Prose from Poetry Magazine

Eight Takes: Muldoon, Wright, Mackey, Levine, Jackson, Hecht, Barnes

by Brian Phillips

The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures, by Paul Muldoon.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30.00.

Horse Latitudes, by Paul Muldoon.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $22.00.

Paul Muldoon as a lecturer! Well, then we'll catch him at last. Muldoon has been for many years the most elusive of the major mainstream poets, but no butterfly escapes from a lecture hall; somewhere above the old podium and the sweating water glass and the black chair emblazoned with the gold university logo is a net which is destined to fall. For a lecture is a heavy, cohesive, sequential, and obvious thing, requiring of its deliverer that he move from A to D without skipping to F or reversing B and C, and for a poet used to reshuffling the alphabet as he pleases, the straightforward plod may wear out all his nimbleness. His tricks will no longer help him; if he has a mind, we will see it. He does not want us to see it, of course; he wants to tell us about Emily Dickinson, and looking out at a hundred pairs of eyes waiting to pin him to styrofoam he may feel a bead of moisture roll down his temple in a line that moves rather like one of his poems. For we have no interest in Emily Dickinson. We are already acquainted with her. It is about the lecturer himself that we go to find things out.

Had we been at Oxford, however, on the fifteen evenings when Paul Muldoon delivered these talks, we might have seen a rare instance of the fox outmaneuvering the hounds. For The End of the Poem manages the trick; Muldoon comes to the front of the stage, taps the microphone twice, and disappears. His lectures appear to be lectures—they are verifiably in a prose medium, and pay the proper respect to alphabetical order—but they are really almost poems; they translate the movements of Muldoon's poetic imagination into something like lecture form. They are obsessed with anagrams, strange codes, etymologies, and homonyms; they make bizarre forays into psychobiography; they keep a sharp lookout for any means by which a writer's unconscious might make itself known. We spend time with Yeats and automatic writing, Sylvia Plath and the Ouija board, H.D., and Sigmund Freud. One lecture claims that the key to Frost's poem "The Mountain" is the fact that the word "lea" never appears in it, "Lee" being Frost's middle name. Another imagines a Bloomian agon between Ted Hughes and Marianne Moore.

It will be argued that the lecturer, so far from unwittingly revealing himself, has begun to toy with us, that these lectures, with their eccentric allusions and loops of self-reference, are parodic or deliberately absurd. But insincerity has never been Muldoon's method, any more than sincerity has been his tone. I suspect that he means much more of what he says here than we might at first think, but that he is deploying his own thoughts in such a way as to make us aware of the idiosyncrasy of any attempt to discern the intentions of poets—showing in a sense that conventional criticism is as slippery and capricious as conventional criticism has always found his poems. Muldoon's idea of the "end of the poem"—"end" meaning at various times conclusion, imaginary limit, and purpose in the world—finally comes to rest in the thought that this sort of recreation of intention is a vital part of reading: "The poem is, after all, the solution to a problem only it has raised, and our reading of it necessarily entails determining what that problem was." But since this process is inevitably speculative, it also means that the reader creates the writer, that we can bring to reading anything we like, that the poem has no end. And in fact an extraordinary number of the lectures in The End of the Poem seem to spring (though this is never mentioned) from moments in Muldoon's own verse. He writes about Marianne Moore's use of otter imagery, at what must have been around the time he was writing his poem "The Otter." He writes about translations of Montale's "The Eel," without alluding to his own translation of the same poem. He writes about Frost's middle name and "The Mountain," when his own poem "The Country Club" joins Frost's middle name to the name of Frost's high school in a character called Lee Pinkerton, and promptly quotes "The Mountain" at him. And that was thirty years ago! If the poem has an end, it is clearly in no hurry to reach it.

Speaking of poems, Muldoon has a new book of those out as well: Horse Latitudes, which is less interesting, because less singular, than The End of the Poem—Muldoon has published ten poetry collections, but only one other book of lectures—but more interesting because, after all, it is a book of poems. Horse Latitudes is also easier to characterize. If The End of the Poem suffers at times from an aggravated puckishness, so that it too often threatens to dazzle us to death, Horse Latitudes is simply a splendid book, full of deep wit, intelligent form, and Muldoon's usual crafty uncertainties. The title refers to a section of the ocean which is unusually calm, "where stasis (if not stagnation) is the order of the day," and the book explores stillness and stalled progress on various levels of the political (a sonnet sequence in which each sonnet is named after a battle beginning with B, with Baghdad conspicuously missing) and the personal (a terrific poem about Tithonous, the character from mythology who was given eternal life but not eternal youth). At the level of language the theme appears in two ways: in the book's preoccupation with cliché, the form of stagnant speech, and in its use of repetition as a structuring device. These elements have appeared in Muldoon's work before—"Symposium," from Hay, feels like a dry run for much of Horse Latitudes—but here they reach some sort of apogee. This is most apparent in the brilliant sonnet sequence "The Old Country," which uses a series of returning clichés to undermine a nostalgic vision of Irish history:

Every slope was a slippery slope
where every shave was a very close shave
and money was money for old rope
where every grave was a watery grave.



And the final poem of the book, a long elegy for the musician Warren Zevon, brings back lines and forms from the earlier poems. Muldoon has often used this device in the long poems that conclude his collections, but here, when so many of the poems repeat themselves so baroquely already, it feels especially, and appropriately, intricate.

Like all Muldoon's books, these two have exasperating moments. The writer's intelligence stays a step ahead of us, like an usher in some strange theater where you never find your seat; and whether this is pleasurable or simply wearisome can depend excessively on secondary effects—whether the sounds are pleasing, or the anecdotes funny, for instance. But when Muldoon is at his best he is one of the most exhilarating of all living poets. Even when he befuddles or frustrates us, he leaves us with a not unpleasant Farmer MacGregorish feeling that we have witnessed an astonishing feat, and had some of our vegetables go missing. And far more often he has nothing in common with that other famous escape artist; he leaves us with more than he takes.


Scar Tissue, by Charles Wright.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $22.00.

At this point, let's face it, a new book by Charles Wright—Scar Tissue is what, his fifteenth? sixteenth?—isn't going to sneak up on anyone. Thirty-five years into his decorated career, we know what to expect, and one of the pleasures of Scar Tissue is its familiarity. Those long, mossy lines, steeped in the South but trailing references to Italian cities and Chinese poetry like exotic fronds; the poignant descriptions of Virginia landscapes, all cobweb-delicate and yet hiding a robust benevolent sly smile; the meditations on the nature of existence; the unbelievably cluttered imagery, first falling on Vaseline, then church bells, then artillery rounds, then a crystal goblet, which is the order of metaphors in one ten-line description in "Matins"—there's something reassuring about all this. It's like running across a rerun of The Waltons, only the grandfather's been replaced by the concept of Ultimate Nothingness and John Boy's been swapped for Li Po.

It would be easy to pick this book up with a smile, shake your head fondly, and not give it too much thought. But you'd be missing out, because there's a good book of poems here, even if you have to look to find it. Yes, Wright's manner has gotten a little loose over the years, the long poems seem to meander, and the creamy centers of Zen-inflected wisdom can feel like empty calories: "There are things that cannot be written about, journeys/That cannot be taken they are so sacred and long." (Really? That sacred and long?) The mode of the poems is frequently conclusive, rather than descriptive or dramatic or nostalgic, and the steady arrival of lines telling you How Things Are is at times a dull bombardment. But beside all that, or beneath all that, is Wright's ability to write really striking images—lines about shadows sliding "In their cheap suits," about lightning that "flashes like hoof sparks"—and to create, especially in short poems like "Pilgrim's Progress" and "Waking Up After the Storm," moments of beauty unlike those of any other American writer. He's been using this limited palette for so long because it works, after all; something about this kooky combination of Virginia forest, Tang poetry, old cars, Dante, and woodsmoke really does bring you to a feeling of contemplative suspension that surprisingly recalls Wang Wei. It's worth looking for, that feeling, even when it's nestled a long way down in a grand late-period complacency. This book won't change your life when it's trying to, in other words, but it might change it a little when it's not.


Splay Anthem, by Nathaniel Mackey.
New Directions. $15.95.

It isn't possible, in a review this size, to say much about the elaborately unfolding project of which Nathaniel Mackey's Splay Anthem forms the most recent part—and if you like your lyric poems to come without highly conceptual backstories, that may be a reason to avoid the book. Splay Anthem is the point of convergence for two ongoing serial poems, "Mu" and Song of the Andoumboulou, and reveals that, in the words of the preface, "each is the other, each is both each is the other's twin or contagion, each entwines the other's crabbed advance." It's not quite clear what was supposed to be so different about them in the first place, except that Song of the Andoumboulou takes off from the mythology of the Dogon people of West Africa and "Mu" from the title of a Don Cherry album. Which is also the name of a mythical lost continent. And the first syllable of the Greek word muthos. And, again in the words of the preface, "lingual and erotic allure, mouth and muse, mouth not only noun but verb and muse likewise, lingual and imaginal process, prod and process." Anyway, in practice both sequences deal with the same recurrent themes of music, death, rebirth, history, culture, and travel, and both follow a theory of seriality heavily influenced by the work of Charles Olson.

