Allen Grossman has been doing things with tears for decades. "Stars are tears falling with light inside," begins the title poem of The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River (1979). The moon is a "sea of tears." The wind "weeps," and so do cormorants, gnats, roses, moths, and bones.
Being weeps, and Nothing weeps, in the same How to Do Things with Tears inevitably recalls How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin's account of the ways in which speakers do and do not get things done with language. Grossman is everything the fastidious Austin is not—vatic, sidereal, starving, American—but just when the diction of "The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River" seems poised to take off for the stratosphere, the words "Wrigley building" lock us to earth with the hard force of gravity.
Yet mingling sad breaths. And from all ideas
Hot tears irrepressible.
On the bridge, lit by the white shadow of A boy passes this woman, watches her weep, and announces "the fame / Of tears," translating her sorrow to "the long / Dim human avenue." The boy is of course the poet Allen Grossman has already become, and his poem is not an explanation of human sorrow, but a vigorously crafted embodiment of its existence.
The Wrigley building
A small woman wrapped in an old blue coat
Staggers to the rail weeping.
Each book that Grossman has published since The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River has been more ambitious, more weighty, more cacophonous than the one before it, and How to Do Things with Tears is his wildest creation yet. It contains enough subject matter for ten books of poems, including moments of heartbreaking sorrow—moments rendered in the quietly luminous idiom that Grossman first perfected in "The Woman on the Bridge." Yet these moments are eclipsed by the eruption of an idiom that is alternately hilarious, hectoring, information-ridden, or just plain LOUD:
HERE is the threshold of the world, where the mind
is stopped cold. THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN is out to lunch
and a private afternoon with the boy Phaethon.
("More power to them," says Victorious.
"LOGOS is Social Security.") The new poet
smiles, and says HELLO to them all, and thinks,
"This is not my scene but I can get into it."
As this tangle of diction suggests, How to Do Things with Tears is bigger than the taste of any single reader; it makes any possible complaint seem niggling. And yet, within this enormity, hidden on every page is a small boy (here Phaethon, elsewhere Allen) who opens his eyes to witness the inexplicability of human sorrow. "Wipe that grin off your face, kiddo," says Grossman to his newborn self, "This is / the Day of the Dead and over all are shadows."
After the achievement of poems like "The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River," Grossman could have gone on to spend his entire career writing quietly luminous lyric poems—poems in which, as his mentor Wallace Stevens put it, "the figures in the street / Become the figures of heaven." But like many poets of his generation, Grossman was at once entranced by the impression of lyric sincerity and appalled by how much discursive territory poetry had ceded in order to achieve it. A similar dissatisfaction with the intimate space of the lyric "I" has helped to shape the discursive terrain of poets as different as Richard Howard and Susan Howe; but within their confabulations we nonetheless discover moments of crystalline lyric beauty—as if those confabulations existed in order to create a space in which the intimate expression of human feeling might seem perfectly true. "Let the poem of the knowledge we desire," says Grossman, "be hooded / And buried among the secrets of the snow."
But Grossman is also adamant that we must not be kind to those who merely "darken the way with secrecy." The Joycean excess of How to Do Things with Tears is at every second functional, riven with purpose. "This is a HOW TO book," he intones in a brief preface. There are no choices offered here. Grossman's book is made of many poems, each of them stuffed with characters, voices, and idioms; but in all their variousness they stand together to make one point: poetry is what we do with memories, and remembering is what we do with tears. "Every poem, / rightly conducted, i.e., without looking away // "'from the wound," says Grossman as if from beyond experience, "is a test":
whether the maker
of the poem can endure the one coherent
conclusion to which the poem has led him.
Whether he is willing to know what is
given him to know and willing to be seen
as one who knows precisely that.
The determination with which Grossman is willing to be seen is ferocious. He is the old man who has himself seen everything, the "guy with the Zeiss field glasses," the "remembrancer of the world." He must harness every possible mode of speech, no matter how awkward or abstruse, in order to utter the most elemental truths. He must risk seeming ridiculous in order to face the deepest wounds.
"Remember that I have remembered," said Ezra Pound, who also spoke as if from beyond experience in the Pisan Cantos. Grossman recalls this line a dozen times in How to Do Things with Tears, but with a crucial difference: "This is how to do / things with tears:—remember what I remember. / Do not remember me." Grossman's earlier books are mostly written at an oracular remove from daily life; this is why the words "Wrigley building" deliver such a satisfying jolt in "The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River." In contrast, How to Do Things with Tears is packed with the names of actual people, places, and events—as if the visionary, Stevensian poet had forced himself to account for the cultural detritus of the Poundian periplum. But in another sense, no poet could be more antithetical to Grossman's project than Pound, who of course wrote the Pisan Cantos during his incarceration for having delivered radio broadcasts in support of the Fascist government of Italy. Pound asked that he be remembered in the act of remembering; Grossman wants to disappear beneath the weight of memory, which is the sorrow of tears: "remember what I remember."
Grossman's first rewriting of Pound appears on the book's dedication page:
IN MEMORY OF ILONA KARMEL ZUCKER
Remember what she remembered
Ilona Zucker, a survivor of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp, tells her story on the final page of How to Do Things with Tears. She remembers how the Jewish camp police were ordered to execute a rabbi "known to [her] not by his name but by his deed":
When they reached the site of execution—the top of a steep hill—the policeman charged with carrying out the order begged the rabbi's forgiveness. He granted it. He then asked for a moment's time. They agreed. The rabbi turned, looked toward the camp—a place where despair turned to sordid vice—reached out his hands in blessing, and said, 'How good are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacle, Israel.'
Grossman is silent after this passage: the last words in How to Do Things with Tears are not his own. These are also the most moving words in the book, and their power is the truest measure of the "purgatorial mountain of memory" that Grossman has built beneath them. "What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee," said Pound. "What thou lovest best lingers / but does not remain very long," says the less hubristic Grossman, who also knows that he himself has not yet "gone all the way over to the well of tears."
How to Do Things with Tears is, make no mistake, a maddening book. It exists to confound. But however difficult, however ornery, however discontent with mere beauty the book becomes, it is impossible to resist the unironic joy with which Grossman performs the work of poetry.
How admirable that the body bears the
soul! How admirable the soul does live
and looks about!—Therefore, weep! that the body
must wander—tormented by strangers—by death
disgraced! Just so the Ark of the Lord, harnessed
to milk cows by the Philistine police,
was dragged (O radiant waste! too hot to handle!)
until it foundered in that low wet pasture
where all roads run in (I Sam. 6): a wheel
cracked, then shattered. Unbalanced by the giddy
weight of Nothing inside, the Ark was wrecked.
The soul-cows mired at the bottom of the field.
And down among the golden mice and emeralds
ens realissimum in the shit lies dead.
Here is the inevitable mix of everything Grossman can offer: a lyric tenderness, the weight of learning, and a strangeness matched only by poets now dead so long that it's hard to imagine resurrecting their prophetic energies in the language of twenty-first century America. Hard to imagine, except that by embracing what he once disdained as the "dreary language of carnal origin," this is exactly what Grossman has accomplished. "Weird river," says the rising sun as it weeps, "flow on."
James Longenbach's books include Threshold and Modern Poetry After Modernism.