Louise Gluck by Helen Vendler
The Triumph of Achilles
Cats of the Temple
Thomas and Beulah
The catchall nature of the label “lyric poetry” is put into relief by four such different species of the genus as the books under review. A duckbill platypus, a panda, a whale, and a monkey, gazed at, do not immediately suggest the label “mammal.” And what we remember, visually, of these animals is not their uninteresting potential for lactation but their wonderful singularity of appearance. In the zoo of the new (Sylvia Plath’s phrase) the four books under review are arresting forms. Of their authors, two (Dunn and Glück) are in midcareer, while Dove and Leithauser, both in their thirties, are publishing third and second books respectively. In writing briefly about each of these poets, I want to take up the aims of lyric as they become visible in their work.
Louise Glück has tried in her poetry to give experience the permanent form of myth. Hers is the sort of lyric poetry that turns away from specific details and observations (names, places, dates, quotidian details—what Lowell, for instance, made the stuff of poetry) to an abstract plane, sometimes narrative, as in the Greek myths, sometimes archetypal, as in the encounter of Man with Woman. The tendency for lyric to turn mythical is often irritating to readers who yearn for biography (Who was the Fair Youth? Who was the Dark Lady? Who, for that matter, was Shakespeare?) as if facts would resolve meaning. We all began as sophomores in this respect; but we learn as we read more poetry that it is possible for novelistic detail to obscure, rather than reveal, fictive experience—that the lean shape of myth is the nakedness guaranteeing all stories.
A better argument for mythical lyric is that the beauty possible in mythical or archetypal poetry—with its own lexicon and thesaurus of images—is different from the beauty of the historical quotidian (which too has a lexicon of its own, a specific museum of images). In the treatment of Christian anecdote, for instance, there have always been what one could call artists of essence (those, e.g., who painted hieratic crucifixions showing a monumental and untormented Christ in glory on the cross) and, on the other side, artists of the actual (those who painted crucifixions exhibiting a tortured corpse in a realistic social setting).
The chief obstacle in writing mythical or archetypal poetry is that the story is already known, its conclusion familiar. Interest consequently has to center almost entirely on interpretation and manner. (It is no accident that Milton, who decided to retell archetypal stories that every literate person already knew by heart, became the poet with the most highly developed manner in our history.) Glück retells, in “Mythic Fragment,” Ovid’s story of the myth of Daphne, saved from Apollo’s advances by her father the river god Peneus, who turned her into a laurel tree. The lyric poet, facing a narrative, must choose the point at which the lyric aria will occur: Glück gives us Daphne’s postmetamorphic voice. The tree, once a girl, retells the myth with the brevity proper to lyric:
When the stern god
approached me with his gift
my fear enchanted him….
I begged my father in the sea
to save me. When
the god arrived, I was nowhere,
I was in a tree forever. Reader,
pity Apollo: at the water’s edge,
I turned from him, I summoned
my invisible father—as
I stiffened in the god’s arms,
of his encompassing love
my father made
no other sign from the water.
This may be the first time that the myth of Daphne has been retold as a Freudian story, the tale of a girl too much in love with her father to accept a lover. “Reader, pity Apollo,” she says; we are to reflect on the many young men who lose the young women they pursue to that unacknowledged rival, the father. And pity Glück’s Daphne: begging her father to save her, she imagines that the result will be Apollo repelled, herself unchanged. Instead, she stiffens into the wood of the sexually unresponsive. Her last words are, “Of his encompassing love / my father made / no other sign from the water.” The blankness of that vista—as the stiffened bark looks to the silent father—is characteristic of Glück’s poems of desolation and impossibility. In this Oedipal retelling of the myth there are no compensatory moments—no laurels bound about Apollo’s brow, no ecstatic, Straussian joy in leafiness. The manner of the poem has changed the manner of the myth, turning Ovid’s story into a demystifying modern story of virginity, revealing its roots in incestuous desire.
Glück’s poems bend erotic stereotypes into her own forms of mannerist anguish:
I have been looking
steadily at these elms
and seen the process that creates
the writhing, stationary tree
is torment, and have understood
it will make no forms but twisted forms.