Mackey's essentially Romantic, Blakean enterprise of forging an individual mythology (here drawn from Islam, Africa, literary theory, and jazz) gets knocked a little out of focus by his postmodern retreat from definite meaning: his mythological system at times seems to want to be a field of free-floating signifiers rather than an inspired way of explaining the world. It covets the prestige, or at least the high tone, of the mythic, while leaving behind the possibility of actual belief. (The language is often faux-academic: "iterativity's devolved/address," "It/wasn't innocent animality we sought.") Mackey's best attribute as a writer is his gift for lineating free-flowing rhythms and sounds—rather than, say, for metaphor or imagery—but even this means that his heightened, trance-like tone can seem like a technical accomplishment rather than a sign of real mythic power, a triumph of skill rather than vision:

Suppressed
billow, blown bank, burred
voice we owed blowing,
holes cut on hollow
wood



It's hard to say who the ideal reader for Splay Anthem would be. Unless you know a lot about Dogon culture and are familiar with Mackey's past work, the book probably won't make much sense to you, though there are certainly pleasures to be had here, especially if you can enjoy the vague outer air of a poem before you find your way into it. It's not quite true to say that that vagueness is all there is to Splay Anthem. But it's still hard to escape the feeling that this book needs your confusion a little too much—that it uses its atmosphere of complexity to put you in a position of ignorance, from which its merely ambiguous elements will seem more profound than they actually are.


The Wilds, by Mark Levine.
University of California Press. $16.95.

Mark Levine's last book, Enola Gay, was one of the best collections by a young poet to appear in the past decade. It was a kind of holocaust of nursery rhymes, full of cracked narratives, weird juxtapositions, sudden skips, and throttled sing-song cadences. It was eerie, funny, mournful, caustic, and desperate, and whenever you expected it to be one thing, it was always something else. Now Levine has published The Wilds, his third collection of poems, and with it he has managed his most suprising trick yet: he has written a boring book. The poems in The Wilds look like Mark Levine poems, even sound like them, but the strength has gone out of their legs; the thread of strange energy that pulled us through Levine's earlier poems has slackened. Levine has changed subjects—from Enola Gay's surreal fixation on war and devastation to a new focus on childhood and nature—but more significantly he has also changed his method, dispensing with the stunts and gimmicks of past poems in favor of a more restrained approach to form, diction, and tone. This must have presented itself as a turn toward a more mature style, but in practice it makes the poems feel like watered-down versions of the earlier work, forever drifting off into unpunctuated Merwinesque vagueness:

room for one but two
would have to do compressing
one in the other's
scudding mass

owing to a lack of ownership
gainsaid

in the larder
outnumbered



Levine has always seemed to be a highly intuitive poet, feeling his way from one line to the next with a not-quite-rational instinct for what would be moving or striking. One of his characteristic forms is the list, where his intuition can be given free play to combine incongruous elements; John Ashbery, praising Enola Gay, singles out the lines "Accordion, bamboo, crinoline, drift./Burial, crabgrass, demonstration, edge." But this kind of progress-by-instinct works best when it is applied within some larger edifice of form or external reference, which is why Levine's occasional rhymed poems ("Jack and Jill," for instance) have always been among his best work. The pressure of a form, a game, or a narrative forces his intuitive movements to assume a purposeful shape, which in turn helps the reader discover the line of feeling that Levine, sometimes obscurely, is following through the poem. When these supports fall away, as they do throughout The Wilds, we are left not only with a diminishment of Levine's uncanny effects, but also with no ability to feel our way into what must have seemed most immediate when the poems were being written: why the word "gainsaid" is abandoned to shiver in isolation in the example above, for instance, or why, in "This Day Last Year in Yellowstone National Park," the woman setting out for a walk is suddenly buried in adjectives grouped separately into parentheses and all beginning with "de-": "(decent, despiteful, demure)/(derived, deciphered)" and so on. Levine is a singular talent, and his interest in the Wordsworthian nature-lyric could still lead to worthwhile results. But The Wilds is a disappointment: inhospitably earnest, and not helpfully strange enough.


