New York Review of Books. $14.95.
It was an eerie coincidence. In Marseilles during the late spring of 1942, two writers at the height of their powers, unknown to each other, were both struggling to find a berth on a ship to America and were both thinking about the same poem. Simone Weil had finished her essay on the Iliad two years before, but she still carried the book in her rucksack along with a change of clothes, in case of arrest and imprisonment. Rachel Bespaloff’s reading of the poem was likewise colored by her own experience of war: her companion that spring, the philosopher Jean Wahl, had been tortured by the Gestapo.
Of the two essayists, Weil remains the better known. “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” follows from similar obsessions as the letters, meditations, and notebooks she wrote while deliberating over her conversion to Catholicism. There’s the same fascination with double binds: suffering and redemption, guilt and expiation descend from the realm of abstraction to take on weight and dimension in Weil’s writing. She has a unique skill for delineating their precise physics. That’s what makes her commentary on Homer so valuable: she intuits the ethical center of the poem as if she has entered it entirely and felt its properties in action. At the very beginning of the essay she writes, “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.... it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.” Weil sees force as both the ultimate reality of the poem, and the ultimate illusion. Those who believe they’ve mastered it are apt to be destroyed the next time it see-saws.
Homer’s poem, Weil believes, works to reflect force back at the reader. An ethical person must escape the locked cycle of violence and oppression, yet escape with full knowledge: “Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.”
Bespaloff might have lacked the supreme confidence that shows in Weil’s prose. It’s probable, in fact, that before revising her essay for the final time she read and admired “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” But “On the Iliad” actually seems to me the greater of the two. Like Weil, Bespaloff comes to that question about the connection of art and ethics, yet she gives a more surprising, deeper answer.
For Bespaloff, art is the distillation and enlargement of those ecstatic moments when we apprehend ethical truth. It’s not that art tells us how to be good. On the contrary: “the step from ethics to morality involves the same betrayal of value as the descent from aesthetic contemplation to hedonism.” Even if that distinction between “ethics” and “morality” seems like fussy semantics, you get what Bespaloff means. She believes that art creates a suspension: it captures and holds ethical truth before it can be polluted by our contingent systems of laws and conventions. She finds her ultimate example in that passage of the Iliad in which Priam visits the tent of Achilles to plead for the corpse of his son, Hector. The grieving king and the killer of his son face each other not with hatred, at least for that moment, but with respect. Priam’s act is both horrible to imagine and gorgeous. With his supreme sense of justice and his disregard for established boundaries, “Priam appears in the epic like the poet’s delegate,” writes Bespaloff. “He typifies the watcher of tragedy, the man who sees it all.”
You might disagree with Bespaloff’s take on the role of the poet, or with Weil’s. But even if you end up convinced that art and ethics have nothing to do with one another, the question about their relation remains one that all serious writers must ask themselves. More and more, the strength with which a poet engages this quandary seems to me the defining element of his or her work, whatever his or her responses may be, and even if these responses remain implicit or inconclusive. I’m convinced that such deliberation (or its lack) determines what the poet wants the poem to do.
With the faultless translations of Mary McCarthy, the informative and eloquent introduction by Christopher Benfey, and with the great Austrian novelist Hermann Broch’s afterword, the new edition of the essays stands as example of this kind of responsiveness.
Overlord, by Jorie Graham.
Ecco Press. $22.95.
Jorie Graham’s recent poems attempt to trace the movement of an alert mind, to record and enact an effort to become completely present in the world. For all this attention to the moment, they also show clarity of purpose. Graham has obviously deliberated, like Weil and Bespaloff, over the connection between art and ethics. She has set her meditative efforts in these new poems against the mindless onslaught of force, both military and economic. She doesn’t oversimplify such conflicts either. The heroes of her pacifistic book turn out, in fact, to be soldiers; Graham takes her title from the mission name of D-Day, and she quotes compellingly from those who fought in the Normandy Invasion. She knows to leave these powerful testimonies unedited, and they end up providing some of the strongest passages in the book. Similarly, when an emigree cab driver or a homeless beggar shows up in the poems, Graham works to convey his inscrutable otherness, even as she attempts genuine connection with him.