That splendid Yeatsian close states the poetic of Glück’s book: writhing, to be stationary; stationary, to be writhing. This is the poetic of myth—animating what is eternal, freezing what is temporary and vanishing. As Glück’s two adjectives imply, motion does not cease, but any notion of “progress” or “advance” or “improvement” ceases. Yeats at one point called himself a marble triton growing old among the streams; that moment when a poet becomes marble is the moment of myth. Myth and archetype offer themselves as the only formally tenable vehicles for a sense of the unchangingness of writhing human experience. The older we get, the more we “progress,” the more we find our situations anticipated in Ovid, in Homer, in Genesis.
It is no accident that aphorism suits archetype. Glück shows an aphoristic talent that harks back to the Greek Anthology:
You have betrayed me, Eros.
You have sent me
my true love.
“Only victims,” she says elsewhere, “have a destiny.” And she offers these Yeatsian lines:
Why love what you will lose?
There is nothing else to love.
This couplet may resemble, in content, Yeats’s lines in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” “Man is in love and loves what vanishes, / What more is there to say?” But the chill of Glück’s preordained universe is different from the historical turbulence of Yeats’s interpenetrating gyres; his manner is tragic rather than fatalistic. Glück’s manner suits her matter; the manner is as stationary, as foreseen in its pastness, as her myths.
Glück’s nonmythic poems here, chiefly about love, are as ahistorical and nonquotidian as her myths. A long love affair which has come to an end is reviewed in a sequence called “Marathon.” Some of it seems to me to topple over the line that separates self-scrutiny from self-dramatization: “We have acted a great drama.” On the other hand, Glück’s harsh and self-incriminating valedictory to the lover who has made her conscious of her greed in passion sticks powerfully in the mind:
Sooner or later
you’ll begin to dream of me. I don’t envy you
those dreams. I can imagine how my face looks,
burning like that, afflicted with desire—lowered
face of your invention—how the mouth betrays
the isolated greed of the lover
as it magnifies and then destroys:
I don’t envy you that visitation.
I don’t recall this precise human moment elsewhere in poetry. One aim of lyric poetry is to trace a contour not recorded before; saying the unsaid is a mark of the poet’s courage, and Glück is not lacking in it.
The title poem of Stephen Dunn’s sixth book, Local Time, asserts—in the greatest possible contrast to Glück’s glacial myths—a need to stay in touch with the local:
What was foreign never occurred
until we heard it here,
wasn’t that true?
And didn’t enough happen here?
The retarded girl nearby
Schultz stepped off that ledge,
because his house wasn’t home.
With Schultz and the retarded girl we are far from Ovid. Many poets who deal with the local, as Dunn does, fall into a gritty naturalism. Dunn, for all his affirmation of plain speech and plain encounters (an earlier book was called Work and Love), has a delicacy of touch in treating his plain material. Of his many poems on marriage and the gulf between male and female experience, I quote “He/She,” a poem about the different ways boys and girls grow up, and the consequent limitless possibilities for misunderstanding in marriage. The poem begins with a marital argument and continues the argument into the next day. This too is a moment rarely treated in poetry—a moment of tangled accusation and comprehension:
Brought up never getting punched in the mouth for saying more than the situation can bear,
she argues beyond winning, screams indictments after the final indictment
has skewered him into silence, if not agreement. The words she uses
mean she is feeling something large which needs words, perhaps the way Pollock needed paint.
Next day the words are unimportant to her, while all he’s thinking about
are the words she used—if recovering from them is possible.
Years ago, the schoolyard taught him one word too many meant broken fingers, missing teeth;
you chose carefully, or you chose war. You were the last word you let live.
She was in the elsewhere girls were, learning other lessons, the ones men learn
too late or not at all; you took in, cared for, without keeping score you shaped a living space
into a kind of seriousness.
Retract those words, he says. But she is only
sensing his reserve, his inability to perceive that her wrong words meant so much hurt and love.
