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and left unfinished or unpublished -- "The Labors of Hannibal," "Homesickness,"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
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
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.
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."
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
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
A History of Small Life on a Windy Planet
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,
("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.
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. . .
I don't remember seeing the paper.
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.
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.
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
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.
at a quarter a mug, slick-gray metal
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,
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.
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,
Devolution of the Nude
David R. Godine, $12.95
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.
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,
("Little Elegy for the Age") McMahon's voice is the matrix in which,
a transcendental sloganeering that got the mind
out of the way of the body.
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
("California") Freud somewhere at some point must say
Odysseus learned as he was fetched
from the sea . . .
something about 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
not this latex model of course but the idea
of it . . .
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
("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
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.
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
("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
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.
can we hold anything dear fast except
("Killing Time") But the basic terrors remain, as in "Scream":
I have heard my children's
by these twists, hitches, crude hooks, and jottings?
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