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Poetry

Life and Death
Robert Creeley
New Directions, $19.95


by Forrest Gander

The King is Old? Long Live the King!

For more than forty years, Robert Creeley has forged a signature style in American poetry, an idiosyncratic, highly elliptical, syntactical compression by which the character of his mind's concentrated and stumbling proposals might be expressed. In many ways, what Creeley finds essential to poetry is what improvisational jazz musicians like Keith Jarrett and Mal Waldron emphasize, the process of composition. "I see as I write," Creeley has noted, and his poems are less "Emotions recollected in tranquillity"--as Wordsworth described his own project--than linguistic enactments of the emotional conflicts at work and war in any present moment of conscious awareness. Reading his poems, we experience the gnash of arriving through feeling at thought and word. If Creeley talks about writing as seeing, he takes for granted that the poet, like the lover, can see with his ears. Quick internal and end rhymes, jumpy rhythms, and subtle sonal patterns generate the expressive music of his poems. Besides his famously distressed syntax, there are significantly returning figures in his work--those repeated talismanic words such as echo, window, light, here, there, distance, face, place, among others. In the very relativity of their reference and intonation (light changes constantly, here adjusts around us), they emphasize Creeley's insistence on rejecting any "hold" on meaning in word. So the poems propose that truths are ongoing, mutable, and subject to endless interrogations and revisions.

As ever, in his new book, Life & Death, Creeley's very ideation seems often directed by sound and word play rather than vice versa, as if poetic thinking were always, in all senses, a sounding. It is typical of his style, in the poem "Credo," that a series of assertive statements beginning "I believe" come to manifest equal attention to the phonemes of "believe" as to an explication of Creeley's beliefs. When the second stanza continues

      --By your
leave a leafy

shelter over the exposed--person

those newly introduced images--leafy shelter, exposed person-- and expressions--by your leave--which extend Creeley's meditation, indicating that belief can be a shelter over the exposed ego, have been generated most clearly by audition.

Although Creeley's poems have always seemed closely connected, pieces of a singular lifelong project, those of Life and Death emphatically engage not only his own earlier poems but those of a notable company of other poets, contemporary and otherwise, whom he keeps in mind. Consequently, these new poems function, in part, as palimpsests, revealing multiple layers of memory and literary reference. For instance, when we read in the first long poem, "Histoire de Florida,"

. . . truck's broken
down again: no one left
to think of it, fix it, walk on

we are likely to recollect both William Carlos Williams's lines from "To Elsie"--

No one
to witness

and adjust, no one to drive the car

--and the last lines of Creeley's own poem "I Know a Man," written in the fifties with more than a nod toward Williams:

he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

Such "echoes" can be thematic, imagistic, or syntactical. When we encounter in "Histoire de Florida" the line "As if, and why not," we hear the "shall we & / why not" of an early Creeley poem. A phrase from a new poem, "the dense / persistent light," is redolent of an older "quiet, persistent rain." When Creeley writes of being "Locked in my mind," we may recall the question he asked in a poem forty years ago: "am I to be locked in this / final uneasiness." Often, Creeley seems to be reconsidering investigations he made when he was younger or revising his responses in light of an increasing awareness of mortality, a central concern of Life & Death. In Pieces, written in the sixties, Creeley asked

How much
money is
there now?

Count it
again. There's
enough.

Now, in his seventies, there is not enough money, if money is time. Creeley apparently remembers that poem when he writes now, minus the earlier optimism,

he counts his life
like cash in emptying pockets.
Somebody better help him.

But he isn't only growing gloomy, darkening his responses to the essential questions about life. If Creeley is keenly aware of his body's ache and predictable decline, he finds himself also capable of a happiness particular to his experience. Thus at the end of "Credo," he turns to address his love:

As it gets now impossible
to say, it's your hand
I hold to, still
your hand

Such statement instantiates a tenderer, more satisfied and domestic gesture than Creeley described years ago in the "hands unreasonable / never to touch" of "A Form of Women" or in an early poem wherein he orders his hands to

. . . re-
occur, else-
where on
some other
woman.