Because Dunn’s poems explore contrary theses (emotional, intellectual, aesthetic), he needs to be quoted whole. He navigates slowly through shoals, peers into shallows, marks buoys, and makes port in uncertainty. He is, in his later books, a careful poet, balancing his stern bare passages with delightful flurries of visually and phonetically pleasing language. We wake, he says of the married, to the pleasure of being alone, but
Soon the equally mysterious world of women and men, of momentary
common agreement and wild mis- understanding,
will impose itself naturally on the simplest event. Anatomy will send
its differing messages to syntax and sense.
The language here has many charms, from the simplest (a host of double letters) to the more complex affinities of “equally” and “naturally,” of “mysterious” and “misunderstanding,” of “wild” and “will,” “simplest” and “syntax,” “send” and “sense.” The “matter”—how the mysteriousness of the sexes to each other imposes itself on the simplest domestic event—generates the inner paradoxes joining mystery and simplicity, imposition and naturalness, agreement and misunderstanding, syntax and the senses. At his best, Dunn encodes mystery in speech that remains plain vocabulary, while doing syntactic and structural justice to psychological complexity.
Dunn is an autobiographical poet. We learn of a father and grandfather attached to drink, a father intermittently out of work, the grandfather a story-teller, a mother “insisting with Carlyle on an Everlasting Yea,” while the son is the one in the Roman Catholic family “needing to debunk, destroy.” Dunn leaves Catholicism, marries, has children. His idea of a poem is a room (the old pun on stanza) in which everything has been “grooved and tongued…wedged, fitted, nailed.” He is proud of “the miter work and joists, / the fluted molding above the door.” The image of the poet as artisan suits Dunn’s reflective poems, but I find something sentimental and willed about the working-class anecdotes in which he attempts a language simpler than his own—one, for instance, in which a cocktail waitress (presumably attending Dunn’s creative writing class) says, “On my night off I try to write,” and continues:
That poem I gave you about the girl
who disappears in her own room,
did you know, Steve, who she was,
that it wasn’t creative writing at all?
The waitress’s predicament is not made the poet’s own, and the poem remains a form of aesthetic slumming. The problems faced by a lyric poet writing about an inarticulate milieu from which he has distanced himself by education and cultivation are not easily solved.
Dunn, to his credit, is far bleaker, less “lyrical” than the creative-writing waitress in her self-annihilating fictions. Because he is a solitary trying, against his nature, for domesticity, there is an attractive tension to his work, testified to by the grind of withdrawn reflective language against plot and incident. Poems written by men about the difficulties of domestic life have been fairly rare before this century. Dunn is adding honest poems to this recent genre; and watching a genre evolve can have, for literary people, the interest that a new volcano has for geologists.
The two younger poets here, Brad Leithauser and Rita Dove, are as different from each other as Glück and Dunn. Brad Leithauser seems to be trying to see what can be made in our time from the poetics of Marianne Moore, with a leavening of Elizabeth Bishop. His new book is more openly self-conscious even than his first book, Hundreds of Fire-flies, which attracted notice for its meticulous art. Here one sees again his capacity for taking pains, visible chiefly in the elaborate rhyming of his stanzas and in the minuteness of his descriptions. He writes here, for instance, a poem in five five-line stanzas (similar to the symmetrical art George Herbert sometimes used, in which the number of lines per stanza matches the number of stanzas). In this poem, where a stuffed tortoise stands for the reflexive consciousness mated to a heavy, material body, fifteen lines (the first three of each stanza) rhyme in the sound “oh” (though one slant rhyme creeps in). This device, like other, similar ones throughout the book, serves to insist on the artifice of the poems: no one could mistake these poems for artless “speech.” Leithauser forms part of the (no doubt salutary) backlash against the unadorned, apparently “artless” poetry that has been around since William Carlos Williams made it attractive.
