beholder and writer. A truncated quote will have to suffice: She
is beautiful. That she happens also to be
my granddaughter is almost beside the point,
which is that the space is all but overwhelming;
that the wind, indifferently tousling hair and grass,

is dangerous; that we must snatch from its powerful
jaws whatever we can. Our eyes are down,
like hers, to find a path, but we look up
at such moments as this. The photograph
enlarges, one might say who didn't claim
kinship, as I do. But I wasn't there, could not
have pressed a button to freeze or seize this image
from the slipstream of her hurtle through childhood.
("Cape Cod Snapshot") Other poems here beg (vainly) for quotation because of the paradoxical truths they pithily tell about being a writer ("Rapture"; "To His Books"; "Novelists and Poets"). Wit and wisdom are always in short supply, but Slavitt has a quality even more difficult to find among poets: he is vehement, even passionate, without simplifying. His voice is ironic without losing its urgency. The balance of ardor and appetite with the ever-present threat of mortality -- worse, of inarticulateness, dumbness, oblivion -- makes for a powerfully unsentimental book. McMahon and Slavitt both have moving poems about the terrors of nighttime; but whereas she weaves an intricate web of language, Slavitt is haunted by the imminence of silence. Writing helps: How
can we hold anything dear fast except
by these twists, hitches, crude hooks, and jottings?
("Killing Time") But the basic terrors remain, as in "Scream": I have heard my children's
moans in the night . . . From fears that troubled their dreams,
I could not protect them: I could not protect my mother
and cannot defend myself. That initial scream's
open parenthesis closes at last with another.

Drowning is also nastily silent, for one
wants resonance, to shriek an instant in air.
It's little to ask, when all other hope is gone.
Defiance, at that pitch, is a kind of prayer. 

Originally published in the June/September 1994 issue of Boston Review



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