No 12 - Autumn 2007
Two Americans and an Englishman
Li-Young Lee: From Blossoms: Selected Poems. Tarset: Bloodaxe (Bloodaxe World Poets 4), 2007. 128 pp. ISBN 978-1-85224-698-3, £8.95 pb.
Jack Gilbert: Transgressions: Selected Poems. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2006. 174 pp. ISBN 1-85224-752-5, £9.95 pb.
Glen Cavaliero: The Justice of the Night. Leyburn: Tartarus Press, 2007. 88 pp. ISBN 978-1-905784-01-1, £12.99 / US$26.00 hb.
The first two volumes reviewed here present the work of two American poets who have received the recognition of a number of literary awards in the States. They are published through the enterprise of Bloodaxe Books for the first time in England, giving readers on this side of the Atlantic the opportunity of an encounter with poets not readily available here up to now but who have gained a reputation in their own land.
Li-Young Lee, born of Chinese parents in 1957, is the author of three volumes of verse and a memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance, which seems to be largely a remembrance of his father, written in a prose which keeps wandering off into lyric. Three of these volumes have received literary awards and all four are represented in the selection.
The admixture of the immigrant strain is felt throughout the volume. The title that Lee chooses for it is not of the sort that one would associate with a writer of the white establishment; certainly not a male one; and, for a female, one would have to go rather far back to someone like the late, lovable Ella Wheeler Wilcox. But the poem from which Lee derives his title has no touch of the feminine:
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend of the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
There is nothing lady-like about an incident possible to anyone motoring through a country landscape, and blossoms that beget paper bags move us reassuringly away from kitsch. True, eating the peaches, “dusty skin and all”, the poet rises to lyric rapture:
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
But the ecstasy is not the simple excitement of poetic diction nor any drunken blur. Its extravagant aspirations evoke imaginative sympathy, and it ends substantially, solidly, with the fruit held in the hand and carried to its delectable encounter with the teeth.
The poem, in the way it describes a small normal occurrence, is typical. The poet is always personal, never abstract or general. His world is the world of a Chinese family living in the States; the incidents of his poetry typically involve himself, his father and mother, his brother and sister (these last mentioned by name). Thus, for all the centrality of the lyric “I”, the sensiblity expressed in his poems is remote from western individualism; it is dyed through and through with community. Family pieties predominate. Most predominant is the poet's piety towards his father, a Presbyterian minister whom, the blurb informs us, he assisted on his preaching trips in Pennsylvania. In the poetry Father comes across as a benevolent Chinese sage stepped down from a scroll in western dress and unremittingly oblique in his wisdom. The interaction of the influence of a Chinese home life with that of the American environment is experienced in the poetry as a process of complication, occasional confusion, and ultimate enrichment. The poet's experience of the English language gains through his foreigner's having to learn to distinguish, and being able to associate, as he records in a charming poem called “Persimmons”, words as diverse as “persimmons” and “precision”, “fight” and “fright”, “wren” and “yarn”.
As a rule though, the complications of language, verbal ingenuity and the wit of word-play, are not the stuff of Li-Young Lee's poetry. He achieves precision of diction without appearing to strive for the mot juste or meditating its necessity, and his style is one of fluent, not austere, simplicity. At the same time, this simplicity is not that of prose or a prosaic view of the world but is fraught with a strangeness which arrests attention and compels reflexion. With the greatest naturalness the poet asks such questions as:
In which window of what house did the light teach you tedium?
On which step of whose stairway did you learn indecision?
The lines come from a poem called “The Interrogation” (actually, a self-interrogation), reflecting on a period of great anxiety and stress, the family's flight, it would seem, from Sukarno's Indonesia. The logic of the simple standard phrases does not reflect a simple logic or the relations of everyday awareness. It sharpens through the lack of congruence our sense of the nightmare quality of the situation.
Something of the same nature is evident in the following complete poem “Build by Flying”:
I lean on a song.
I follow a story.
I keep my mother waiting
when she asks, How long
before the wren finishes the grain?
How soon until we see
what a house the birds
build by flying? In the dream
in which I stopped with her
under branches, on the long way home from school,
one of us, curious
about the fruit overhead, asked:
To what port has the fragrance so lately
embarked for whose tables?
One of us waited for the answer.
And one went on alone,
singing. And all the place
there was grew out of listening.
The simplicity, with its quality of riddle, has something of fable. In much of Li-Young Lee's poetry, as here, we move through a world, as it were, of myth, personal or racial; the odd, even alien imagery, quite at home in the topography of his experience and giving to the poetry an attractive quality of magic.
If Lee is a voice of multicultural America, Jack Gilbert, the author of Transgressions, is a voice of the Anglo-Saxon mainstream. For all that the blurb on the backcover presents him as “a total outsider” and “defiantly unfashionable”, and for all the distance he quite clearly keeps from the bustle of the poetry market (four volumes in over forty years and a lapse of twenty years between his winning the Yale Younger Poets' Prize with his first volume and following it up with a second!), he remains a representative poet, allied by his concerns with the famous names of American poetry. Like Eliot and Pound - and Longfellow before them; like – to take at random and on a more modest level of reputation – Richard Howard and Evan Connell after them, he does not ditch the burden of the European cultural tradition. Rather, he embraces it and cultivates it. He writes about Italian painters and sculptors, Greek myth and philosophy and history, about Don Giovanni, Mozart and Schubert, about Dante, Keats and Dr Johnson.