If Leithauser did not adopt Marianne Moore’s manner so strenuously one would read him in a less distracted way. One is often made so conscious of the perfectly mimicked model that the poem begins to seem a form of ventriloquism. Moore’s characteristic practice in many poems, for instance, was to describe an unusual animal in syntactically prolonged sentences with moral asides, and then to end with an ethical reflection. This is how Leithauser proceeds in the poem on the stuffed tortoise: a description (the alive-looking tortoise with its neck lunging forward); a contrast (with its companion stuffed animals who look very dead); a moral aside (on the Aesopian fable of the tortoise and the hare); and then a return to description, this time invoking the pathetic fallacy (“as if that tough, undersized head / yearned to outstrip its ponderous cargo”). Here is the Moore-like close:
—The time’s not ripe for that? If so, the true
burden on his back may be years which offer no
movement casual or quick enough to escape a painstaking, on-the-spot review.
Leithauser has had, like Moore, the misfortune of having his putative subjects mistaken for his real ones. In a promotional statement his publisher says, “Nothing is too trivial to be noticed—the encounter of a toad and a damselfly, for example, or an ostrich in the Kyoto zoo being offered a pretzel by a frightened child.” Well, the poem about the toad and the damselfly is (as Leithauser says), “for the fabulist,” about an instant in which the poet would like to see the “resolution of mind and mass,” and in which each—soul and body, to use the old terms—“had felt the other’s opposed appeals.” And the poem in the zoo uses the ostrich’s hesitation to accept the pretzel as a thirteen-line illustration in a sixty-line poem about our wish to believe in free will. It would be more accurate for Knopf to present Leithauser as a poet interested in matter and spirit, determinism and free will, who uses fine-grained description to bring these matters to sensuous apprehension.
Knopf does poetry a disservice in implying that one need only be “a wizard of description” (their phrase for Leithauser) to make a poem. Description can be, and often is, one of the liveliest achievements of lyric (Stevens called poetry “description without place”)—but description can never be divorced, in any poem worth the name, from evaluation and interpretation. The Knopf statement goes on to claim that Leithauser is “modest about the extraordinary refractory powers of his own painterly mind.” I hope they mean “refractive”; and I hope that in the future Leithauser will write his own descriptions of his work, if only to ensure their accuracy and literacy.
Leithauser has reacted against the confessional poetry that was the mainstay of the Sixties and Seventies. He aims at “memory turned selfless,” for which his image is a spider web turned, by a trick of light, invisible, yielding to the eye only “what incidence had blown there: / some seeds, needles, threadbare / leaves, a curled gray feather.” This is an admirable aim, one which may well enable Leithauser eventually to write poems in which the web is genuinely invisible—as it cannot be, I think, in Leithauser’s adopting of Moore’s voice. One can ask whether the web can ever be invisible in the formal, stanzaic verse that Leithauser writes. Of course; the web becomes “invisible” not only through formal repetition (till the measure seems “natural,” as in Shakespeare’s sonnets) but also through melodiousness (as the sentences seem “inevitable” in their rightness of rhythm). Leithauser’s rhythms, however, often call attention to themselves by their irregularity, their noncoincidence with syntax and line endings. In four-syllable lines, we see
a young man perched
on a boulder
gripped, weed-strung base
the sea rinses.
“A young man, perched commandingly on a boulder, whose barnacle-gripped, weed-strung base, the sea rinses.” It is hard to know just why Leithauser has written this description four syllables at a time. The connection between prosody and matter here is not self-evident, not even pleasing, not even quizzically amusing.
What I find most interesting in Leithauser’s work is not his concern with spirit and body, a topic worthy enough but often rehearsed, but rather his investigation into his own kind of maleness, into the sort of man he is and would like to be. He often uses one of his symbolic animals as a way to write on both maleness and the enterprise of being an artist. The seahorse, “a mild, compromising / Creature,” winged like Pegasus, “glides / With a forking, oblique / Efficiency, the winglike / Fins behind his ears aflutter.” This beautiful and closely observed passage on the alert and eccentric motions of the seahorse leads to a consideration of the seahorse’s quasiandrogynous powers:
…this mailed male
…bears in his own brood pouch A female’s transferred conceptions
And seems to move (those fins
By turns transparent) through Telekinetic promptings, while his
Eyes are taking in two Views at once.