Perhaps it is domestic contentment which is communicated as well in the surprisingly regular syntax and rhyme of some of the current poems. "'Present (Present) . . .'," for example, carries itself along in mostly end-rhymed trochaic tetrameter: "'What is Williams' (Raymond's) tome . . .' / Where have all the flowers gone?" Usually, however, Creeley uses rhyme (and consonance) in more radical modes, often as a kind of connective ligament that supersedes common syntax. When, for instance, he writes in "Thinking," "Was it book I'd read / said death's so determined," the immediacy of the rhyme, "read / said," jump-starts the logic connecting the two lines with a sudden lurch. Rhyme substitutes itself for the missing pronoun that or which. In the same poem, one of many invoking the poet's childhood, Creeley notes that as a boy he had walked

back past the Montagues
from the ice pond
and rotting icehouse
held the common pigeons

Again, the normative pronoun (icehouse that held) is superseded by an aural link, this time consonance, as the h of house and the h of held snap the lines together into a sense which stresses its own making as music. In any stanza, minor epiphanies of sound propel the poem forward in small heuristic leaps, encouraging in the reader a sense of mass and momentum. And meanings adhere to the musical phrases which tend to be orchestrated more by enjambment than by punctuation. When Creeley writes of the way life's continuum is fractured in memory and reconstructed--

salvageable bits
but incommensurate
chips yet must
get it back together

--the short i in bits, in, chips, and it create a leading pitch. The short u in but and must, the growl of sur and ther, the chime of yet and get, and the three b's and five s's conspire to bind the stanza together, tight as a molecule. As we simultaneously attend the sonal and semantic features of the stanza, the patterned sounds organize and intensify the poem's expression.

One of the longer sequences in the book, "The Dogs of Aukland" finds its occasion in an extended trip to New Zealand. Like Hello, the book Creeley shaped from journal entries while traveling in the South Pacific, "The Dogs of Aukland" shifts back and forth between Creeley's memories and his present. Dogs, which readers might observe "wandering the roads" in many of Creeley's poetry collections, compose for him another, parallel and unobtrusive company "yearning / toward union" (as he notes in the book His Idea). Locked in their dogness, incapable of speech, but living among people, dogs become the perfect figures for Creeley's own dogged battle to escape himself in order to become more deeply involved with others.

So these poems continue the great tug of war that marks his earlier work: inside pulls away from outside, the individual who is redeemed in a company (or family) strains against the isolated Valerian poet trapped in his own obsessively churning mind. Creeley, like George Oppen, thinks of Robinson Crusoe and wonders "when it all became so singular." He "looks at his wife, children, the dog, as if they were only // a defense. Because where he has been and is cannot admit them." Isolation seduces and terrorizes him. But at times, as toward the end of "Edges," Creeley rediscovers that "One is included." "No one is one," he writes ecstatically in another poem, "No one's alone / No world's that small." His self-concern shatters when a daughter calls to say she is pregnant. But it creeps back. He is--we are--inevitably composed of both impulses, the tug to be a part and the tug to be apart. In one of the most expressive of his new poems, Creeley gives each impulse a voice and alternates them. So "There" ends with the writer

   locked in doubt

between all this
   only myself
and that too again.
   trying still to get out

Much of Life & Death concerns Creeley's shifting sense of the place he is in. Sometimes that place is home, sometimes it is his "figuring mind," and sometime, for him and for all of us, it will be death. "Perhaps," he writes of the world, "the whole place is a giant pier out / into nothing, or into all that is other, all else." In "Credo," this image of life's pier is transformed into "A plank to walk out on," one which will not, he realizes, "so continue." The time is coming when that pirate, Death, will say "Jump!" What place then? And how to prepare for it? The crescendo to Creeley's meditation on place comes at the end of "Histoire de Florida" when he laces his own lines around lines from Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar," finding in Stevens's meditation on the way imagination gives form to the world, a singular example of a means of being. Creeley may be thinking again of Stevens when, further along in the book, he finds himself wishing for

. . . just one moment, a place
I could be in where all imagination would
fade
to a center, wondrous, beyond any way
one had come there, any sense

Life & Death is a bony, moving, exigent book bearing on the essential experiences of a particular life, on an endlessly interesting consciousness. In their technical precision and in their lovely compacting, Creeley's poems incur his personal past and present with a sustained attentiveness. At the same time, they engage us as readers. Welling with emotion while they eschew sentimentality, the poems are self-contained, but they admit themselves also a part of a company and a conversation. Privileged are we who lend our ears. Life & Death is a marvelous and important reading of the meanings of a life.

Originally published in the October/November 1998 issue of Boston Review

 


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