The problem with this new collection is that Graham hasn’t made all these fine ambitions manifest in the actual tonalities and structures of the poems. Graham attempts to register the bursts and turns of interior monologue, but she buys this effect at a drastic price. It’s hard to think of another book of poems with such a willfully impoverished syntax. Here, for example, is a section of “Europe (Omaha Beach 2003),” in which she observes children playing in the tidepools of the former battle ground:
The bottom of the pool is deeper and they
move towards it. They do not see me on the other side.
They’re running out with buckets now, up shore, hands full.
I walk into the pool myself. Sun looks
as usual back up at me. Three
new kids are approaching now.
Green bucket has returned. He has a shovel now and
larger friend—also blond and very pale. They bend to work. Their work
makes ripples that now lap my way.
These clipped, repetitive sentences make the children (not to mention the poet herself) seem like automatons. Most of the book remains in this same key. With so little modulation, the phrases themselves begin to feel as if they’re being piped in over some Orwellian public address system. This leveling dulls the larger shapes of the poems as well. The structure of each poem becomes that of the dirge. The book starts to feel symptomatic of the same numbness it laments.
Critics have complained in the past about Graham’s difficulty. At least in this new work, nothing could be farther from the truth. Line by line, the poems may seem to offer the complex swerves and fastenings of a mind in movement. But that movement never becomes true action; it remains mental weather. It recedes always into the same bleak monochrome. Graham was at her best when she was most difficult. The strongest work in The End of Beauty (1987) contains not only genuine thinking, but dynamic structures. In a poem like “Imperialism,” the competing narrative and anti-narrative urges work toward a surprising synthesis. The difficulty is emotional too: both the speculative intelligence and the biographical disclosures are out in the open, bare. In comparison, a book like Overlord, for all the violence of its subject matter, feels robotic.
When Rachel Bespaloff writes that poetry “repossesses beauty from death and wrests from it the secret of justice which history cannot fathom,” she may seem to be swelling her organ notes. But she makes a fine distinction in that statement: she implies the power of poetry to create a world apart from the one it reflects. This virtual space of the poem provides not escape but rather an intensification of thought and feeling. Graham’s new book fails because, in the place of such sensation, it offers a kind of rote stenography. It feels like watching CNN.
The Georgics of Virgil, Tr. by David Ferry.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23.00.
No other poem moves the way that Virgil’s Georgics do. The four books contain discrete topics: the cultivation of field crops in the first, of vines and trees in the second, of livestock in the third, and of bees in the fourth. But the poem takes its form as much from those subjects as from the forays the poet makes, venturing along whatever path he chooses (a divagation about snakes, a comic portrait of an erotically frustrated bull, the myth of Orpheus which is retold at the end of the poem) before pulling the reader back into the manifold structure. This poem is about the human urge to establish reality. And such reality must incorporate, Virgil suggests, the same flood of recalcitrant and fleeting matter from which it needs to be protected: much in the same way that the farmers he writes about need to spread mud, leaves, or any old detritus at all over their beehives to reinforce them.
As they progress, the Georgics themselves turn out to be embodiments of this same kind. It’s not that agricultural labor works as some sly code for the creation of poetry: it’s that the two become consubstantial as the sentences unfold. Virgil makes art from labor, but he also works to return art to its beginning in the bare act of fashioning human culture out of the wild. In the superb introduction to his new translation, David Ferry explains: “Over and over it is as if it all had to be started again.... Culture, in the fallen world of Jupiter, is always near the fragile beginnings of its making and always near its potential end.” This tenuousness makes for the pathos of the poem. It also establishes a splendor, something like Bespaloff’s vision of Homeric creation: we repossess the world in all its freshness and particularity when we witness, as we do again and again in Virgil, the constant cycle of becoming.