This male is double- rather than single-minded, delicately intuitive, armored and maternal, receptive to inner promptings, and mild rather than warlike; it is a convincing self-portrait of a new maleness precisely because of its oddity.
Leithauser’s search for perfection has, I think, been insufficiently noticed. He wants an “unsullied original”; he looks for “miraculous pristine passages.” (Those who want the perfect, if deprived of God, turn oddly often to the world of animals, who, since they cannot be other than they are, are therefore helplessly perfect.) For Leithauser, those pristine passages
wait beside you
always, if only it were known which
floorboard to take the crowbar to,
which stone uproot on the hillside, if only
you dared to; this tunnel, here, into a breath-
taking incandescence so intense the
body is as nothing in the path
of its streaming, weightless and homeless and
helpless, hopeful and afraid.
This is Leithauser’s furthest reach in Cats of the Temple, and it is encouraging for the future. The Lawrentian “streaming” in incandescence, afraid and helpless and hopeful, is at the furthest remove, however, from the dead objects in the invisible web. The latter are visible in Leithauser’s admiration of a Japanese house with all the paraphernalia of living invisibly tucked away; the former is visible, in the same poem, in the noises penetrating the house from the street outside. It is not that Lawrentian “streaming” is preferable to Japanese containment; it is just that either is poor without the other. Leithauser has used many contained forms with great ingenuity; he has not yet, I think, found the syntax and prosody for the momentum of “streaming” and helplessness. It is not clear what he will become when he sheds his dependency on Moore; he will still, I assume, have a self-effacing poetic, and it will be interesting to see how he embodies it next.
I conclude with a remarkable book composed of two sequences, Thomas and Beulah, by Rita Dove. Thomas (born in 1900 in Wartrace, Tennessee) and Beulah (born in 1904 in Rockmart, Georgia) are husband and wife; they are modeled, one guesses, on Rita Dove’s grandparents (the cover photo, a snapshot of a middle-aged black couple standing in front of their car, is credited to Ray A. Dove and dated 1952, the year of Rita Dove’s birth). Though the photograph, and the chronology of the lives of Thomas and Beulah appended to the sequence, might lead one to suspect that Dove is a poet of simple realism, this is far from the case. Dove has learned (perhaps from Charles Wright’s “Tattoos”) how to make a biographical fact the buried base of an imagined edifice. But unlike Wright, who writes meditations almost Chinese in their stillness, Dove is principally a poet of dramatic force—a quality found relatively rarely in lyric, a genre by its nature reflective, circling, and static.
Before I come to Dove’s management of dramatic power, I should sketch the story behind the sequence. When Thomas and Beulah marry, he is twenty-four, she twenty. Thomas has already lost his best friend, who, after a drunken dare from Thomas, drowned in the Mississippi leaving only his mandolin behind. Thomas carries the mandolin north with him to Akron, plays it halfheartedly, and eventually hangs it from a nail on the parlor wall. Thomas works in Akron for Goodyear, at the Zeppelin factory; after the Depression puts him out of work, he sweeps offices part time. Over the years, he and Beulah have four daughters. Thomas becomes domesticated enough to sing in the church choir. When the war comes, he works again for Goodyear; Beulah works in a dress shop, then makes hats. At sixty-three, Thomas dies of his second heart attack; Beulah dies six years later, at sixty-five. Their lives span the first sixty-nine years of this century; they represent, among other things, the migration of rural southern blacks to the industrial cities of the north. This great social movement—one of the most important for American history in the twentieth century—finds here its first extended poem. But the sequence of poems is also the history of a marriage.
Dove’s epigraph reads, “These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence.” We have Thomas’s side (“Mandolin,” twenty-three poems) and Beulah’s side (“Canary in Bloom,” twenty-one poems): together they make up Thomas and Beulah’s story. The poems comprise a true sequence: that is, most are richer for, and in fact only intelligible in, the context of the rest. The first poem of “Mandolin” is called, simply, “The Event”: in it we see Thomas and Lem, Lem’s drowning, and the mute mandolin left behind. I came across this poem a few years ago in The Ontario Review; it was the first poem I had ever read by Dove, and it sent me out looking for her first two books, The Yellow House on the Corner and Museum; I was not disappointed. This is what I read:
Ever since they’d left the Tennessee ridge
with nothing to boast of
but good looks and a mandolin,
the two Negroes leaning
on the rail of a riverboat
were inseparable. Lem plucked
to Thomas’s silver falsetto.
