Poetry In Review: Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky

Here are four outstanding new books of poetry, all of which I recommend wholeheartedly. They stand out splendidly against the run of the mill highbrow and low brow Artique that in poetry as in music, film, fiction ask for attention – the faddish, the posing, the merely good-ish, the eager, the aloof, the plausibly honored, the over-publicized, the justly ignored. All of that (along with good new books omitted for lack of time in space) this chronicle will put aside, and I will write only about books I admire.

But before discussing each volume in some detail, and before I try to name the qualities I think these poets of different kinds in ages share, the Chronicle form requires a little prefatory digression.

Horsemanship, a devout trainer and rider might tell you is the worthiest of all human pursuits, the epitome of civilization. Demanding kindness as well as discipline, trust as well as courage, understanding as well as intuition, the art of horsemanship represents the noblest attainment of consciousness in at once accepting animal nature and guiding it. The central ingredient in the tragically beautiful, short-live culture of the Plains Indians, this art has also given European languages their vocabulary for what is noble or distinguish: the chevalier, the caballero, the chivalrous.

As in any pursuit, between the body and mind comes the art.

Of course, by similar rhetoric, the saxophone player could point out that in this instrument we have joined the substance is most crucial to human civilization, the wood of the reed, the metal of the body, and the animal hide of the pads, producing a sensuously curved object whose gold and pearl delight the eye while for the ear and produces an ethereal yet erotic music where the spirits of Europe and Africa attain perfect marriage.

In other words, the pedantry of any pursuit can make a case for itself a supreme, which was Sir Philip Sidney's point in the beginning of his “Apology for Poetry” with several paragraphs reminiscing about his Italian horse riding instructor's passionate celebration of his own metier, which I have loosely paraphrased here. Sidney's passage has an interesting echo of Ezra Pound's memorable dictum the poetry is a centaur. That is, in prose one must shoot an arrow skillful enough to strike a target in the bull's-eye. In poetry, one must do the same thing, except from a galloping horse.

The horse, I take it, represents the bodily part of poetry: the sound. Leaving aside the superiority of one pursuit over another, that formulation helps to find a particular genius of poetry. As in any pursuit, between the body and mind comes the art: the formal interplay between the riding intelligence as it takes to aim in rhythm with the propelling assonance and bowels, the syntax with his bowl of intention stride be opposed or coordinated movements of the lines, so that the hole, from the hoof to the eyes sighting along the arrow, is one creature.

The centaur also is the past, or more precisely it is the survival of the past, as it appears not primarily in books or even in folklore or customs, but in the living and locomotive animal body – which I consider a good description of the art of poetry, if the body that bears the past is equated with a voice, and its motion toward the target is acquainted with the mind.

Centaurs embody wisdom, and it is and it was Chiron the centaur who studied with Apollo and Diana and who in turn taught the heroes of myth. Also they were monsters. (To have their presence at a human wedding was to invite disaster.) Somewhere in this image of traditional wisdom and meditating form, the centaur spurned or superfluous, is what broke Walt Whitman's heart, and what encourage Robert Frost to engage in self-impersonation, what Frank O'Hara understood so well that he could conclude a poem with the words:

                                        I am so ashamed of my century
                                        for being so entertained
                                        but I have to smile

O'Hara comprehended and even embrace the unsettled place of wisdom and poetry, or the unsettled place of poetry with its past in the century, this country. The movie he loved, for example, expressed a genius of art based on huge numbers of people, immense sums of money, on novelty and scale, exquisite technological affection, and broad, sometimes naïve strokes of conception – the opposite of one traditional idea of poetry, as an art steeped in all ideas of individual skill and ability. In the face of contradictions like that, Whitman's project of the democratic bard, holding together the explosive energy of a nation, has had to bend or break.