David Ferry’s technical gifts leave him particularly well-suited for conveying this process of renewal. Ferry shows tremendous skill with his taut yet pliant pentameter. He also employs demotic and high lyrical diction with equal finesse. His version contains all the freshness of American speech and all the classical poise of the original: it comes across neither as a curatorial act of conservation nor as a modish remake. Take an excerpt from Virgil’s warning about poisonous snakes:
And there’s that dreadful snake whose habitat
Is the marshy glades of Calabria down there,
Big-spotted along his endless underlength,
His threatening breast held high, his scaly back
Wreathing and coiling. As long as there’s water gushing
Out of the sources of streams, as long as spring
And the south winds bringing their springtime rainfall steep
The earth in water, this serpent inhabits the sides
Of pools where he can satisfy his black
Throat’s appetite with fish and croaking frogs.
The natural tone and rhythm in this passage derive from Ferry’s balance of prosodic techniques. You get the disciplined extravagance of the fifth and seventh lines as well as the textured iambs of the first and last lines. You catch the succinct earthiness of “down there” and “Big-spotted” as well as the extended, gushing syntax of the second sentence.
Hearing such genuine poetry through our current drone of Translationese feels something like the shock of sighting that snake’s endless underlength: it’s alive! Why not say it then? This is the best poetry of Ancient Rome, rendered by the best translator of modern America.
Poets of the Civil War, ed. by J.D. McClatchy.
The Library of America. $20.00.
The Civil War was our defining tragedy. Most of us know that commonplace. But maybe because it’s so obvious, the war can also seem like a blind spot on our collective consciousness. After the atrocities in New York four years ago, the experts on TV kept referring to the War of 1812 as the last conflict in which an American city was attacked. Vicksburg and Atlanta could have been cities on the moon to them. You can see how such reasoning worked. It’s easier to discount the suffering a country inflicts on its own. It’s easier, especially since this war ended the abomination of slavery, to gloss its horror. What makes this collection of Civil War poets so valuable is the power with which it disrupts that trend, corroborating William Faulkner’s claim that “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” It’s not necessarily the consistent quality of the work included that gives the anthology its power. (Many of the poems, as their editor openly admits, are second rate; several seem awkward imitations of Milton or Walter Scott.) No, it’s the immediacy with which poetry itself confronts us. McClatchy explains in his elegant introduction that, while there remains no “American Iliad,” he has set out to create a panorama made up of the partial glimpses that the poems provide.
What does that leave to readers who desire more from poems than historical interest? A good deal. There are six excellent poems by Emily Dickinson, which set an explosive interior drama against their uncharacteristic topicality. The strongest poem in the collection is Walt Whitman’s devastating “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” and the twenty-six pages of Whitman form the center of the book. Fine work by lesser poets also lends power to the anthology. The disillusioned poems of the Connecticut writer John W. De Forest seem particularly striking to me.
But maybe the most impressive selection is that of Herman Melville. Some of the ornament that Melville could sustain in his muscular prose seems like conventional clunkiness in his poems. But consider “Inscription,” a poem written after the horrific battle of Fredericksburg:
To them who crossed the flood
And climbed the hill, with eyes
Upon the heavenly flag intent,
And through the deathful tumult went
Even unto death: to them this Stone—
Erect, where they were overthrown—
Of more than victory the monument.
This poem flows from the same impulse that led Melville to give Billy Budd the subtitle “an inside narrative.” It endeavors to remind us of the ineffable “something more,” the incommensurable lost lives that haunt our official histories.
The fact that Melville visited the front in 1864 carries some interest, but it’s not what makes his war poems superior to, say, Jorie Graham’s. Melville is the stronger writer because he registers his convictions in the form itself: in the suspenseful surging of the single sentence, in the turn from the literary adjective “deathful” into the terrible fact of the noun “death,” in the sudden stop that comes with the imperative in the penultimate line. It’s precisely this transmutation of movement into action that happens so seldom in a book like Overlord. Where Melville repossesses experience in the manner that Bespaloff describes, Graham merely barrages her reader with subject matter.