But the night was hot and they were drunk.
They sat where the wheel
churned mud and moonlight,
they called to the tarantulas
down among the bananas
to come out and dance.
You’re so fine and mighty; let’s see
what you can do, said Thomas, pointing
to a tree-capped island.
Lem stripped, spoke easy: Them’s
I believe. Dove
quick as a gasp. Thomas, dry
on deck, saw the green crown shake
as the island slipped
in the thickening stream.
At his feet
a stinking circle of rags,
the half-shell mandolin.
Where the wheel turned the water
When I first read this poem and some of its companions from “Mandolin,” I experienced the best of all poetic delights—feeling that something was very beautiful and not knowing why. New forms of beauty declare themselves only gradually. It seems to me now that a rapid succession of dramatic “takes” is Dove’s perfected form; she almost always refuses editorializing, musing, and “leading” the reader. Her brilliance lies in her arrangement of content; as the elements of meaning find their one inevitable form, juxtaposition alone takes on the work of explanation. Here, in a later poem, is Thomas (who had hoped for a son) after domestic life has worn him down. He has had four daughters, his wife prefers her canary to him, Lem’s mandolin is nailed for good to the parlor wall, and the yellow silk scarf Thomas wore while courting Beulah hangs discarded on the silent mandolin. The diminution of man by marriage is summed up in this “Compendium”:
He gave up fine cordials and
his hounds-tooth vest.
He became a sweet tenor
in the gospel choir.
of his wife’s affections.
In the parlor, with streamers,
a bug on a nail.
The canary courting its effigy.
The girls fragrant in their beds.
Thomas, the syntactic ruler of the first two stanzas, survives only as a pronominal adjective in the canary’s stanza, and vanishes after that. The biting fourth stanza enumerates the successive disappointments of the childbirths. The mandolin is “a bug on a nail” in Thomas’s reductive gesture to the lost Lem. Finally, Thomas is obliterated within the female domain of the narcissistic (if poetic) canary and the fragrant daughters. The poem is no less strict than sympathetic. The frisson one feels when form matches fact is present here, never more so than in
This is perfectly simple, perfectly mimetic (“It’s a girl”), and perfectly expressive (since by its fourth appearance the word “girl” has been turned into something faintly grotesque).
For the Depression year of 1934, when Thomas is unemployed, Dove finds a poetry of what could be called the disarticulated. When the work that holds a day together is gone, the day falls apart into its separate scraps. Dove updates 1934 unemployment with images from contemporary unemployment. Thomas doesn’t even have a coal furnace to occupy himself with; the house has a gas heater. It is hard to stay indoors idle. He won’t drink (because drink caused the death of his friend), but drink is the temptation of the unemployed. So is infidelity. Dove doesn’t say any of this outright, but it is all deducible from her elegant shorthand:
What to do with a day.
Leaf through Jet. Watch T.V.
Freezing on the porch
but he goes anyhow, snow too high
for a walk, the ice treacherous.
Inside, the gas heater takes care of itself;
he doesn’t even notice being warm.
Everyone says he looks great.
Across the street a drunk stands smiling
at something carved in a tree.
The new neighbor with the floating hips
scoots out to get the mail
and waves once, brightly,
storm door clipping her heel on the way in.