But O'Hara's line's suggest, and his body and work with its large and loving audience exemplifies, the centaur of poetry is not necessarily anachronistic. Like the books of Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop before him, O'Hara's work has had the rare honor of flowering first of all in the attention of readers: not much taken up during‘s lifetime by journalism or academic criticism, these poets have survived and flourish, first of all, in the heart of a reading audience – the poetry audience, that in its stubborn weirdness reminds me of the jazz audience. This audience recognizes what it wants when it finds it. So it is to readers that I recommend these for books that, in my view, carry into the present poetry‘s particular spirit, the intelligence that strikes the target through the air while coursing intuitively at a gallop over the earth.

Mark Halliday's poems this is are so readable – so funny, so brilliantly gauged in their sense of timing in their colloquial swing, so various in perception – that it is a shock to realize that nearly all of them are about loss or ambition, usually both. Of the poets at hand here, none meditates the place of poetry in the contemporary, mass-culture world as persistently, or with as much anxiety, as Halliday.

His dazzling first volume, Little Star, selected for the National Poetry Series in 1987, appropriately takes its title from the immortal doo-wah song by the Elegants – “one of those early rock / pop song / that radiate confidence in a few / orderly truths”– and the poems, full of song titles and place names, are mainly about loss as experienced by youth: the sweet dread and nostalgia of life on the threshold, sudden jitters of ambition, the first sensation of cold wind.

That is a traditional subject for the young poet, the discovery that the new does not stay new forever. Halliday takes the idea over, in poems based on brash intelligence, a teasing candor, and his accurate ear for the eloquence underlying dumb, everyday language as well as dumb, literary language. Even his jokes on one of his recurrent subjects, literary aspiration, covertly ponder the loss of innocence:

                   Why the HG Is Holy

                   The Holy Ghost was browsing in his or her library
                   one day in the future, unaccountably bored,
                   oddly querulous, vaguely wanting something that would be
                    quietly unfamiliar. “It doesn't have to be great,”
                    said the Holy Ghost with the faintest note of exasperation
                    in his or her voice, “just so long as it has
                    its own special character.” 
                    Gliding along the billion shelves,
                    incredibly graceful despite his or her mood.
                    Then the deft and lovely hand of the Holy Ghost lit
                    on a slim volume of poetry –
                    it was your book.
                    It was your book.
                    The first poem caused the Holy Ghost to frown;
                    ah, but not with disdain, rather with curiosity!
                    The second poem brought a brightening of divine eyes.
                    And the page was turned as if by a pensive breeze.
                    Maybe it happened after your death, but so what? It happened. 
                    “I'm taking this back to my perfect desk,”
                     said the HG. “This is really something.”

I think that the comic sense of ambition, the underlying sad confession of an earlier, lost, more secure confidence – in oneself as well as in “the few orderly truths” – explain Halliday's word-of mouth-success with young readers even more than the irreverence or the breezy manner. Verbal touches like the repeated “his or her” and “pensive breeze” amount to a wistful self-parody, a touch of longing for the more naively idiomatic self who says “billions of shelves” and “incredibly graceful.” And for the college students who knew about the book – one of the poems called “The Students” Little Star was indeed a kind of hit, passed from reader to reader. By mentioning this reputation I do not mean to imply that Halliday is a lightweight writer – his intelligence and purpose are formidable, demonstrated for instance by the title of the poem I have just quoted – but to indicate the nature of his work‘s extremely inviting polish.

The new poems of Tasker Street (University of Massachusetts Press), winner of the 1991 Juniper Prize, continue the insouciant, slangy-lyrical, sometimes mock-innocent style of the earlier book, but as the title implies the new volume has its eye more on responsibility. Under the charm the poems often have more edge, the trick of unexpected explicitness is less jovial, and what he is explicit about, often, is the Whitmanian question, an anxiety about poetry's place that I have associated with the anachronism of the centaur. Here is the opening of “Seventh Avenue”:

      Late Tuesday afternoon the romantic self weaves
      up Seventh Avenue amid too many lookers, too many
      feelers: romance hates democracy;

      how can you be so great and golden inside
      if your trunk is shouldered among other trunks
      block after block, block after block –

      you can't help glimpsing an otherness in others
      that is not just surface: the ache,
      their aches ache away north and south all Tuesday

      and murmurous torsos like yours…
      What apprehension blossoms even now in Manuel
      shifting steaks at the ten-foot grill at Charley O's

      beneath the towering chef's hat they make him wear?
      When I was twenty I'd have written
      that he was only thinking of Cadillacs and sex;

      now I'm afraid he's just worried as I am
      about love vs. lesser things and the point of it all.
      Manuel, stay there at the sizzling grill till midnight

      and then just drink or sleep, man,
      don't write poems –
      do me that favor. It's loud enough already

      out here on Seventh Avenue with that cat's boom box
      and these three giggle girls being Madonna together
      and that guy hacking wind-up titans wielding their laser lances.

      Who's Woodworth for any extended period on Seventh Avenue?
      In this pre-dust traffic you catch the hint
      that Manuel and thou if seers at all are seers only

      for seconds –

The drama of self-presentation is buoyed by verbal inventions like “murmurous torsos”, the Keatsian adjective transformed into absurdity, but also into a more with Whitmanian perspective. The drama is moved forward through the various alternative names for the central figure: “you,” “your trunks”, “Manuel,” and only after these – “I,” extended even to the burlesque "Manuel and thou.”

In my opinion, even Halliday's failures are more interesting than most of the novels, poems, songs, and movies that come out each year.

One aspect of that drama is the contest between Halliday's charm and his intelligence, the restless self-correcting mind the declines to let the poems fall into the cuteness they risk skating toward. That tugging-back suggest the poet's acknowledgment that charm is fragile in art, and hard to sustain: the subversive comic sense ca soften into a routine, into the synthetic sweetness that leaves a sour aftertaste: E. E. Cummings' disease, it could be called. In Cummings, American poetry offers a defining example of how easily charmed can degenerate into sourness, pettiness, an irritable tic. This is a danger that Halliday recognizes and salutes in some of the later poems of Tasker Street, two of them characteristically entitled “My Strange New Poetry” and “My Moral Life.” (The first word of the latter are “Two years hence.”) Some readers will find some of his poems sentimental or disingenuous. In my opinion, even Halliday's failures are more interesting than most of the novels, poems, songs, and movies that come out each year. In poems like “Reality U.S.A” Halliday conducts a kind of fireworks display of rapid narrative streaks and bursts, demonstrating an exuberant imagination worthy of comparison with Frank O'Hara's. It is easy to picture Halliday as an extremely popular poet; moreover, his best poems are made to last.

Alan Shapiro's Covenant (University of Chicago Press) is a masterful book, bringing all the eloquence of poetry to the experience and language of the author's contemporary America. I can't think of another poet in the younger generation who has accomplished that project more completely, or with more range and striking success. As C. K. Williams says in a jacket statement unusually accurate for the jacket-copy genre, Covenant brings the “fugitive emotions” and “blunderings” of life “into contact with that which, for good and ill, links us to the mythic and historic.” It is not hard to agree with Williams that the book is “a marvelous work, one of the best I've come across in years, and one which grows richer and richer on every reading.”

Like Halliday, Shapiro is one of the young American poets who have been doing their work, quietly attracting readers and breaking through to new levels of art, while publicity was focused elsewhere, focus sometimes on articles in mass-circulation magazines lamenting the decline of poetry, articles sometimes written by critics nostalgic about the exciting literature that was new in their youth – a species of writing that has become common enough to suggest that somethings new and exciting may be going on. Judging by how the best work has found its way to the surface in the past, we can't expect general essays on the state of poetry to direct us toward the most significant new books. There is no particular reason anyone should have read Covenant or Tasker Street or Susan Mitchell's Rapture, except that they are works of art; that is, the authors are not celebrities, or exotics, or the embodiment of any “trend” or literary theory.