Hoops, by Major Jackson.
W.W. Norton. $23.95.

There's a wonderfully surprising passage midway through Hoops, the second collection by the poet Major Jackson, where the speaker's fourth-grade teacher, struggling to remember the names of her black students ("Tarik, Shanequa, Amari, Aisha"), decides to rename them after French painters: "Tee-tee/was Braque, and Stacy James was Fragonard,/and I, Eduard Charlemont." A few days later, the boy summons the nerve to correct her: Eduard Charlemont, he tells her, was an Austrian painter. The North Philadelphia schoolboy knows more than his teacher about European art. As well he might: he has visited the Philadelphia Museum, where Charlemont's 1878 painting The Moorish Chief hangs, and been struck by the painting of the "black chief in a palace."

What I like about this passage, and about Jackson's book in general, is the confidence with which it merges its inner-city black American milieu with a high-art aesthetic tradition that connects it naturally to the tradition of the English lyric. Jackson writes as well about basketball as any poet I have read, but is just as comfortable musing on Auden's stanza form from the "Letter to Lord Byron" in his own letter to Gwendolyn Brooks. This is just as it should be, of course, but too few writers have attempted anything like it. At its best—in passages of "Urban Renewal," in "Moose," in sections of the "Letter to Brooks"—this can be revelatory. Elsewhere, there are lapses, and they aren't trivial; Jackson's descriptions of neighborhood life can slip into the sentimental ("spills from a suitcase of hurt"), the writing is frequently uneven, and some of the longer poems seem animated more by a desire to say something important than by having something important to say. But if it's hard to recommend Hoops unreservedly, I still hope Jackson will continue in this vein; I'd like to see where it takes him.


Funny, by Jennifer Michael Hecht.
University of Wisconsin Press. $14.95.

But it isn't funny, Professor; it should have been called Good Humored, or maybe Eager to Please. It remembers large numbers of worn-down old jokes, and it thinks up some biddable new jokes, and it sends them out together in long grim lines, like one of those Civil War regiments made up of very old and very young men. It does this at the service of a theoretical inquiry into the nature of comedy, which sounds heavy, but it goes about it as lightly as it can, most commonly by extending the stories of the jokes into poems that pretend to take them seriously, as in these lines from "Horse Makes a Decision":

Horse walks into a bar, orders a scotch.
Bartender says, Hey, why the long face?

It's who I am. Once I was coltish,
for a while I was a bit of a mare;

I cannot sit to the right of myself
at the bar; I cannot opt

to step over into something
else-ness.



A little of this is winning, maybe, but the formula gets stale, and when the old joke about what the sadist did to the masochist opens the way for a chunky disquisition on power relations and the nature of contentment ("to have dominion/is to flex and give pretense about the nature/of one's fixation"), you listen to the soft death of that low-decibel wind-in-the-branches murmur that passes for laughter in a lecture hall, and you start to wonder if you couldn't slip out the back. If you stay, your reward is a ten-page prose essay on the philosophy of comedy, where the jokes are even grimmer ("Guy goes to the desert, says, This place would be great if you could get some ocean here") and the conclusions ("Jokes are good for enlightenment, the generation of new ideas, escape from boredom, and as a vision of the progress of self-knowledge") are a lot like saying sex is good because it provides pleasure and leads to the reproduction of the species. I'd skip it.


Collected Poems: With Notes Toward the Memoirs, by Djuna Barnes. Ed. by Phillip Herring and Osias Stutman.
University of Wisconsin Press. $24.95.

Djuna Barnes is one of those small, sharp points of vividness that seem to hover around important periods of literary history: quick, peripheral, mosquito-like, delirious, drunk on strange intensities. She was in Paris during the high time of Modernism and seemed to know everyone, go everywhere, hear everything. Literary life was a whirl, all "glorias," as she wrote sardonically in her notes toward the memoir she never lived to finish: all "apéritifs, Amontillado sherry or Rhine wines, cocaine, opium, or Cocteau." T.S. Eliot took her to lunch; she called Joyce "Jim"; Gertrude Stein praised her ankles. As a writer—she produced novels, poems, and plays—her manner was lushly and sensationally gothic, and seemed eccentric to those pillars of conformity, Stein and Ezra Pound. She was taken seriously, only not quite seriously. Even Eliot, who championed her work—he published her novel Nightwood at Faber and Faber and acted informally as her literary agent—had reservations. When he convinced Faber, against his better judgment, to publish her play The Antiphon, he contributed what must be one of the most backhanded blurbs in the history of the medium. "Never has so much genius," he wrote, "been combined with so little talent." This was in 1956, evidently a time before "Wickedly funny a magisterial tour de force!" was the sound writers made when they snored.