Detail has drama in Dove. The Beulah poems have their own details—a dust-cloth, stained wallpaper, hats. The domestic confinement offers less to Dove’s imagination than the more varied life in the Thomas poems, but the closing picture of Beulah’s deathbed as the sun enters the room is one that haunts the mind. Stevens said in his elegy for Santayana that it is poverty’s speech that seeks us out the most, and “the afflatus of ruin,” as Stevens called it, is present in Dove’s elegy for Beulah. The poem is called “The Oriental Ballerina,” after the small figurine of a Chinese ballerina that dances on Beulah’s jewel box. Dove’s principle of composition here is a cinematic crosscutting between the exotic claim on Beulah of the beautiful (expressed in clothes, hats, jewel boxes, idealized female grace in the paltry ballerina) and the poverty of her death. Dove’s severity of touch—her most commanding strength—is present here in the austere inventory of the sickroom. As “the radio scratches out a morning hymn”—“The Old Rugged Cross”—we see the “oversized gardenias” on the wallpaper; this is an America
where the bedrooms of the poor
are papered in vulgar flowers
on a background the color of grease, of
teabags, of cracked imitation walnut veneer.
In the room, signs of age and sickness:
…a straw nods over
the lip of its glass and a hand
reaches for a tissue, crumpling it to a flower.
The sun hesitates at
…a knotted handkerchief that has slid
on its string and has lodged beneath
the right ear which discerns
the most fragile music
where there is none.
These sickbed details, as I have said, play in counterpoint with the description of the dancing ballerina. A seamless art stitches together the passages of Beulah’s decline and the ballerina’s tireless pirouette. The Bishop-like fantasy that the Oriental ballerina has risen straight from China, where life is aesthetically conducted, is perhaps not entirely successful. It is needed, though, for the end of the elegy, the final faded and cheated moments of Beulah’s life:
The head on the pillow sees nothing
else, though it feels the sun warming
its cheeks. There is no China,
no cross, just the paper kiss
of a kleenex above the stink of camphor,
the walls exploding with shabby tutus…
In the ellipsis, Beulah dies, the dismayed outcry “There is no China” in her heart. Dove’s bleak sense of the limits of art saves her, here and elsewhere, from making the absolute claims for art’s powers that are sometimes found in lyric poets.
Thomas and Beulah manages to keep intact the intensity of the drama and inexplicability of life and marriage. The mutual criticism of Dove’s Akron couple, their enterprise and defeat, while specified to a degree that is satisfying as fiction, will remind readers of analogous episodes in the years 1900–1969 undergone by their own parents or grandparents. Dove does not suggest that black experience is identical with white experience, but neither does she suggest that it is always different. Beulah’s experience of motherhood—her terror of doing it wrong, the exhaustion of having no privacy, her irritation at the grown girls—is universal. But Beulah’s anger when her daughters take her to the Goodyear company picnic after Thomas’s death will be personally familiar only to black readers:
Now this act of mercy: four daughters
dragging her to their husbands’ com- pany picnic,
white families on one side and them
on the other, unpacking the same
squeeze bottles of Heinz, the same
waxy beef patties and Salem potato chip bags.
Over the segregated picnickers floats the Goodyear company symbol—“a white foot / sprouting two small wings.” Beulah’s interior monologue, here as elsewhere, has the naturalness and accuracy of art concealing art. Dove has planed away unnecessary matter: pure shapes, her poems exhibit the thrift that Yeats called the sign of a perfected manner.
I would not want to do without Dove’s modernist spareness, Dunn’s stubborn argumentation, Glück’s mythic exaltation, or Leithauser’s fastidious moralities. Each of these writers has found an idiosyncratic way to stylize temperament in language, to turn over a furrow of unplowed ground in diction, and to sketch a contour of contemporary American living and thinking. For each poet, I would wish gifts complementary to those already possessed: for Dove, a relaxation of her tense drama into an occasional digressiveness; for Dunn, a fanciful rhetoric to ornament his plain speaking; for Glück, an ironic humor turned on her theatricality; for Leithauser, a Whitmanian generosity and carelessness added to his sedulous art. Most writers, having found themselves, repeat themselves. The best one can wish for these gifted poets, all of them working at the margin of the unformulable, is that they find, in the future, additional possibilities of style beyond those they already know how to manage. As Auden said, however, new styles of architecture entail a change of heart, and that cannot be willed into being.
It Wasn't Knopf November 6, 1986