Shapiro wastes no energy on predictable expectations about what is poetic, in subject, language, or form. The first poem of Covenant, “The Sweepers,” "is the meditation on history's survivors, on the anonymous and victimized mass – “Who were they?” begins the poem, constructed largely of questions – who without recording their opinions dispose of corpses and clear streets and supply the backdrop of reality against which conquering Scorpios daydream their illusions. (The poem is set just after the fall of Carthage.) The originality of the poem is its perspective, the rich almost unempathetic language that associates the poet himself with those who are “neither saddened nor relieved / that the rooms they served in were now rubble to be pushed aside.” Or were the sweepers “the masters, the wealthiest? their money, / somehow having gotten them this far as they plied the crowbar and boat hook, / dowel and axe, the pain a punishment for the dumb animal / persistence that so easily and thoroughly turned friend and relation, / the whole rick tapestry of customary feeling, law, memory and lore / into mere fill for gullies?” Somewhere between an easy satire on history and an easy, self-congratulatory identification with nameless victims, Shapiro conducts and emotional reaching forth that penetrates deeper, more subtly, with a teasing paradox of objectivity:

                                Did they resent the half-dead
      for their clumsy fit, their ineffectual resistance,
      the ones stuffed head down, legs above the surface
      writhing pathetically to get away, like giant insects,
      or the ones feet first, their heads above the surface
      unable to even flinch as a horse is trampled over face and skull?
      The writer does not say. For a few lines in my Roman history,
      for six days and nights, nameless, stateless, ever diligent
      they clear the streets, they make the way smooth for Scorpio,
      who, it is said, was weeping, sunk in the thought, as he looked on,
      weeping at the fortunes of cities, people, empires:
      the Assyrians had fallen, the Medes, and the Persians
      after them had fallen, and so too, latest of all,
      latest and most brilliant, the Macedonians blotted it out,
      destroyed, as Ilion had been destroyed, and Priam,
      and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear… 

      Hear one turns the page, and goes on reading.

The classical catalogue reflecting the Roman conquer's set-piece meditation is undercut, yet not displayed, by the dry and personality, the light parodic formality, of the last line, with its “one” constituting along with “my Roman history” the only explicit presence of the poet who effectively is so immensely present, allying himself with the sweepers, asking the quietly antiheroic questions, reading the past into his present.

The images in “The Sweepers” of multiple human bodies stacked up and dehumanized recalls the imagery of Nazi atrocities. In his poem “Mud Dancing,” subtitled “Woodstock, 1969,” Shapiro daringly links his memories of Woodstock with the idea that:

               Anonymous as a stem, in the steam teased
                   from the mud that hole at the field's edge
                   where we gathered, the unhallowed dead,

                  the herded up, the poured out like water,
                  grew curious about us – naked as they were
                  once, our numbers so like theirs,

                  and in the air, too, a familiar newsreel
                 dusk of rain all afternoon.
                  It could almost have been themselves  

                 they saw, except they were dancing
                 knee deep in mud, in the muddy
                 gestures of their degradation…

These lines with their “poured out like water” and “familiar newsreel / dusk of rain all afternoon,” brilliantly imagine the premise I will witnessing concentration camp that hovering over the American rock festival, but it would seem impossible to carry such a palm off, without some siding into memorializing, reviewing into some awful triviality. Shapiro's insight brings the poem to success, imagining the “black lather” of mud that makes the young Americans seem “sexless, placeless,” with the “damp mesh who we were that made us / strangers to each other” now in the rain “cast off as easily as clothing / into the blurred shapes of a single fluency.”

To the dead Europeans, this is ecstatic nakedness, the shedding of separate history and identity, seems like an extension or parity of their fate, as if they were “so long accustomed / to their torment that they confused / torment with exaltation, mud with light?” In the extraordinary move, the dead speak the last passage of the poem, addressing the very spirit that the living American sought to shed like a garment:

Frau History, they asked, is this the final
reaving of what we loved well, that we should
swarm now in the steam over the indistinguishable

garments scatter everywhere in piles, that
we should need, even now, to sort through them,
to try to lift into our vapors hands

the immovable rough granite
of this sleeve or collar, that vest,
those sandals, the flimsiest top?