My Noiseless Entourage, by Charles Simic.
In his best work, Charles Simic resembles the jazz clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. He somehow gets the gawkiest, most twee phrases to patch together into a surprising shapeliness. But at least for the last decade, most of the poems have been, well, gawky and twee. They’re also redundant. (From a body of work made entirely of elbows you might at least expect some surprising turns.) If you want an impression of what the entire new book feels like, the first ten lines of the first poem, “Description of a Lost Thing,” will do just fine:
It never had a name,
Nor do I remember how I found it.
I carried it in my pocket
Like a lost button
Except it wasn’t a button.
On rain-slicked streets.
To my ear, there’s little here beside the end-stopped thudding, the stock images, and the penny-ante diction (“rain-slicked streets”!). I can imagine Simic’s fans arguing that the flatness of the language is intentional, that the conceit about the unnamed “lost thing” carries the true significance here. They would say it operates as a door, letting us in on how all these poems work: by pointing their readers toward those little holes in time when some intimation from the other side rips through the surface of our habitual lives, those instants when the tenuous beauty of our contingent world comes clear to us, along with the horrors we so persistently deny. These readers might even argue that such a process offers something like Rachel Bespaloff’s insistence upon a poetry bound to ethical but not to moral attentiveness.
I don’t buy this one bit. How can the poems subvert anyone’s habitual assumptions when their “dark” material remains so politely cartoonish? This work lets both the reader and the poet himself off the hook far too easily. Simic knows how to deliver an image: the tombstone angel in “Talk Radio” and the spectral woman at the end of “Pigeons at Dawn” spring up at just the corrrect points. But they’re too correct, as if calculated to elicit that “ahhh” sound at poetry readings. And such special effects always seem more important to Simic than the actual textures of the world and of language.
Aversions, by Devin Johnston.
If you want to read poems that actually correspond to that defense of Simic’s work, you should check out Devin Johnston’s second book. Johnston takes the title of his new collection from the rite that ancient Romans performed to placate their dead. His is a book of hauntings: deceased loved ones, childhood bullies, ancient poets, and ideal selves all ghost these pages at one time or another. But ghosting’s not so much the subject matter as the formal method. In poem after poem Johnston turns away from the world at hand and moves into a kind of hushed borderland, even as he redirects our attention to the here and now. Like the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, to whom he pays homage, this poet can’t get enough of those seemingly mundane spots in time when some subtle presence arrives, thrumming in over the wires. The image of an audible silence traversing telephone lines appears, in fact, as a central motif in the book.
This is also a book about language itself. Yet there’s none of the fashionable reflexiveness you might expect from “a book about language itself,” none of the knowing distortions of idiom so many poets employ to disguise the lack of genuine thought. Johnston’s linguistic introspection is the real thing. His attention to his medium is part and parcel of his feelingful engagement with those spectral presences. Take the first two stanzas of “Early Spring,” his adaptation of Horace’s Soracte ode:
The hardest of winters will crack
at the tap of spring and milder systems:
are winched from dry-dock storage;
chafed by confinement,
the amateur botanist hates his apartment,
and city parks no longer shine with frost.
Venus ascends through the elms
as the moon swings closer
and teens entwine
their fingers as they ramble,
sandals abandoned; a night-
shift employee waves her scanner,
restocking surge suppressors
of summer lightning.
These lines have a fine acoustic, maintained by a precision and condensation which Basil Bunting or Lorine Niedecker would have admired. You can hear, for example, how the traditional pentameter of “and city parks no longer shine with frost” cinches the supple free measure of the preceding lines. There’s also the pleasing contrast between the discursive confidence and the extreme singularity of the examples. That’s a Horatian technique, but this poet makes it his own. The image of the scanner waved across the surge suppressors “of summer lightning” seems to me particularly characteristic; such combination of the quotidian and the cosmic appears throughout Aversions.