Writing in a great tradition of verse, Jack Gilbert is preoccupied like many poets before him with the difficulties of his art, with the shortcomings of the instruments of expression. He finds it “astonishing that language can almost mean / and frightening that it does not quite”. He yearns for “lost / vocabularies that might express some of what / we no longer can” and refuses to be discouraged by the apparent disappointments of his quest:
When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hunded
pitchers of honey.
(“The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”)
Of course, Solomon may be said to have beaten him to it: “Thy teeth are as a flock of sheep which go up from the washing, whereof every one beareth twins, and there is not one barren among them”. But the poet is not rediscovering the language of the Bible for the use of a single occasion; and the pleasure the poem offers lies in the yoking, not violent but audacious, of heterogeneities to express the insight that the language of deep feeling can only be oblique:
What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds
An art that finds the correlatives of feeling in objects so remote from it cannot be termed romantic. And Gilbert's language for all its sensuousness is not the language of spontaneous overflow. Factuality goes along with the feeling and there is a sobriety evident even in the lines quoted where the structure imitates a list and the unifying notion of comic possibility takes the beauty down a peg in the direction of whimsy. Gilbert builds his verses, disdaining headlong continuities and fitting compactly phrase to phrase and line to line, so that the great majority of his poems present visually the impression of a solid architecture.
This solidity is an aspect of sensibility. Gilbert is perfectly aware of the contingent and fleeting nature of experience as, indeed, of being; yet equally aware of its reality. So he takes things as they come: savours them, ponders them, feels them on his pulses and regrets them when their passage calls for regret. And of course he fixes them in durable verse:
The reason we cannot enter the same woman
twice is not because the mesh of energy flexes.
It is a mystery separate from both matter
and electrons. It is not why the Linda
looking out over the Aegean is not the Linda
eating melon in Kentucky, nor explains how
the mind lives amid the rain without being
part of it. The dead lady Nogami-san lives now
only in me, in the momentary occasion I am.
Her whiteness in me is the color of pale amber
in winter light.
The poet has been married to both the ladies mentioned here: Linda Gregg and Michiko Nogami: and separated from the one by divorce, from the other by death. The poem retains them vividly in momentary impressions. In fact, they, together with other loves, are commemorated, with a grave and graceful sense of what they are and have been to him, in a number of poems. In this
particular passage the final effect, one might say resource, is aesthetic; a reading prompted by the “Japanesey” stylisation of his wife into “the dead lady Nogamisan” and the image of the last two lines. But the transfiguration involved in the stylisation highlights the quality of his acceptance and takes us beyond a Paterian resource. Gilbert characteristically exemplifies an acceptance of the whole of life, of his own humanity: toughly, zestfully, serenely: which takes him, as does the architecture of his verse as a whole, towards classicism, the classicism of the zestful sage of Weimar. In the title poem of the selection, “Transgressions”, “He thinks about how important the sinning was, / How much his equity was in simply being alive” and elaborates with a perverse, pagan delight the pleasure of his not quite seven deadly sins:
his greed. Greed of time, of being. This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.
Not merely unshriven; unregenerate also. Even the cold end is affirmed. Translated into the words of the sage of Weimar, Wie es auch sei, das Leben, es ist gut.
Affirmation of a different sort may be found in The Justice of the Night, the volume with which Glen Cavaliero (two years younger than Jack Gilbert) signalises the attainment of his eightieth year. Cavaliero may, like Gilbert, be described as 'old-fashioned'; for the concerns of his poetry are serious and substantial, and his verse exhibits a craftsmanship and formal versatility fundamentally at variance with the casual flatness or smartness which is the characteristic note of modernity. One could also call him traditional; for, though he is a committed and acute observer of the here and now, the past both as spiritual heritage and as personal and communal memory informs his awareness. There is, one might say, a presence of the past in Cavaliero's contemplation which, dissolving the boundaries of time and space, gives it a quality of vastness. The poem “Armistice” illustrates this. It is written rather on the grand scale, being laid out in five sections; and the title evokes a great occasion of history as it also designates a private meditative respite from life's conflict without any forgetfulness of it.
Wafture of mould and of decaying leaves impound
imagination in a cloud of willed unknowing,
the world of coachloads and cameras beaten back
from this annihilating calm. What strife endures
beyond its stillness? And what news can be transmitted
from those far-off trenches that we once believed in?
There is plenty of nuance here for the attentive reader. One thing stands out. There is no escape and no nostalgia. If the poet expects 'news' from the trenches today it is because the issues are present. Past and present scenes too fuse into a oneness, allowing the poet to sense in the East Anglian fens “all Flanders in this affluence of dearth”. A lifetime's memories move with the present in the poet's consciousness, freighting richly the poem's formal amplitude, and the poet muses in a fenland church whose shadowy outline includes other churches to become the one symbolic place of Christian worship, supplication and dedication, blending human loves and griefs with sacred aspirations:
What lonely mass
might still be offered here one Sabbath in the fog
for the blind, the lovelorn and the dispossessed?