The metaphor of nakedness and clothing here becomes profound. The passage, though sympathize mainly with those dead who yearn for the old identities torn from their back by the same history that clothed them, sympathizes also with the youthful American gesture of stripping mere dress away from the body. In the endless discussion of American “political” poetry one voice wants to say that before art can be political it must be historical and social, while another strain in the American imagination pulls toward transcending or avoiding history in society.

The texture of life represented by the celebrating people in the photograph permeates the splendid poems in the book.

That conflict takes an unanticipated, memorable shape in this poem, and especially in Shapiro's remarkable imagining of the dead souls that “swarm now in the stream” while their “vaporous hands” grope helplessly at the “immovable rough granite / of this sleeve or collar.”

While “Mud Dancing” and “The Sweepers” give some intimation the ideas about history that hold covenant together, they may be a little misleading as examples because they are somewhat uncharacteristic of Shapiros colloquial, naturalistic spirit in this volume. The cover illustration is a group photograph, a middle-class wedding picture of three or four decades ago, men and women of different ages wearing evening gowns or dinner jackets, smiling at the camera from where they are posed all on one side of the table set for a formal meal, with some hotel-looking chairs in the foreground. The contrast with the biblical title Covenant is extreme. The texture of life represented by the celebrating people in the photograph permeates the splendid poems in the book. I will name a few. “The Lessons” is a tremendously poised, poignant account of experiencing sexual molestation as a child – the beautifully detailed texture of this poem and its intelligent makes it utterly original, though the method is straight narrative. “Turn,” “Two Eulogies,” “Kinship,” and “Purgatory” are lyric poems that recall the strength of Shapiro's previous book, Happy Hour (1987), which was selected for the William Carlos Williams Award. And Covenant's title poem compresses the material of a family novel into a few pages that lay out the endlessly rich weblike patterns of love and loathing.

As Williams jacket blurb says, this is an “astonishing” book of poems. In recent years, the University of Chicago Press has also published Anne Winters's The Key to the City, with its extraordinary opening series of poems about New York, Tom Sleigh's Waking, and David Ferry's Strangers. Each of these books, in its own incarnation of a fluent contemporary idiom, accomplishes what Williams describes as Shapiro's bringing of our present life “into contact with the mythic and historic” – a kind of historical naturalism, the centaur walking the pavement of the present. It has not always been easy for American poets to include the dimension of history in their work without seeing seeming touristic, or lapsing into such frozen modes as a learned, Anglophile glitter or gruff regionalism. Another Chicago volume that retains this goal in its own way is Jim Powell's It Was Fever That Made The World, a book that puts versions of Sappho and Propertius next to the bars and street music of the San Francisco Bay. Chicago has also published Eleanor Wilner. Their series called the Phoenix Poets, edited by Robert von Hallberg. On the basis of these books Chicago must be considered one of the leading publishers of new poetry.

Susan Mitchell is another kind of poet altogether. As her title Rapture (HarperCollins) suggests, her book is in the Romantic tradition that pursues ineffable emotions. But the title is partly ironic, inasmuch the books recurrent gesture is to find transcendence almost there, the vision almost perfect, but unattainable or completely lost, as the Grail the Lancelot. The presence of poetry as actually magical, and anarchic presence capable of transformation, is everywhere in Mitchell's work as an object of incantation; and also everywhere in the countervailing awareness that transformation is difficult, all but impossible. The leitmotif of this second awareness is a contemporary, idiomatic vocabulary of image and word. Thus, in the title poem:

but when I go to say it, it sounds
different, hostile or angry with me, as if

I had seen a gate open in the dark
above my head, a trellis of light on which

light grew and pushed out berries and thorns
of light and I

had babbled instead of passing through. 

As is indicated by the flat language of “hostile or angry with me,” the lower-than-flat “babbled,” she takes pains to separate herself from what is easy, sentimental, or “wet” in the British sense. One aspect of Mitchell's imagination as it works toward rapture while avoiding facile gestures of elevation is her fondness for the hoax or bubble of invention: first the remembered childhood scene playing in the water with Clara, the little girl whose stump of an arm, with no hand, recalls Höderlin's poem about the leaves that grow inward; then, the revelation that “there never was a Clara,” the scene did not take place, though there was a girl at the school at school with such an arm, which contrary to the false water-memory, repelled the poet. “So you see,” the poem says to the reader, “I am not the person you thought I was.” In another instance of this trope of the small hoax revealed, then meditated on, the poet reveals that an ancient scholar's false etymologies – “eyrie from air, so ear from airy, the ear / a net that hears in air its own name” – are doubly false, invented as translations from Latin equivalents in the work of the scholar, if Isidor of Seville himself exists.