These are not “mere” formal talents but vital aspects of Johnston’s vision. He sees language as one way that the dead live through us: we receive it from them as we receive our DNA. His poems are dignified by deftness and quietude, but they’re also great feats of enlargement: they act as conduits, allowing the past and the present to replenish each other. Large also are the pleasures they give their readers.
A Word Like Fire: Selected Poems, by Dick Barnes.
Handsel Books. $17.00.
The superb poems of Dick Barnes, who died in 2000, inhabit the same America as the photographs of Robert Frank or Gary Winogrand. They have that bright sheen of things as they are, and also that persistent undercurrent of weirdness. Most of them are poems of the rural west, of its modern yet untamed expanse. But they exhibit neither the scenic platitudes nor the macho swagger that mar so much current rural poetry (and, in the end, make it so easy to label “rural poetry”). Barnes’s textures and tones are far more surprising.
Often, humor deepens the poems. In “Helendale: Waiting by the Mojave River,” Barnes’s nod to Chaucer, an alfalfa farmer, awakened by a car crash on the highway, mistakes the sound of the horn for the trumpet of the angel Gabriel. So he sets his barn on fire as a beacon. Here’s how the poem ends:
he told the insurance company how it happened,
was laughed at, got angry, had to quit
the Kiwanis Club after a fight, and he felt lonely
until he thought: “Well:
I reckon if Noah could take it so could I.”
I find the farmer’s perseverance hilarious but devastating. Barnes has a talent for getting such seemingly exclusive feelings to intertwine. This character, for example, seems patently moronic. But as with most outcasts, there’s something we can’t bear about ourselves in him: he acts as a cipher for our own blind faith, our own belief in “core values” like honesty and dedication.
He also takes part, even in the form of his pathetic comedy, in the gorgeous drama of these selected poems. It’s a drama that Rachel Bespaloff would recognize at once. These poems work to convey the agony of being caught between this world and the beyond: they’re stations along the way, moments of clarification. Barnes himself is a poet of deep religious feeling. “Up Home Where I Come From” and the title poem are the best devotional lyrics of our time. But Barnes tempers, and intensifies, that spiritual impulse with his sobering, photographic urge to show what he sees. The modulation of tone in his poems acts, then, not simply as a formal device but as a register of the shifts and recalibrations that occur in the poet’s view of the world as he ventures to discern truth.
This makes him particularly well-suited for narrative and portraiture. His turns of plot and his pivoting points of view become, as the lines progress, the attentive view of compassion. Consider the elegy in sonnet form, “Goodbye to Big Ed”:
Little he thought when he hid out in his own house
for the pleasure of stomping burglars enticed by the dark
that he’d die, and die young, and in great pain like this,
thrown from his bike at speed where he broke his neck
and lay five hours on boulders in the creekbed
until death took him at last. Little he thought
about any of it: the preacher was right when he said
Big Ed wasn’t afraid to die. Whenever he fought
it was for fun, or a good turn, or sheer pride of life.
See him armed in his undershirt, out in his back yard
the new boulevard had cut through, by the clothesline,
hollering i’ll give you something to stare at, faggot
down to someone stopped at the traffic light, meaning
no harm by it, really: not meaning anything.
There’s a lot to admire in this technique: the muffled but persistent metric, or the blend of sincerity and sarcasm that barb at the expense of the preacher, for instance. Such formal nuances contribute to the complexity of the portrait. As the tone changes, so does our view of Big Ed. He’s both the belligerent hardass and the helpless young man who suffers a terrible death. He’s both the complex character made of such contrasts and the sheer individual soul “not meaning anything.”
Like the lyrics of Thomas Hardy or the harmonica solos of Little Walter, these poems are carefully inflected and cunningly unsettled. They appear perfect in their formal containment, but they unfold their coiled insinuations long after you read them. I’m convinced that, in the future, any anthology of twentieth-century American poetry which neglects Dick Barnes will seem ridiculous.