The poem may be said to express a general social concern felt in Christian terms. At the same time it is profoundly personal, moving in the second and third sections away from the reflective and descriptive mode of the other sections with their massed pentameters into lyric measures and the direct address and appeal. The third section achieves a climactic poignancy, starting
In a ghost town I touch you,
tentative: the leaves fall,
steady as a clock's stroke,
of dreaded winter sleep.
It moves through four more stanzas with a delicately varied refrain in the first line, which quietly instresses the urgency of the personal communication, to end:
For a ghost life I leave you,
nameless now, a refugee
in fog of bells and muffled drums
to death. Do I bereave you?
On the literal level the stanzas mark the encounter with the divine in the stillness of the church and the return, after a passage of rapt communion, to the funereal fog of the world. What emerges here clearly in terms of a wider significance, through intimations of his own mortality and the pained wry questioning of the final line, is the poet's sense of his personal destiny, griefs and fears as inhering in the woof of larger destinies, social and historic. Present, often implicity, in much of his poetry it gives the poetry, for all the particularity of the poet's circumstances, largeness of conception and breadth of relevance.
Cavaliero's poetry is, in fact, as eminently social as it is personal. It registers with a touch of afectionate irony the Betjmanesque charms of English life (“the faded red-rose manor house, tea-cosy cottages”) but also remembers with pitying truthfulness its hidden distress, like Mrs Blicker (in “In Mrs Blicker's Room”), 'the sad old dear / who was kept there out of sight':
She used to mumble
over wobbly dentures, would take them out and stare at them
in shaky fingers.
It pays tribute to the idols of screen and popular song; it also records with a humour sometimes grim the decline of taste and the cheapness of a consumerist society. The suggestively titled poem “Lay-By” offers an arresting image of the chaos of cultural decay:
This scruffy copse conceals no unicorn
but a broken nymph abandoned in the scrub,
pudenda moulded by a smock of stone –
retarded love's anticipated snub.
And still the untarnished moon is riding high
above her grove degraded to a dump,
while a passing driver, desperate for a slash,
spots two bare thighs left sprawling near the sump.
An image, as it were, calculated to disconcert pudicity. The robustness of the creative vision is matched by the assurance of the writing. The restraint of 'pudenda' (somehow less specific, more general than pudendum) is admirable, while 'smock' is delectably bucolic in its suggestion, quite unlike the manly urban vulgarity of 'desperate for a slash'. The poem is both classic in its cool abstention from comment and Gothic in its grotesque comedy, which involves also the 'untarnished moon' (casta diva …) whose 'riding high' felicitously balances romantic rhetoric with the satirical, colloquial note.
The unexcited continuance of the moon, the refusal to wring the hands over the symptoms of decline, these indicate an attitude which is pervasive. Cavaliero acknowledges the evils of the human condition and goes on living nevertheless. His Christianity does not ask for a miraculous transformation of the world or look to the compensations of a pondus gloriae. More toughly, it views the imperfection as a condition in which the acceptance of life is incumbent:
Always and everywhere
the grey judicious unimpassioned angels
taking stock will register each violation
of an urge to live
despite all discord,
and they let things be.
Characteristically for someone who seems to travel across the length and breadth of England observing the variety of the human condition, the poet presents the human predicament in motoring terms.
A coachload on the motorway
goes roaring through the dangerous rain, the tarmac glares,
interrupts. The auditors
are not concerned: familiar with fatalities
in uderpasses, swamps or lonely woodland,
oblivion, their heartless love
dispensing coal-black wine to obviate
the plight of every grid-locked suppliant
and to underwrite each debt.
The justice of the night, to use the phrase that occurs in a major poem of the volume and gives it its title, consists, Cavaliero asserts, in the oblivion of time engulfing public and private ills. Here, administered like physic, a panacea even, oblivion represents the 'heartless love' of the heavenly powers. In either case it is something beneficent in its operation and is presented as the decisive element in an affirmation of our trouble-racked human condition. Speaking generally, it is the human capacity for forgetfulness that makes living at all possible. Goethe extolled it as a high gift of God ('hohe Gottesgabe') and claimed to make zestful use of it in his own life. Moving beyond personal advantage, Cavaliero does not enthuse. The kindness of the angelic auditors, even to the ultimate guarantee of the final line, is the kindness of the god of the shades. It is characteristic of him and his poetry as a whole that he offers no easy comfort, no easy assurance; and the verse, tautly combining mythology and motorways, the classic deportment of the ode with a diction garnered from fields not tilled by the grand style, is the appropriate vehicle of a vision which is strenuous, unflinching, and comprehensive.
Important footnote. The hardcover volume is beautifully produced by Tartarus Press: printed in elegant type on quality paper and with a very handsome dust wrapper. At £12.99 it does not cost much more than a paperback.
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- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
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- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Rialto, The
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