What these Nabokovian games point toward is the gap separating the rapture of a wordless reality, on one side, from the strings of language and imagination on the other. The elegance of Mitchell's ear, the laminated quality of her imagination, often turned back on themselves in a sidling or back-and-forward movement, giving and taking away as she constructs the emotional realities whose available labels might be love, despair, rage. This method, and the convictions behind it, are like in a equally abundant opposite of Halliday's temporal exuberance: his exhilaration that poetry can go anywhere is the obverse of Mitchell's conviction that poetry is all but isolated from the feelings that derive it. The dreamy, hypnotic pace of her poems suits the idea that the truth of any emotion is resistant, possibly an ineffable.

Here is a passage that is especially explicit about the ineffable, and that represents Mitchell's way of going at it. The lines, from the middle of a longish poem called “Self Portrait with Two Faces” also demonstrates her craftsmanship with consonants and vowels:

Put your ear to a life, any life, and
there it is, the tell-tale tremolo, slur
and slap of the unexpressed, steady
rise and fall of something almost
abstract – the tie-dyed silks a life
slips on and off, the brailles when no one
spoke and only the rain started up
with its sound of someone peeing
in a vacant lot.

The rush of piled up figures – the brailles, the pee, the tie-dyed silks – makes a kind of impatient gesture towards “the unexpressed.” The dense tumble of images honors the ineffable while also acknowledging the anger that is indeed expressed – in fact is dramatized seriously enough to sustain a direct and explicit consideration of “language”:

                       That field is as close
as I ever come to what happened
between him and me, where I hesitate
on the outskirts, as if we two
were still on fire, miles of inner city
cordoned off, the listener barricaded
to a safe distance. If I could crush
that night like mint between my fingers
the aroma of sky over McDonald's
might be the story, its sudden
crescendos of orange, its twist of greens.
It's a funny story, though
I can tell it crying, too,
even it it's tricky as rolling a wheel
down a hill, the voice holding on
with its one finger crooked. Language
makes me a stranger
to my own life, forcing me to speak
from both sides of my mouth,
a comic version for my friend,
a serious version for the one who
has joined us, sullen in his long blond hair
and blue shirt. Call me two-faced,

a Janus. Enamel my back
with snow, my face with May flowers.
Call me up, down, below, and
seat me, a dunce in a doorway. I'm a word
that splits on the tongue. Say cleave
and, Baby, I'll cleave
to you the way I cleaved him
in two and two and two, and clung
to every chopped up piece.

These feelings about trying to tell what happened or as real as the love-relationship itself. To write convincingly about language and language's defects, it is necessary to make language work a little beyond itself, as Mitchell does here in such terms as the voices “one finger” suggesting the tongue, the telephone meaning at the beginning of “call me up, down, below,” the sound pattern of dunce, tongue, cleave, clung and (earlier) finger, language, stranger.

Seamus Heaney's poems have earned a host of literary awards and about as much public celebration as likely for any poet in our time.

As part of her great Romantic subject, Mitchell frequently invoked the traditional imagery of exaltation in a muted or distorted way that's all but quotes Wallace Stevens, or alludes to the rhetoric of Stevens in just the way that Stevens alludes to the rhetoric of Keats and Wordsworth. As in the master, but at one more remove, even the figures of sound become ironic:

Once it was possible to walk through porticoes, the arches
at dusk, the enormous statuary balancing
stone wings. On the terrace dinner was served
in sonata form, there were recapitulations by candlelight
and codas, the hot wash cloth tinged with lemon
while the boy, what we see of him, goes on
kneeling beside the pool, but now
it's the last moment as when one suddenly discovers
it's necessary to make a toast
and say something about the future, or more humbly, speak
of what we shall watch on T.V. tonight.