It was a whirl for Djuna Barnes, or at least it looked like one from the outside; from the inside it jostled, and it may have really hurt. She was born in 1892 to a family that would have seemed eccentric to more people than just Stein and Pound. Her grandmother, the journalist, suffragist, and spiritualist Zadel Barnes Gustafson, was the domineering matriarch; erotic letters written from grandmother to granddaughter when the latter was in her late teens have led some to conclude that there existed between them what a scholar, employing what one hopes is a high degree of understatement, has called "one of the rarest forms of incest." Her father, Wald Barnes, was a painter and polygamist; he failed at the one, and must have been somewhat comforted by succeeding at the other. "Fearful," according to Barnes scholars Phillip Herring and Osías Stutman, "of anti-polygamist wrath," he had his children educated at home. Home, it almost goes without saying, was a sort of ghastly utopian farm. Even after she left it, Barnes helped to support her family for many years. She got by as a newspaper reporter and illustrator in New York until 1921, when McCall's sent her to Paris.

For a long time Barnes's reputation has rested on Nightwood, her novel about lesbian life in Paris, which she wrote while living with Peggy Guggenheim after the breakup of her relationship with Thelma Wood. Her career as a poet has been largely overlooked, in part because, until quite recently, so many of her poems were unknown. When the war broke out, she returned to New York, took an apartment in Greenwich Village, and went into a seclusion that lasted forty years; it was assumed that she had all but ceased to write. But all that time, it turns out, she was writing poetry, and working hard at it, too: piling up hundreds of drafts, filling every odd scrap of paper, and feeling her way toward a new style—one that would be derived, surprisingly, less from other Modernists than from the seventeenth-century Metaphysicals whom she must have discovered through Eliot.

The results of this long experiment have now been published, in a new Collected Poems that places them alongside her earlier verse and the notes toward her prose memoirs, and they are fascinating. There isn't a great poem in this book; very little of the later work is even finished. But the record of this light and furious mind slowly unraveling itself in the attempt to say what it had to say is painfully compelling, and Barnes frequently rises to moments of splendid poetry. She calls the falling Lucifer, marvelously, a "salmon of the air." Her manner is rhythmically compressed, aphoristic, riddling; she dwells on inscrutable allegories, often drawn from a private stock of warped Christian imagery:

How should one mourn who never yet has been
In any trampled list at Umbria? Nor seen
The Unicorn thrust in his dousing beam?
And Mary from the manger of her gown,
Ride Jesus down.



She is almost entirely sealed off from the main currents of influence in twentieth-century poetry, though as in the example above she sometimes echoes the more cryptic mode of Yeats. ("The crowns of Nineveh" would be at home in many of her poems.) At times she reads like a strange combination of Donne and Swinburne; at other times, fantastically, like something scribbled by a goblin from Christina Rossetti:

When I was an infant
Knuckling my foot,
Keeling on the huck-bone,
Blowing through my snout,
It was observed by huntsmen
(Though they did not shoot)
I was in my hubris,
Bowling Gods about.



The backgrounds of these poems, even when they appear to be comical, are almost always bitter, and this is in many ways a difficult book to read. Barnes frequently loses control of her powers and writes verse that is gory or mawkish or absurd. It should be remembered that many of these poems are drafts, written very late in her life. But even so, her anger and anguish at such moments can be terrible, as in these lines about childbirth:

When he came headlong through the bloody door
It was his mother freighter that he wore.
The skelit from the skeleton being won
It grew impudent and lifting leg upon
The fawning of his tomb;
The dark placenta, and the bait
Where now the farding-bag and its green swill
The coined his faces with her narrative?



We begin to feel, however, that the real achievements of this poetry depend on its never being far from a breakdown; that to convey the view from the edge of the abyss it was necessary to risk falling into it. Had Barnes governed herself, had she written poems that might have "succeeded" in a more conventional sense, she might never have attained the beautiful and violent and glorious extremes that sporadically fill this book. But she didn't. And so she did.

Originally Published: October 29, 2008

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This prose originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

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