Mitchell's intelligence and ear give great pleasure, and make Rapture a book of considerable distinction. It is also a necessarily demanding book, so consistent in its method that is it that it is possible for the reader to wish it were shorter. But these poems I was happy to re-read.

Seamus Heaney's poems have earned a host of literary awards and about as much public celebration as is likely for any poet in our time. A native of Northern Ireland, a man of great personal charm, wit, eloquence in speech, and probity, Heaney has attracted the attention of journalists in this country and around the world. His work has been embraced by academic critics, taught in schools and universities, and made the subject of Ph.D. dissertations.

Nevertheless, he is a wonderful poet, one of the best writing, as his new book Seeing Things (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux) demonstrates anew. The book also provides a comparison of poetry's dual presence, immediate and yet of the past, of the earth end of the air, of the voice and of the mind – in the work of these three younger Americans and in poems by a European of Heaney's generation.

The two mighty roots of this volume are familiar to Heaney's readers. One is the talismanic force of objects: the often humble implements and artifacts, pitchfork, subtle-bed, coping-stone, biretta, school-bag, made sacramental by their human meaning and by Heaney's luminous seeing of them. “Secure / The bastion,” says a poem early in the extraordinary sequence of ”Squarings,” “Do not waiver / Into language. Do not waiver in it.” Related to these often domestic objects is a second root, which is reverent memory, in this book frequently elegiac. There are extremely toughing, indelible poems in memory of the poet's father and of several friends.

As he has done before, Heaney frames volume of translations, a passage from Canto III of the Inferno at the end and a fifty lines from the Aeneid as a preparatory poem. In the Aeneid passage, the hero asked the Cumaean Sibyl for passage to the underworld so that he can look again into the face of his dead father. The Sibyl tells Aeneas that to return living from the realm of death he must pluck the golden bough from the sacred grove – “And when it is plucked,” says Heaney's version, “A second one always grows in its place, golden again.” And in the closing lines of his preface:

                            If fate has called you,
The bough will come away easily, of its own accord.
Otherwise, no matter how much strength you muster, you never will
Manage to quell it or cut it down with the toughest of blades.

These lines invoke the ancient spirit of poetry, straightforwardly and confidently.

Then, in the first part of the volume proper, the ghost of the poet Larkin – "a nine-to–five man who had seen poetry” – surprises the living poet on a city street, and the shade quotes Dante, a passage where at nightfall when all other creatures rest the poet goes forth to his duty. Though Heaney enjoys the incongruity between the rush-hour buses and Larkin's “Still my old self. Ready to knock on the back,” his connection to the old line of poetry is largely one of congruity. This fact is visible in the distinctive, polished-thorn texture of Heaney's language; it is partly a matter of cultural setting, a setting where poetry's place is a less of an open question than in America, more assuredly a place resembling one that it always had.

It is been Heaney's genius to invoke the heroic perspective for the most immediate and personal kinds of experience. Every mode of narrative or image seems available and readily modulated from one kind of eloquence, one scale, to the next. In the title poem, rendering what could have been a small family anecdote, the closing section begins “Once upon a time my undrowned father / Walked into our yard.” The father has had a close call in the river, after a minor disagreement with a child. Heaney in the final passage returns to the note of the opening “once upon a time”:

                    That afternoon
I saw him face to face, he came to me
With his damp footprints out of the river,
And there was nothing between us there
That might not still be happily ever after.

This is a remarkably subtle ending, full of strong but understated emotional color: rueful and ironic about the realities between father and son. Because we have read the opening Aeneid passage a few pages before, and then an elegy for the father's own father, the moment when the two look one another's face is also part of an epic pattern.

Leaving Dante and Virgil aside, consider the many Heaney poems where, just as archaic language overlaps with the language of crafts or farming or region (James Joyce's “feast of the Holy Tundish”), the folklore and figures of his experience overlap with mythology (“Squarings,” xviii):

Like a foul-mouthed god of hemp come down to rut,
The rope-man stumped about and praised new rope
With talk of how thick it was, or how long and strong,

And how you could take it into your own hand
And feel it. His perfect, tight-bound wares
Made a circle round him....

In another poem of the sequence,

                     Even a solid man,
A pillar to himself and to his trade
All yellow boots and stick and soft felt hat,

Can sprout wings at the ankle and grow fleet
As the god of fair-days, stone posts, roads and crossroads,
Guardians of travellers and psychopomp.

Look for a man with an ash plant on the boat;
My father told his sister setting out
For London, and stay near him all night

And you'll be safe? Flow on, flow on,
The journey of the soul with its soul guide
And the mysteries of dealing-men with sticks!

Other poems describe the feeling of an eelskin bracelet putting water-wheel strength into your shoulder, or the ritual entering a new life through a girdle of straw rope St. Brigid's Day, one sequence for men, one for women:

The open they came into by these moves
Stood opener, hoops came off the world
They could feel the February air

Still soft above their heads and imagine
The limp rope fray and flare like wind-borne gleanings
Or an unhindered goldfinch over ploughland.

This is a world in which the centaur of the past is a few steps closer than for young Americans, and not only for the colloquial Halliday but for Mitchell as well. The folklore is only one token of a setting in which the contradictions between art's history and its present are less sharp, less open-ended.

No judgment of value is implied by seeing this difference of kind. Exactly because the scope and power of Heaney's poems are well established, it is worth noting that like other European poets he is in some ways closer to the literature and language of the past, and to the folk beliefs of the past, than many American poets are likely to be.

This is a remarkably subtle ending, full of strong but understated emotional color: rueful and ironic about the realities between father and son.

This idea represents only one strain of Heaney's work, a strain that reminds me of two other poems. One is Czeslaw Milosz's “Bypassing Rue Descartes,” in which the poet remembers streaming into Paris as the capital of the world, and of “the unviversal,” in the time between the wars along with other young people from “Jassy and Kolivar, Wilno and Bucharest, Saigon and Marrakesh.” ”Soon enough, their peers were seizing power / in order to kill in the name of the universal, beautiful ideas,” while the city goes on pursing its worldly nature. At the end of the poem, Milosz returns to the idea of folk beliefs:

As to my heavy sins, I remember one most vividly:
How, one day, walking on a forest path along a stream
I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled in the grass.

And what I have met with in life was the just punishment
Which reaches, sooner or later, the breaker of a taboo.

The nines force of Milosz's lifework is related to the stretch from his classical education, the beliefs of his province, the great world of his youth, to his experience of the war and its aftermath, the pot clinging to the thread of poetry through that maze of disillusion, catastrophe, and faith. This force is relevant to Heaney's cultural situation, and to the American one as well: the scale of the Milosz poem helps show the difference in the situations.

The other poem I am reminded of is Alan Shapiro's “Mud Dancing,” which I have quoted already. Reading Heaney's masterful deployment of his vocabulary of rut and wares, grow fleet and psychopomp, fray and flare,and unhindered goldfinch, I thought of the moment when Shapiro, in his poem on bewildered ghosts of the tortured touching the immovable cast-off garments at Woodstock, giving voice to the dead, reaches for an archaic world:

Was this some new phase of their affliction?
The effect of some yet new device?
To make them go on dreaming, even now,
some version of themselves so long accustomed
to their torment that they confused
torment with exaltation, mud with light?

Frau History, they asked, is this the final
reaving of what we loved well...?

Reaving (spelled differently in Faulkner's title): plundering, robbing, tearing apart, or carrying away. It seems an appropriate term for addressing Frau History. The archaism give the thrown-off clothing more meaning, in a moment that is part of a continuum with the poems of Milosz and Heaney, suggesting that there is a question, a question about the place of memory in the present, that all true poetry, in one way or another, presents to its readers.

Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky is the author of Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet, an autobiography forthcoming in October.
Originally published:
April 1, 1992


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